When we don’t get enough sleep, we feel at our worst. We can’t focus, we feel daytime fatigue, and we can experience headaches or even migraines. And, we are most likely to be irritable and moody. The health benefits to getting enough shut-eye are indisputable. Getting 7 to 8 hours each night is important to strengthening and supporting the immune system, boosting cognitive function, consolidating memories, and keeping hormones in check. Further, because our bodies regenerate during sleep, it helps us look our best and most youthful.
When we don’t get enough sleep over extended periods of time, however, we are more prone to developing rather serious health problems. For starters, due to metabolic changes, one is more susceptible to weight gain and even diabetes. Our nervous system function starts to become inefficient, leading to possible high blood pressure and heart-rhythm irregularities. We can experience impaired memory, depression and hallucinations, as well as a decrease in body temperature, function of our immune system and proper release of growth hormones. Needless to say, lack of sleep increases our susceptibility to health problems.
If you are experiencing challenges with falling off and staying in dreamland, there are several things you should try. If none of the below work, however, you should look to see a sleep specialist.
- Optimize Your Sleep Environment: If your environment doesn’t promote sleep, it may cause you to wake up easily throughout the night, disrupting sleep patterns and REM. To create an optimal sleep environment:
- Lighting: Bright lights from outside or lights within your bedroom can cause you to wake up. Keep your bedroom dark, keep clock lights dim and nightlights in hallways and bathrooms. Use blinds or curtains to block out unwanted light from outside.
- Sound: Ensure your bedroom is isolated from noise. If your room is situated so that noise can’t be avoided, purchase a white noise machine to help mask the worst of it.
- Linens and Sleepwear: Use quality linens on your bed and dress in sleepwear that isn’t too loose or too binding.
- Temperature: Sleeping in abnormally hot or cold temperatures can disrupt REM sleep patterns. Further, we lose some of our own ability to regulate body temperature during sleep and REM. As a result, keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature that isn’t too hot or too cold.
- Humidity: If your room is abnormally dry, use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. If, on the other hand, your room is extremely humid, use a dehumidifier to remove some of the extreme moisture.
- Develop a Sleep Schedule: Sound sleep patterns depend on a sleep schedule that is predictable and repetitive. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to keep your biological clock and circadian rhythms (rhythms present in sleeping and feeding patterns of humans) in check. Adjust your schedule over several days by going to bed 15 minutes earlier or waking up 15 minutes later until you are getting sufficient sleep.
- Time Exercise Wisely: Exercising too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep. Ideally, exercise in the morning or afternoon. If you exercise after work, do so by early evening so your body has enough down time to relax and become ready for sleep.
- Create a Bedtime Ritual: In order to prepare your body and your mind for sleep, create a bedtime relaxation ritual. Simple ideas can include drinking a small cup of herbal tea, taking a soothing bath, listening to relaxing music, dimming the lights a half-hour before bedtime and journaling your to-dos for the next day.
- Avoid Stimulants: Avoid substances late in the day that stimulate the brain, such as sugar and caffeine. These can make it difficult to fall asleep or cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. Although each person is different, a good guideline is to avoid stimulants after 2:30pm. Remember, sugar and caffeine come in many forms, including dessert and chocolate.
- Avoid Other Sleep Inhibitors: Other sleep inhibitors include alcohol and smoking.. Although alcohol can relax you, it can also disrupt sleep patterns and hinder your ability to sleep soundly. Both alcohol and smoking tend to keep you in lighter stages of sleep, which can cause you to awaken easily during the night. This deprives you of valuable REM and deeper more restorative stages of sleep. Further, smokers tend to wake up after three or four hours because the body goes into nicotine withdrawal.
- Avoid Late Night Snacks: It is best to finish eating at least two hours before bedtime, and no later than 9pm. Otherwise you run the risk of an active digestive tract keeping you awake. Make sure your dinner is well balanced with complex carbohydrates and lean protein, and not too high in fat or simple carbohydrates (sugars and foods made with refined flour). Finally, avoid eating foods that cause discomfort, acid reflux or excessive gas, as they will surely keep you awake.
- Fluids: Make sure you drink the majority of your liquids during the earlier part of the day, as drinking a lot of fluids two to three hours before bedtime will cause bathroom runs throughout the night.
What do you do to ensure you get enough shut-eye?
Adapted from 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You. Make real, lasting change with this easy to follow, week-by-week guide to healthy change. Get it now at Amazon.com.