12 Tips to Improve Sleep and Set Yourself up for a Long and Healthy Life
I love to sleep! As a busy college student and single mother, one of the reasons why I might love sleep so much is because I don't get enough of it, so when the time comes to allow myself some much-needed rest, it feels so good to finally be able to crawl into my warm, comfortable bed. Many people in our society are either not sleeping enough, or the quality of their sleep is deficient. There are so many things a person can do to improve their health and well-being, but I believe that getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
Benefits of Sleep
There are so many reasons why sleep is an essential component of health. Adequate sleep supports healthy brain function and emotional well-being. Getting enough sleep has been proven to enhance learning, and increase your ability to focus, make better decisions, and be more creative. Sleep is also important for your physical health. When you do get enough sleep, your body gets a boost of human growth hormone which stimulates bone and muscle growth, helps repair cells and tissues, and is a strong regulator of immune function and other physiological processes.
Negative Impacts of Not Getting Adequate Sleep
Sleep deficiency has been linked to depression, suicide, and dangerous risk-taking behavior. Not enough sleep is strongly linked to obesity due to sleep’s ability to maintain a healthy balance of the the hormones that make you feel hungry or full. When you’re not sleeping enough, ghrelin, your hunger hormone, goes up so you feel more hungry and want to eat, and leptin, the satiety hormone that makes you feel full, goes down. This means that not getting enough sleep could result in someone eating more than their body actually needs, leading to obesity. Not getting enough sleep can also result in an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. If you are not getting adequate sleep at night, you will be less productive, take longer to finish tasks, and make more mistakes.
Causes of Inadequate Sleep
Before we can move towards a remedy for lack of sleep, it’s important we first understand why so many of us have a hard time getting good sleep. The causes of inadequate sleep vary, however general causes in reference to the average, relatively healthy person can include poor eating habits, stress, coffee too late in the day, an inconsistent sleep schedule, drinking alcohol too close to bedtime, and exposure to excessive blue light late in the day.
Getting good nutrition means that our bodies can function as they were intended to. When our diets lack variety or contain lots of processed foods, we miss out on the nutrients our bodies need to function properly. Our bodies use amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to create the calming neurotransmitters that allow us to sleep, like serotonin, dopamine, GABA and norepinephrine. Good nutrition also helps ensure that your body can produce adequate amounts of melatonin, which is the hormone that helps your body feel sleepy and know when it's time to sleep.
Although it’s unlikely that most people can avoid it all together, high levels of stress can disrupt sleep. Some things that can contribute to stress, especially at night, are watching the news or other disturbing programming, or discussing work, school, or money troubles.
Although the stimulating effects of caffeine are quick to be felt (about 15 minutes) the time it takes for the effects to wear off happen much more slowly. The half-life of caffeine is about six hours, which means that drinking coffee too late in the day can cause people to have problems falling asleep.
It is very common in our society for people to keep a fairly consistent sleep schedule during the week, but then stay up late on the weekends. This can confuse our body’s natural rhythms, leading to our body having trouble producing normal levels of hormones, which then in turn disrupts overall sleep.
Drinking alcohol may make you feel relaxed, but it actually can disrupt sleep. When our bodies break down alcohol, it’s difficult for our livers to balance our blood sugar, and this can result in restless sleep. Alcohol also reduces REM sleep, which is the time during which we get the most benefits out of sleep.
Blue Light Exposure
On a human scale, artificial light is a relatively new invention. It used to be that when the sun went down, we may have done a little work or winding down by firelight, but mostly we would sleep when it was dark. Sunlight contains a whole spectrum of visible light, including blue light. Of all the colors of visible light, blue light is the most disruptive to our sleep when we are exposed to it after dark.
Blue light is good for us when we want to be stimulated, like upon waking, or during our school or work days. But being exposed to blue light at night when we should be winding down and sleeping can cause major problems with our sleep. Blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, and it disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. Since large amounts of blue light are emitted from our computers, phones, and television screens, we stay alert and awake later into the evening when using these devices after dark.
In the absence of blue light, melatonin production increases and we get sleepy. So even though we live in a time when artificial light after dark is abundant, there are things we can do to minimize its effects.
12 Tips to Improve Sleep
One thing about improving your sleep that I want to emphasize is that it’s not just the number of hours that you get that is important, but the quality of the hours you do get. For example, six hours of high quality sleep is more beneficial than 8 hours of poor sleep. And for those of us with limited time, this is good news. So here are some tips for improving sleep quality:
Stop drinking caffeine at least 8 hours prior to bedtime. That means if you have a 10:00 bedtime, you need to consume your last cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage by 2:00 PM .
Start winding down activity at least two hours before bed.
Limit use of electronics after dark. Many smartphones have a feature that eliminates blue light emissions after sunset. There is also a free computer program called f.lux that can be used to soften color temperature and reduce blue light emissions on your laptop or monitor.
Entirely avoid screens at least one hour before bed.
Minimize indoor light use. Instead use candles, a red headlamp, blue blockers (yellow/orange tinted glasses), and orange/insect light bulbs.
Avoid engaging in stressful activities too close to bedtime. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness, and will interfere with sleep.
Create a relaxing evening ritual to prep mind and body for sleep: take a warm bath, change into specific pajamas, have a cup of herbal tea, or read a good book before bed. These things done alone might not do much, but when you have multiple things you do each night, they cue your body and your circadian clock that it is time to go to sleep.
Go to bed at the same time each evening. Deep sleep happens earlier in the sleep cycle, so even if you sleep in after staying up late, it isn't the same as getting to bed early.
Create a bedroom environment conducive to sleep. Consider a minimalist bedroom, with no clutter, no television, and use blackout curtains for complete darkness. They even sell special stickers that covers lights LEDs on electronics (or just use black electrical tape).
Use a noise cancelling app or white noise machine.
Cool bedroom temperatures promote sleep. Between 60-68 degrees fahrenheit is the ideal sleeping temperature
Put your phone on airplane mode to avoid EMFs which some believe can disturb sleep.
I encourage you to try some of these methods to help enhance your sleep. Getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. Sleep can help us succeed in school and work, and set us up for a long, healthy life. There are many different reasons why people struggle to get quality sleep, most of which are lifestyle choices. Because of this, we have the power to choose to take action to improve our sleep.
Did I miss anything? Are there any sleep hacks you use to improve the quality of your sleep? I’d love to hear from you!