12 tips to help you wake up rested and refreshed every day
By Nicole Ferring Holovach, MS, RD, LDN
You’re probably used to hearing that eating right and exercising regularly are the keys to maintaining good health. You may also know that decreasing stress levels can improve well-being. But sleep is a piece of the health puzzle that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The next time you delay bedtime in favor of watching the late, late, late show, remember this: Chronic sleep loss can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, cancer, depression and impaired immunity. Plus, nearly 20 percent of all serious motor vehicle accident injuries can be attributed to drowsy driving. Bed should be looking a lot more appealing.
For something as enjoyable as sleep, Americans as a group aren’t getting enough. In the U.S., an estimated 50 to 70 million adults experience chronic sleep loss. In 2009 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey of individuals in 12 states in which more than 35 percent of participants reported averaging less than seven hours of sleep and more than 37 percent of respondents indicated they unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once a month.
Busy, stressed-out overachievers often tout, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But the irony is that chronic lack of sleep can speed arrival to that “eternal sleep,” as Shakespeare called it, not to mention decrease their quality of life en route. The fact is, sleep is vital to keeping us alive and healthy. While we sleep, our bodies undergo critical growth and repair processes, including neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells. Lack of sufficient sleep decreases and can even stop neurogenesis.
Sleep deprivation impairs learning and memory, decreases attention span and makes it difficult to keep emotions in check. Sleep is crucial to a strong immune system—sleep deprivation and poor quality of sleep can compromise the immune system, making you more likely to get sick and lengthen recovery time. Sleep also affects hormone and blood sugar regulation, making it an important factor in controlling appetite and weight as well as controlling and preventing type 2 diabetes.
The effect of lost sleep is cumulative. Losing one to two hours of sleep per night can result in a sleep debt that only adequate sleep can offset. And don’t fall for the “catching up on weekends” sleep myth. A single night of solid sleep will not pay off a sleep debt. The effects of sleep deprivation can last a lot longer than what you'd imagine. For the chronically sleep deprived, it might take a few months to get back into a natural sleep pattern.
Now, as to how much you need, there is no one-size-fits-all—it varies according to the individual. However, the general guideline offered by the National Sleep Foundation is that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. An indicator that you might not be getting enough sleep is your reliance on an alarm clock. Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier. If you still need an alarm clock, push your bedtime up by 15 minutes increments until you no longer need an alarm to wake up.
Have trouble falling or staying asleep? These 12 tips will help you drift off more easily into dreamland—and stay there all night long.
Go to Bed When You’re Tired
Many people are naturally tired earlier in the evening, but they feel like they haven’t had any time to themselves and don’t want to go to bed. There is too much to do—favorite television shows to watch, blogs to read and laundry to sort. But pushing through evening grogginess often results in a second wind and before you know it, it’s midnight and you have to get up in six hours.
Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Humans possess an internal 24-hour clock called the circadian rhythm that partly determines the time when people fall asleep and when they wake. Going to bed at the same time every night helps set this clock so that your body expects sleep at a certain time night after night. Similarly, waking up at the same time every morning helps train your body to rise at a particular time, helping curb the daily battle with your alarm clock. Weekends can be difficult, but going to bed even within an hour of your weeknight bedtime can help you stick to the routine.
Dim the Lights and Avoid Screens Before Bed
Light also helps set your internal clock. When light hits your eyes, it suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep and also alerts the body to the time of day. Exposure to light in the evening delays the release of melatonin and fools your internal clock into thinking it’s earlier than it actually is, preventing you from feeling sleepy until later. What’s worse, while any sort of light can suppress melatonin, the blue wavelengths produced by many kinds of energy-efficient light bulbs and electronic screens, like TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets, slow the release of melatonin with particular effectiveness.
Get Sunlight During the Day
While artificial light in the evening can inhibit sleep, natural light during the day encourages a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Exposing yourself to natural light upon waking can shift your internal clock so that you naturally start waking up earlier.
A dose of sunshine during the day can increase daytime alertness and can also make you less sensitive to the melatonin-suppressing effects of light at night. If you wake up when it’s still dark out (the case for many people during the winter months) and then spend all day indoors with little access to natural light, look into getting a light alarm clock (a clock that awakens you by gradually increasing your exposure to light) and try to spend your lunchtime outdoors or at least in front of a window.
No TV or Tablets in the Bedroom
In a media- and tech-obsessed world, this may be easier said than done: Try to limit your bedroom activities to sleep and sex only, and keep computers, TVs, tablets and work materials out of the room. This can help strengthen the mental association between of your bedroom with sleep. It also helps you avoid the sleep suppressing blue light your TV and other electronics emit.
Create a Cozy Sleep Environment
Transform your bedroom into a tranquil haven. The temperature should be cool. Beware of ambient light and noise. Consider investing in earplugs and heavy curtains, blackout shades or an eye mask. If you’re tossing and turning or waking up stiff and sore, it may be time to purchase a new pillow or mattress. Keep pets out of the bed—maybe even out of the bedroom.
Exercise Regularly, Ideally in the Morning
Exercise at any time of the day helps people sleep better. Some experts recommend no exercise before bed, but there is little evidence that it impairs sleep. However, working out in the morning has the advantage of exposing you to that all-important sunshine, helping you set your circadian rhythm.
Avoid Big Meals in the Evening
Going to bed on a full stomach can make it more likely that stomach acid will back up into your esophagus and cause nighttime heartburn. Stop all food and beverage (with the exception of water) within three hours of bedtime.
Laugh in the Evening
When under stress, the body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Relentless stress can keep cortisol levels high throughout the day, which can suppress sleep. While there are many relaxation techniques that can help lower cortisol in the evening and court sleep, laughter may be the best medicine. Laughter significantly lowers cortisol levels and returns the body to a more relaxed state. Even anticipating a laugh can have this effect. So grab a funny book or watch your favorite sitcom after dinner and drift off more easily into dreamland.
Curb Caffeine in the Afternoon, Nix the Nightcap
Caffeine typically stays in your system for four to six hours, so cut yourself off in the early afternoon. While alcohol can make you drowsy and help you fall asleep, it disrupts or prevents rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep, two distinct stages of sleep when learning and restoration occurs. Instead, you remain in a light stage of sleep where you can be easily woken up.
Don’t Rely on Sleeping Pills
The scientific consensus is that popular prescription sleeping pills offer no significant improvements in the quality of sleep. In one meta-analysis of sleeping pill studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, people taking popular prescription sleeping pills fell asleep just 13 minutes faster than those given a sugar pill—and only slept for a total of 11 minutes longer! The seeming effectiveness of sleeping pills may be due in part to the placebo effect or because some of these sleeping pills cause short-term memory loss that lead people to believe they slept better than they actually did—they don’t remember all the tossing and turning.
Don’t Worry If You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night
Some experts say that sleep broken up into two distinct cycles is more natural and historically prevalent than today’s expected seven to eight-hour uninterrupted stretch. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep in about 20 minutes, get up and read or listen to quiet music. And keep the lights dim, as bright light can stimulate your internal clock. When you feel tired, return to bed.
Nicole is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and health and wellness educator. She blogs about holistic health at WholeHealthRD.com.