To help you get some rest in the silent nights of this season
It’s here folks. The holiday season is fully under way. And while this time of year can be a source of immense joy, it can also bring immense stress, both physical and mental. And if you’re anything like me, one sure fire sign of the rising stress levels is the toll it takes on your sleep. As the delicate family dynamics, rescheduled travel plans, added financial strain and hopes and excitement of the season build, the hours of sleep I can count on each night seem to dissolve from beneath me. Even after years of teaching military groups on the science of sleep and the practices that promote a good night’s rest, I, too, return to some basic principles to try to recover those lost hours. So, this monthmy gift to you is the 5 simple but golden truths of sleep that can help us all to rest a little easier on the silent nights of this season.
1. We’re built to sleep
When it comes to sleep, we often feel that we have to DO something in order to MAKE ourselves sleep well. But the truth on this one is hopefully a comforting one, we are built to sleep. Our physiology includes a sort of internal clock, often referred to as our circadian rhythm, which governs the ebb and flow of our energy and arousal levels among other things. The natural rhythm of our bodies includes a period of high alertness and functioning for our minds and bodies (wakefulness), and a distinct period of time when our bodies downshift to allow for rest, repair, consolidation, and recovery (sleep). Without interference, this rhythm functions on a 24-hour cycle that allows us to operate consistently day in and day out. It regulatesthe peaks and valleys each day that we experience in strength, reaction time, coordination, healing and immunity, digestion and so much more. And, when it is functioning well, it also allows us to sleep consistently. Directed largely by the neuro hormones melatonin, adenosine and cortisol, these cycles conduct a symphony of bodily functions all coordinating to make use effective and healthy throughout the day and night. All without our having to do a thing, or at least that is how it is supposed to work.
So why, then, are so many of us having trouble getting to sleep at night? Why, if the programming is there for ‘alert during the day’ and ‘asleep at night,’ do we lay in bed wide awake and feel drowsy all day? Because, my friends, we are our own worst enemies. In all of our intelligence, we have designed a society that is seemingly hell bent on disrupting the wisdom of nature when it comes to sleep. We live indoors and avoid the clock regulating signals of nature. We have 24-hour coffee shops and monster energy drinks to mute the calls to sleep our bodies send us. And we live by artificial lights and electronics that trick our brains into halting melatonin, resetting the internal clock to high noon when it’s actually 8 pm. Our lifestyles do their absolute best to send the most confusing signals our brains could interpret, and as a result, we struggle to sleep and struggle to wake.
The good news is that we have the ability to get out of our own way and embrace the system that nature designed. By embracing our body’s natural rhythm and working with our wakefulness and sleep signals, instead of against them, we can make significant progress in returning to the rhythm our bodies intended. Below are a few simple suggestions to help you work with the natural rise and fall of your energy systems and, ultimately, encourage your body to sleep as it already wants to.
- Decide on and stick to a consistent (within the same 60–90-minute stretch) bed time and wake time.
- Avoid caffeine inside 10 hours of your typical bedtime.
- Avoid alerting activities within 2 hours of bedtime.
- Avoid eating heavy meals within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Get some form of physical activity during the middle and most active portion of your day.
- Keep mealtimes consistent.
- Dim the lights in your home at or around sunset.
2. The answer is right outside your door
One of the most powerful tools to improve your body’s adherence to its biological clock, and thereby to sink into sleep on schedule is freely available just outside your door. Unfortunately, it’s also available from artificial sources at all hours of the day and night. What is that tool? Light. To understand why light is such a powerful and effective tool, let’s go back to the circadian rhythm we were discussing above.
As I mentioned before, one of the hormones that regulates our sleep and wake cycles is melatonin. This hormone is produced or halted in the brain in response to the amount and type of light reaching a tiny area of our brains called the super chiasmatic nucleus through our eyes. When we perceive the wavelengths of light that are associated with mid-day, blue light, our brains are receiving the message that it is time to be awake and alert. As the light we perceive turns to oranges and reds, much like what we see at sunset, our brains get the message that it is time to start producing melatonin, which down regulates most of our body systems and prepares us to sink into sleep. This is why the blue light from your electronics is so discouraged in the hours just before bed, or during those unexpected and unwanted night wakings. The light coming from your phone or television is telling your brain “Wake up! It’s mid-day out here!”
But the good news is that the remedy is readily available right outside your door. By getting the right kind of light at the right time of day, you can aid your body’s circadian rhythm in functioning properly. Getting outdoor light during your mornings and the height of your day, helps to set your internal clock correctly. Furthermore, getting into the habit of using amber colored lighting (via warm toned lightbulbs) in your home in the evening, and dimming those lights after sunset help to communicate to the brain that nighttime (and sleep!) is on the way. So set your phone’s blue light filter and make a new year’scommitment to keep the phones and televisions out of your sleep space and make your way toward a better night’s rest. See below for a few tips on ways to leverage light to improve your sleep.
- Start your day with light by getting outside or getting up close to a window, even on a cloudy day!
- Investigate your sleep space for small sources of light, especially blue light. (Alarm clocks, power light indicators, and light filtering in through the window from holiday decorations are a couple of things to check for!)
- Change out light bulbs in the areas of your home you frequent in the evenings with warmer toned light bulbs
- Set up a red or orange nightlight in your bathroom to avoid the harsh overhead light during night wakings.
- Set up a charging station for your phone and other electronics, away from your sleep space!
3. Not all Sleep is the same
After years of teaching sleep classes to some very skeptical 19- and 20-year-olds, I know to expect the following interaction every time:
Me: “Caffeine and alcohol have a significant negative effect on your sleep”
Student1: “I can drink a pot of coffee and fall right to sleep”
Student2: “I drink a beer every night and it helps me fall asleep”
Me: Breathing Deeply “Let’s talk about quantity vs quality”
I relay that anecdote with nothing but affection for the (probably) hundreds of students who have raised the challenge over the years. It is an incredibly important discussion to have on the topic of sleep. A common misconception at the root of poor sleep for many people is that sleep is sleep, however you get there. In actuality, not all sleep is created equally. In order tofeel truly rested and to accomplish the purpose of sleep, we need two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and deep Non-Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM) sleep. During a good night’s sleep, we move through four phases of non-REM sleep and one phase of REM sleep in an approximately 90-minuterepeating cycle known as our sleep architecture. Why does this matter? Non-REM and REM sleep are both incredibly important for different reasons. REM sleep is often described as mentally and cognitively restorative, catering to emotional regulation, memory consolidation, and cognitive functioning, while deep non-REM sleep is thought of as more physically and structurally restorative, catering to cellular repair and physical recovery as well as an incredibly fascinating cleansing of the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid. So back to the pupils I mentioned above. While many folks consider themselves to be sleeping 6-7 hours, the substances and practices they engage in may be impacting the architecture of their sleep. Though their eyes are closed, they may be failing to achieve the deep sleep or REM sleep needed to fully repair and replenish their bodies and minds. What is a simple way to know if you are getting good sleep? Ask yourself in the morning whether you are feeling rested. Deprivation of deep non-REM sleep often results in feelings of physical fatigue and malaise while deprivation from REM sleep can result in feeling more mentally foggy. Even more interesting is thatstudies of sleep architecture in sleep deprived individuals has shown us that staying up late and getting up early will impact our sleep differently, selectively depriving us more of either REM or deep non-REM sleep respectively. Read below for some ways to put this new knowledge into practice.
- While not an exact science, your feeling of being more physically tired may suggest the need for a later wake time, while feeling mentally foggy may suggest you need an earlier bedtime!
- When taking a nap, you want to avoid waking during the deepest portion of your sleep (this is when waking can feel like you’ve been hit by a bus). As a result, you’ll want to keep naps to around 20-30 minutes or 90 minutes to allow yourself to wake from a shallower type of sleep.
- If you are waking after a good night’s sleep but still feeling as if you’ve been hit by a bus, try adding 30 minutes to your sleep duration to try to wake during a shallower portion of your sleep cycle.
4. Sleep Deprivation has consequences now and later
Ok ladies and gentlemen, bear with me for this section. My students often refer to this as the “scared straight” section of class. Sleep deprivation is incredibly harmful to your health in both the short and long term. While I definitely don’t want to add anxiety to your sleep situation, I do know that as humans, we have a tendency to use our intelligence to do dumb things. In this case, I’m referring to our being the only species who will willingly deprive ourselves of sleep, in spite of urge. I say this as a member of the community who sometimes needs the scared straight reminder, often kidding myself into the belief that other things in life are important enough to sacrifice sleep and eventually getting myself into an unhealthy and, frankly, unproductive habit of depriving myself of sleep for the sake of ‘getting things done.’ The problem is that sleep deprivation is actually tanking my effectiveness and robbing me of time in a myriad of ways as you’ll soon see. So, for myself and for all those of you who also need the sobering reminder, here are some of the ways sleep deprivation is working against us:
- chronic poor sleep may increase the likelihood of developing dementia, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, mood disorders and even cancers of the breast, colon, ovaries and prostate.
- Even short-term partial sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours of sleep for 1-7 nights) can weaken your immune system, raise likelihood of musculoskeletal injury, increase feelings of hunger and decrease feelings of satiety resulting in weight gain, lower insulin levels, and decrease testosterone levels by as much as 10-15%.
- A night without sleep can reduce coordination and reaction time, and influence decision making ability, increasing likelihood of accidents and injury by as much as 20-50%.
5. Kids have the answer
The final golden truth of sleep is one that I hope will bring you comfort and confidence. When it comes to sleep, I so often find that people believe the solutions are complicated and complex and require immense effort to identify and employ. This alone is one of the major reasons I find that people continue to get poor sleep despite feeling all of the negative consequences of lacking rest. But the empowering truth is that you likely already know how to improve your sleep. What I tell my students all the time is that they naturally know how to help their children get a decent night’s sleep. They know that putting their 3-year-old on a trampoline and feeding them a soda within an hour of bedtimeis probably not going to end well. They know that having a bedtime routine full of relaxing and quieting activities will help to prepare their tiny bodies for a good night of rest and that a day of minimal activity and junk food would work against them. So, all that is left to do is to use the same natural knowledge we have when dealing with our kids’ sleep on ourselves. The adult equivalent of that trampoline and soda? A nighttime action movie and energy drink… or soda. Those same bedtime routines of a hot bath (or shower) and a book that we use with our kids, work incredibly well on adults as well. Harness the power of what you already know to improve your sleep tonight. While a great night’s sleep may take time and work to achieve, a better night is far less complicated than it may initially seem. So start now with the knowledge you have and see how far it can take you. After all, we all deserve a little rest this holiday season.
If you want a partner on your journey to improving your sleep health this season, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 336-542-1800 to discuss more.