So, you go to bed at a decent time, but you wake up groggy. Or maybe you’re a night owl and just can’t seem to go to sleep before midnight. Or maybe you’re not sleeping all the way through the night. Does this sound like you? As you may have read in my last blog, I think sleeping well is the most important health habit to develop.
But how? What’s keeping you from getting the healthful night of sleep that your brain and body need? Here are 9 tips that I have incorporated into my health habits to get better sleep.
1. Put out the fire in your brain and go to bed with your mind clear.
The first huge lesson I needed to learn was that I had to let my brain have downtime.
Think about what thoughts you put in your head before you go to sleep. A work (or imagined) crisis that someone e-mails you about at 11 pm that will get your mind churning? A tension-raising text message that adds drama to a family issue? A stimulating action movie or a crime show or a disturbing news report? You fire your brain up by putting these kinds of thoughts in it right before you go to bed.
When I started to unplug from all devices two hours before I went to bed and switched from watching TV to listening to music or reading a book before turning in, my sleep experience immediately changed.
The goal is to lower the intensity of your brain activity. If you go to bed with your mind clear, you have a much better chance of getting healthy, restorative, deep sleep.
2. Shut off TV and electronics—the “blue lights”—one to two hours before bedtime.
We’ve all heard this: bedrooms are for sleep and sex, not for TV and electronics. Studies are showing that lights from these devices can fool the brain into thinking it should be awake. Screens emit blue light, and the blue light spectrum suppresses melatonin, a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. You need melatonin to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm (your internal clock that tells you when it’s time to fall sleep or wake up). A healthy, regular circadian cycle allows the body to turn off and get a good night’s sleep.
To turn our minds and bodies off at night, we need to reduce or eliminate blue light before bed. The best thing is to turn all your electronic lights off one or two hours before bedtime and leave cell phones, tablets, and computers outside the bedroom. Second best is to try things like dimming your devices’ screens, or using orange-lens glasses and screens, and putting soft white bulbs in your lamps. There are also new software applications like “f.lux” for computers and “Twilight” for mobile phones, which uses a red filter that protects eyes from blue light and allows melatonin levels to rise.
3. No alcohol four hours before going to sleep.
While alcohol in sufficient quantities will put you to sleep, it can prevent deep sleep and inhibit REM sleep. Alcohol may also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, when it has metabolized and wears off. While studies have shown that one glass of red wine in the evening may help you sleep, three glasses will interrupt it.
4. Cut evening caffeine.
This may seem obvious because caffeine keeps you awake, but I’m not just talking about the big latte eight hours before you go to sleep. Eating chocolate at 9 pm is just as bad and may also keep you up because it contains caffeine. Other sources besides coffee and chocolate include nonherbal teas, some soft drinks, and some pain relievers.
Don’t trust your perceptions. You might think you’re one of those people who isn’t bothered by caffeine and you’re able to get to sleep and stay asleep no matter what. Sleep lab monitoring is telling us that just isn’t so. Caffeine consumed a full six hours before bedtime is shown to have significant, detrimental effects on sleep. Why risk having caffeine interfere with that deep sleep you need, even if it doesn’t actually make you wake up or toss and turn?
5. No foods, especially sugary foods and drinks, in the two to three hours before bed.
If you take a big drink of orange juice at 9:30 pm, that’s going to set you abuzz because your body will race into action to handle all that sugar. Eating any food late in the evening is very likely to throw off your metabolism, so close up the kitchen well before bedtime.
6. No strenuous exercise.
If you’re the person who says, “Yeah, I like to go to the gym or spin class about 9 pm and then be in bed by 10:30 or 11,” sorry, but that schedule isn’t a good idea. Though your workout in the evening may not be intense enough to counteract the sleep-improving benefits of exercise, if you have any sleep problems or a history of insomnia, experts recommend you avoid exercise at least a couple of hours before bed. If you like some movement as part of your evening routine, try walking after dinner, doing light chores, or stretching and doing some gentle yoga poses instead, as long as you don’t push your heart rate above 100.
7. Create a conducive, restful environment.
Keep your room cool, dark, and comfortable. Our bodies cool down when we sleep and a warm room (above 68 degrees) competes with that natural cooling process. For women, dealing with hot flashes can be a challenge. It’s important to have light sheets, light sleepwear, cooling pillows, and discussions with a doctor if hot flashes disturb your sleep.
While most of the steps for getting a good night’s sleep won’t cost you anything, this one will: to the extent you can afford it, spend enough money on your mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillows to be sure they help you sleep well at night. There’s a reason people say they sleep so well in nice hotels. The rooms are dark, calm, and usually quiet. The mattresses and bedding are stellar. Even as you are trying to manage your stress and shut down your brain before bedtime, having a comfortable bed that helps you sleep soundly can be a smart investment in your health.
About your mattress:
- Make sure it’s not more than 10 years old.
- Make sure it’s not too soft or too hard for you to sleep comfortably.
- Don’t be afraid to return a new mattress that isn’t “just right,” and never buy a mattress you can’t return or exchange.
- If you and your partner have different sleep needs, consider a two-person option. There are mattresses that allow you to adjust the firmness and even temperature on both sides of the mattress so neither partner has to be uncomfortable.
With bedding, different fabrics have different cooling and heat-trapping effects.
- Aim for 100% cotton, but avoid thread-count gimmicks. Higher counts aren’t necessarily better.
- If you’re a woman experiencing hot flashes and night sweats, try moisture-wicking sheets.
8. Develop shared sleep habits with your partner, or at least avoid disrupting each other’s sleep.
My wife and I have this discussion a lot, because I have really made sleep sacred. You have to be either on the same page with your partner about sleeping and waking times or respect each other’s rhythms. Rhythm is very important. If you married your spouse when you were 30 and now you are 50, your body has gone through changes and you have to adapt to them.
If you and your partner have habits and schedules that don’t mesh, find ways to honor your partner—read in another room, avoid having lights on (or just use a small yellow-spectrum book light when reading in bed), use sleep masks, and so on. Having a shared ritual and commitment to sleep will be good for your relationship and your well-being, adding much-needed intimacy, relaxation, and restoration to your life and your partner’s.
9. Track your sleep.
Every night in bed, I wear a device that monitors my movements to track my sleep. There are ranges of affordable devices that can track your sleep patterns. Some you wear, some you place on the bed, and some you put on your nightstand.
A good night’s sleep for me is over 7.5 hours with more than two hours of deep sleep and two hours of REM sleep. Many of us go to sleep thinking, “Oh, if I go to bed at 11 and get up at 7, I’ll have gotten eight hours.” Once you start tracking your sleep, you’ll be shocked at how often you wake up throughout the night. Each disruption can interfere with your ability to get enough deep sleep.
Be aware of the total amount of sleep, the timing of that sleep (are you getting to sleep before 11 pm?), the consistency of your sleep (and thus your circadian rhythm), and the amount of deep sleep you’re actually getting to renew your body.
Wellness Warriors, I hope these tips have given you a good idea for how to improve your sleep. Pick one or two of these habits to start with and gradually add the others into your healthy habits. The more of these tips you can incorporate into your daily life, the better and more restorative your sleep will be.
Coming next, I’ll be sharing about relationships and how your health and longevity benefit from having deep connections with other people. Could these deep connections protect you from serious illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Join me next time to find out.
Until then, Live Well, Live Long…