At 9 months pregnant, sleep is something that eludes me even before baby #3 arrives. I find my mind racing, which makes it hard to fall asleep and even harder to get back to sleep after one of my several trips to the bathroom (hello squished bladder!). I’m hot, then cold, sniffly or thirsty, constantly checking my phone for the time, as though calculating how many hours I’m losing will make it any better.
Meanwhile, in the news, I keep hearing about how important sleep is to my health, which only fuels my late night worrying. So I was anxious to tackle the topic with Functional Medicine SF in hopes of catching a few weeks of blissful rest before D-day.
Turns out I was doing it all wrong. And since incorporating just a few of the things I learned, in writing this, I’m definitely feeling more refreshed.
Sleep is a mysterious thing. We spend about one-third of our lives in this state of mind, yet scientists don’t really have a good explanation for its purpose. One thing is clear though; many of us—about 1/3 of US adults—are not getting enough.
It’s taken millions of years of evolution to calibrate natural human sleep patterns, which used to be close to 8 hours per night. But in the last hundred years, we’ve chiseled this down to by nearly 25%! As humans we are the only species that deliberately deprives ourselves of sleep. In fact, we’re in what’s been called a “global sleep loss epidemic.”
While our fast-paced culture tends to praise those who are able to work harder and get by on less sleep, we cannot ignore the fact that sleep is a basic biologic need—just like air, water, or food. And not getting enough is a huge public health issue. Sure, it may be true there are different “chronotypes” of people—some who need more, some who need less sleep—the vast majority of us need at least 7 hours per night. If you’re one of those people claiming to be “just fine” getting by on very few hours of sleep a night, studies show you’re a lousy witness for what’s actually happening at the physiologic level.
Countless major diseases are linked to insufficient sleep, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke, depression, and the list goes on. When we sleep less, we tend to be in a more negative mood, we’re more anxious and more depressive. Sleep apnea, a condition where the brain is literally deprived of oxygen for short periods while we sleep, affects at least 18 million Americans and is associated with cardiovascular events, stroke, and dangerous drowsy driving. The World Health Organization classifies night shift work as a probable carcinogen, and research shows shocking correlations between lack of sleep and mental illness.
Beyond helping us feel rested and alert, scientists postulate that sleep is a form of “cleaning house” in the brain, potentially removing toxic proteins. Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker at UC Berkeley explains dreaming as a kind of overnight therapy that takes the painful sting out of difficult emotional experiences you have, almost like “emotional detoxing,” by divorcing the emotion from the memory.
It’s clear that getting enough sleep is a good thing. Adequate sleep is correlated with better performance and enhanced motivation. When we’re well rested, we’re more likely to want to be physically active and tend to be more social and willing to get out of the house. And studies on delayed school start times show increases in grades and decreases in psychological issues. Even life expectancy increases, largely due to the 40-70% reduction in traffic accidents.
So how can we sleep more or at least better? There are several strategies that have been shown to help, but perhaps the main takeaway is this: make sleep a priority. Develop a ritual and stick to it. Sure, we all have off days due to illness, unusually high stress, or other obligations, but if we don’t treat the need for sleep like our need to drink water, we are neglecting our bodies of a basic life-supporting necessity.
Here are 15 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight:
- Have a consistent bedtime. Your body falls into a rhythm, so the more you can stick to a general time for going to bed and waking up, the better you will be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. And while pushing yourself to stay up longer might seem like a good way to be more sleepy, it’s counterproductive—cortisol levels will rise and keep you up late with a “second wind.”
- Make your bedroom a sanctuary. If your bedroom is cluttered with dirty clothes, work papers, and just generally a mess, it can be more difficult to settle into a zen-like state of mind for sleeping. Choose simplistic colors and designs, and make sure papers and clothes are organized and tucked away.
- Develop a nighttime ritual. For some it’s a hot bath, meditation, a cup of tea, journaling, or a mind-numbing book. Find what helps you settle down, and make it a daily routine.
- Use the bed only for sleep or sex. Cognitive behavioral therapy on sleep suggests that habitually checking social media, replying to work emails, reading in bed, and even lying awake in bed when you can’t sleep can cause us to disassociate the bed as a place for sleeping. Save these habits for the couch.
- Avoid screen time before bed. Photoreceptors in our retina send signals to the brain, affecting our circadian rhythms. Blue light delays the rise of melatonin so your biological rhythms are disrupted. Robust scientific evidence shows the correlation between screen time and poor sleep. Keep electronics (tvs, ipads, and phones) out of the bedroom, and turn off all electronics at least an hour or two before bed. And, absolutely DO NOT check the clock if you wake up in the middle of the night. You gain nothing by knowing what time it is, and it only makes your mind race with worry.
- Make the room quiet. Noise affects our brain even on an unconscious level, so although you might fall asleep better with the TV or music on, it can jostle your sleep without you even realizing it. If you live on a noisy street, or in a loud urban environment, consider a white noise machine to help cancel some of these sound waves.
- Lower the room temperature. Our bodies naturally cool down as we sleep, reaching their lowest point around 5am. Keep your room around 65 degrees to help you cool down and settle down for a good nights’ sleep.
- Get the room as dark as possible. We have an internal clock that mirrors nature’s cycles of day and night. Consider room-darkening shades to block out street lights and other forms of light pollution.
- Get some sunshine during the day. Sunlight helps us to feel alert during the day, but it also helps reset the clock, making it possible for us to settle down for a good nights’ sleep. Pull back those room-darkening shades as soon as it’s time to get up.
- Consider aromatherapy. Research on lavender suggests it helps people sleep more deeply and feel more invigorated in the morning. Consider diffusing it or keeping sachets near the bed. Something as simple as having clean sheets has been shown to help encourage sleep.
- Eat wisely. Avoid fatty, fried or spicy foods before bed, as these can upset the stomach and interrupt sleep. Foods high in the amino acid tryptophan like turkey, eggs, chicken, fish and nuts might help. Studies on tart cherry juice, which is naturally high in the melatonin, a hormone known to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, suggest that it can improve sleep as well. Avoid diets high in sugar and low in fiber, as this can interrupt sleep, perhaps by warming the body up.
- Avoid sleep aids. Sleeping pills, when indicated, are only meant for short-term use. They do not produce naturalistic sleep. Instead, they serve as a kind of sleep “Band-Aid” in that they don’t help us develop the rituals that will help us achieve better sleep in the long run.
- Avoid alcohol and marijuana. While they may make you feel more relaxed, they both delay the onset of NREM sleep—the deep, restorative sleep that we need to feel rested.
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine makes us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals and boosting adrenaline. Even though you don’t “feel” like afternoon or evening caffeine affects your sleep, it does. Studies show it takes 6 hours for half the caffeine to leave our system, so limit your consumption and only in the morning.
- If you’re a night time worker, try at the very least to get on a regular schedule as opposed to flip-flopping every few days as this can be more taxing on the body’s ability to adjust. Look into bright light therapy, an area of growing research.
Should you nap? It’s estimated that 85% of mammalian species nap, and it’s not yet clear whether this is the natural sleep pattern for humans. While opinions are conflicting, napping is generally not advised for someone who is having trouble sleeping at night. Walker talks about how the “pressure to sleep” builds during the day, and napping can dissipate that pressure, thereby making it harder to sleep at night. If you’re someone who sleeps well at night, however, the National Sleep Foundation suggests that short 20-30 naps can be a great pick-me-up shown to improve mood, alertness and performance.
What about insomnia? Relaxation training (like breathing exercises, meditation and guided imagery), stimulus control, sleep restriction, and cognitive behavioral therapy are some of the most effective forms of treatment for insomnia. If you’ve tried the basics and are still having trouble sleeping, consult with your doctor or find a sleep expert. A functional medicine practitioner can look at what else might be going on in the body—your gut, nutrition and micronutrient status, and overall lifestyle. But for true sleep disorders, especially sleep apnea which can be life threatening, it’s crucial to seek the help of a qualified sleep practitioner before the problem progresses.
Remember, sleep is a basic human need, so make it a priority tonight and every night.
Visit www.sleepeducation.org (American Academy of Sleep Medicine) to find a Board Certified Sleep Doctor.