Hiya Sleepy Head,
Sleep impacts every part of our lives, from our performance at work and interactions with loved ones, to our long-term health and mental well-being. In today’s 24/7 go-go-go world, restorative, blissful sleep is often hard to come by. I’ve sacrificed many nights of slumber to stress, work, over-indulgences (gulp gulp, nosh nosh), and Boardwalk Empire marathons (just one more!).
Today I want to talk to you about why sleep is integral to your health. A few small tweaks to your everyday habits can make big improvements in dreamland. Trying one of my 10 tips for better sleep (see below!) is a great place to start. I hope this blog empowers you to make sleep a priority. Once you start clocking more restorative z’s you’ll be amazed at how fabulous you feel.
What happens while you sleep?
Many major restorative functions occur while we sleep. For adults, the biggies are muscle growth, protein synthesis, tissue and cell repair. For infants and children, hormone production and brain development are key (which is why they need so much more sleep than adults).
But perhaps the most restorative function of sleep has to do with a neurotransmitter called adenosine. While we’re awake, our neurons fire and cells power us through the day, this process produces adenosine. It builds up all day long, leading to a decrease in dopamine—the neurotransmitter that keeps us alert and focused. So as adenosine goes up, dopamine goes down, resulting in that sleepy feeling you get at night.
While we sleep, we clear adenosine from the body and start fresh in the morning feeling alert (study). The more sleep you get, the lower the level of adenosine, and the more alert you’ll feel in the morning.
How much sleep do you need and when?
The number of hours you should sleep depends on your age, gender, lifestyle, current health, and simply how you feel after X amount of sleep. Basically, it’s different for everyone, but usually between 7 and 9 hours does the job. If you feel energized all day long on 7 hours of sleep, then you don’t need 8. But if you’re groggy and relying on caffeine to get you through the day, then you likely need more than that.
When it comes to the timing of your night-time snooze, the most restorative window is typically between 11pm and 7am because your circadian rhythm is likely at its lowest point. (Although your dream time can vary—just try to nod off before midnight and sleep 7-9 hours.) Your circadian rhythm is influenced by your environment—namely lightness and darkness. It controls many of the physical, mental, and behavioral changes you experience in a 24-hour cycle, including your sleep pattern. Paying attention to your circadian rhythm and going to sleep when you feel drowsy means you’ll hit deep, restorative sleep more rapidly (National Sleep Foundation).
What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?
If you’re cutting yourself short in the sleep department, you’re also cutting your overall well-being short. Inadequate sleep can lead to increases in appetite because your body is compensating for a lack of energy and struggling to find fuel for your everyday activities. This can result in weight gain and obesity, which increase your risk for many health challenges.
Too little sleep also increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, heart problems, respiratory disorders, depression, and problems with substance abuse, not to mention a lessened ability to pay attention, react to unexpected events, and remember new information. These last few items often make driving a vehicle as dangerous as driving while intoxicated (National Sleep Foundation).
Now that we’ve covered the impact of poor sleep, let’s talk about how you can improve your sleep habits and get back on track. Even if you’ve always struggled with bedtime you can learn to love hittin’ the hay!
10 tips for how to sleep better:
1. Rest in cozy comfort: A quality mattress, soft blankets and cool temperature will reduce annoying distractions (too hot! achy back!) and help you relax.
2. Turn on some soothing sounds: Use a sound machine or a fan to drown out what may be preventing you from falling asleep within 15 minutes of laying down.
3. Complete darkness: If your room isn’t completely dark, consider a sleep mask—this will also increase your natural production of melatonin, which is not only a great sleep inducer but a great cancer fighter as well (study).
4. Snooze-inducing smells: Wearing lavender lotion or using a diffuser with lavender essential oil may help you hit deep sleep sooner. Plus, who doesn’t love the smell of lavender? Ahhh…
5. Turn off tech at least 1 hour before going to bed. Then, keep lights dim and read or meditate to let your body naturally make some sleepy melatonin (the hormone that is produced as it gets dark out, and regulates sleep and wake cycles).
6. Skip or reduce caffeine. Caffeine not only prevents many folks from falling asleep at night initially, but it can also decrease the amount of restful sleep that happens at night (study). If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, try decaf, herbal tea or keep it to one cup very early in the morning.
7. Go easy on the alcohol. Alcohol feels like a sedative at first because it slows down motor and brain function, leaving us feeling relaxed and worry-free. But, as it’s metabolized, acetaldehyde is produced, which acts like a stimulant in our bodies. This is what wakes us up in the wee hours of the morning unable to get the rest we need. So for a good night’s sleep, peel back on the alcohol and drink it earlier and with food (or not at all).
8. No nicotine. Nicotine is similar to caffeine in that it’s a stimulant and may cause insomnia. And even once you fall asleep, you’ll have decreased slow wave sleep, which means it’s less restorative (study). Tough love: stop smoking. Period. (I adore you too much not to say this.)
9. Exercise. Try to fit in 20-30 min of moderate exercise daily, but make sure to do it several hours before bed. Ideally, 20-30 minutes of cardio in the morning with some restorative yoga in the afternoon.
10. Clear your mind. If you’re tossing and turning after switching the lights off, you may need to hit the reset button on your mind. Here are a few things to try. Before going to bed, journal—jot it all down. You could also try a guided meditation or Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique tutorial here). If you can’t fall asleep after lying in bed for 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing for 15-30 minutes before returning to bed. Don’t give up. You’ll find a strategy that works for you.