We spend a third of our life in bed (or should aim to). Sleep affects everything from energy and mood to chronic conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer’s. It has an impact on our metabolism, immunity and physical performance. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 35% of adults don’t get the recommended dose of at least seven hours of sleep. And we live in an espresso-buzzed, screen-fixated, shut-eye deprived world where it’s considered a badge of honor to function on less sleep. Did you know that in a meta-analyses of almost 13,000 studies conducted on sleep, subjects who had sleep disturbances had a higher risk of dementia?
The National Sleep Foundation released the key indicators of good sleep and they include:
- Sleeping at least 85% of the time when in bed
- Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less
- Waking up no more than once per night
- Going back to sleep within 20 minutes of waking up at night
If you are like most adults and struggle to meet all the guidelines of good sleep, I’ll share some tips and guidelines on evidence-based recommendations to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep.
Create Your Sleep Sanctuary
Creating a calm, comfortable environment is also an essential part of getting good sleep. Here are some tips:
- Eliminate all lights in your room – use blackout curtains and/or wear an eye mask. I no longer use night lights or lighted clocks.
- Limiting blue light in the evening has been shown to increase melatonin levels and sleep times. Blue light comes from your electronic devices like TV, ipads, computers and phones. Use a blue light screen on these devices or wear blue light blocking glasses. Here’s one to try: Blue Light Blocking Glasses. Here’s a blue light screen protector for the iPad: Blue Light Screen Protector.
- Use comfortable bedding and treat yourself to some luxury PJs like organic cotton or silk.
- Keep your room temperature lower than 72 degrees (between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit has been shown to be optimal). When you sleep, your body’s internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. So it’s no surprise that this cool environment is conducive to sleep as it mimics your body’s sleeping temperature. It helps your body regulate not only melatonin but also cortisol and growth hormone levels.
- If you cannot block out external noise of traffic, neighbors, etc. you may want to try a white noise machine. Here’s one to try: White Noise Machine.
- Use several drops of essential oils in your diffuser. Good ones for sleep include: lavender, cedarwood and bergamot. Here are a few to try:
Establish a Routine
Creating a consistent sleeptime schedule that is aligned with your circadian rhythm will maintain your sleep and wake cycle. This also includes weekends and holidays when you may be tempted to stay up late and/or sleep in. So create a ritual for getting ready for bed and stick with it: brushing teeth and washing face for night-time skin-care, putting on PJs, and a sleep-promoting activity like a warm bath, listening to calm music, reading or journaling. This will help you wind down and signal your body that it’s time for shut-eye.
Body Exercises to Help You Sleep
Aim for 150 minutes or more moderate intensity activity a week – that includes swimming, brisk walking, biking, hiking, and running. That’s only 30 minutes a day for five days. Mix it up to stave off boredom and exercise with a buddy. There are many free exercise videos to get your cardio in – here are a few to try:
- 10 minutes high intensity interval training workout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edIK5SZYMZo&t=428s
- A 30 minute low impact, high intensity intermediate workout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ba3qZjzPonI
- A 20 minute heart-pumping, cardio workout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vncKnAPhgtg
In order to maintain muscle mass which becomes harder to do as we age, plan for two or more days of muscle strengthening exercise. There are many options if you are not a fan of weight-lifting like me: Pilates, Yoga, Free Weights, Kettlebells, Barre and more. Here are some free videos to try:
- 30 minutes Pilates workout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K56Z12XNQ5c
- Check out the Yoga with Adriene series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpWa4LtKe4c&ab
- 30 minute full body kettlebell workout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LIAhxQHmak
Mind Exercises to Help You Sleep
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that is a great way to gain control of your busy and stressed out mind. This technique will help you slow down and be present in your sensations and experiences. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration for those with debilitating conditions. Mindfulness exercises include meditation with breathing, yoga and Tai Chi.
- Tai Chi significantly improved sleep quality in this study in both healthy adults and those with chronic conditions.
- Regular yoga can improve sleep and reduce stress according to this study. Check out my blog on The Science of Yoga.
- This meta-analysis showed that mindfulness meditation interventions significantly improved sleep quality
There are a bunch of wellness apps that are available to users for mindfulness and guided meditations for sleep. Here are a few to try out:
- Both Insight Timer and MyLife have a lot of free content with bonus material for premium members
- Headspace has some free content but is a monthly or yearly subscription for premium content
- Calm has an annual fee
Things to avoid or limit
- Finish eating and avoid alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. The rise in blood sugar levels after a meal will delay sleep. Also, sleeping soon after a meal can increase the risk of acid reflux. Alcohol may make you feel drowsy and help you fall asleep initially, but it will keep you from falling into the deep sleep your body needs in order to regenerate and repair.
- Avoiding foods that you may be sensitive to (like dairy, sugar and certain grains) could help reduce gastrointestinal upset, bloating, gas and the late night trips to the bathroom. If you notice that you have digestive issues, you might explore discussing your nutrition with a registered dietitian as addressing any possible food sensitivities can have a profound effect on digestion AND sleep.
- It’s a good idea to stop drinking fluids within two hours of going to bed to reduce the need to get up in the middle of the night. You should also make sure to empty your bladder before heading to bed.
- If you are a coffee/caffeine drinker like me, aim to stop drinking caffeine by 2pm. It’s been shown that for people that are slow metabolizers of coffee, the caffeine effects last long after the drink. Stick to organic decaf if you need that cup-a-joe. By the way, the best decaf is produced by the Swiss Water method where hot water is used to remove caffeine as opposed to chemicals. Here are some good brands to try. In general, be mindful of products and medications that contain caffeine.
- Naps can be a good supplement to your regular sleep but these catnaps should be no longer than about 20 minutes and be finished by 3PM in the afternoon so as to not interfere with your nighttime sleep.
Address Other Factors
- If you are overweight, this can increase your risk of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where your breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, ask your doctor to give you a sleep test.
- For generally healthy women, consider hormone support if faced with night sweats/hot flashes – talk to your doctor or consult a naturopathic physician about various options for dealing with menopause (the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians offers a directory with credentials and practice focus). Note that there are certain dietary factors that exacerbate hot flashes (e.g. caffeine, refined sugar, spicy foods) so be mindful about your diet.
- Conditions like arthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia contribute to poor sleep, fatigue and mood disturbances. Using mindfulness, massage and relaxation techniques can help but work with your practitioner to optimize best practices to make pain more manageable so you can get quality shut-eye.
- Having heartburn or acid reflux can also interfere with sleep. Try carefully monitoring the food and drink that exacerbate this condition and finish your meals at least three hours before bedtime. If you continue to struggle with this, talk to your doctor about options.