Getting Better Sleep
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Getting enough sleep at night plays a major role in your mental, physical, and emotional health. How you feel when awake is directly influenced by how well you are sleeping. When you are asleep your brain is processing information and preparing for the next day. Your body is also processing and regulating hormone and other chemical production that keeps you active and healthy during the day.
Sleep is divided into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-REM). REM sleep is the deeper sleep where you are dreaming. It is further subdivided into four stages with REM being stage 4 and NREM being the first three stages. Stage 1 is the lightest of stages and can be easily disrupted causing you to wake up. It’s kinda like first gear on a manual transmission, you really only hit it when falling asleep or waking up. Stage 2 is the first real stage of NREM sleep. It’s harder to be woken up in this stage and brain activity starts to slow. Body temperature begins to decrease here too. This would be like second gear, where you really start to pick up some speed. Stage 3 is known as deep NREM and is the most restorative stage. It is difficult to wake up in the stage. This would be like your higher gears on the manual transmission. The final stage is REM sleep. Your brain is most active during this stage of sleep. Being woken up here can leave you feeling groggy or still tired. Think of this as your cruising gear.
You can think of a night’s sleep cycle as trip in your manual transmission vehicle. You start off in stage one to get rolling but don’t really come back to it. Then as you get going heading toward the interstate you move through the stages up to REM. But you will have to slow down for traffic and lights so you spend less time in REM early on in the night moving between it and stages 2 and 3. Later on you make it to the interstate and can get up to your cruising gear and spend most of the later part of sleep cycle in REM with occasional slow downs to stage 3, maybe stage 2. Then as you approach the end you get off the interstate and move between stages 2 and 3 until you eventually reach the end of the journey and pass back into stage 1. A typical REM cycle, going from stage 1 down to REM and then back up is about 90 minutes. The more of these 90 minute cycles you have consecutively the more time you spend in REM.
Our bodies have an internal clock that tells us when to get tired and when to be awake. It is controlled by hormones. Higher levels of certain hormones like melatonin make us sleepy. This clock is highly influenced by the daylight cycle meaning that night workers and those in areas with little light have to be conscious of their light intake during the day.
These are just some tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your sleep. When well rested we are able to do so much more during our waking hours. You may use some or all of these to improve your quality of rest. We are not medical professionals so if you are suffering from severe sleep issues or have not slept in several days please seek help from a medical professional.
Set Yourself Up for a Successful Night’s Sleep
Cool your room down to create an atmosphere that promotes sleep. Most of us enjoy being under a warm blanket in a cool room. It is comforting and relaxing. Body temperature is a key part of regulating your internal clock. Your body temperature affects your circadian rhythm. You get cooler as you are falling asleep. You want it slightly cooler than is comfortable to make it affect your body. The goal is to help the process along by artificially cooling yourself down. The National Sleep Foundations recommends 60 – 67 degrees F or 15 – 20 degrees C.
Take a warm shower before going to bed. Not everyone has full control of the thermostat where they live. A way to get a similar affect to a cool room is to take a warm shower or bath. Do this about an hour or so before you plan to go to bed. The change from the heat of the shower to the cooler room will start the process of cooling you down. Rapidly decreasing temperature can slow metabolism and prepare you for sleep. You can make showering at night a part of your nightly routine.
Move your clock so that you can’t see it from the bed. Many times if you can’t sleep you’ll constantly check your bedside clock. “If I get to sleep now I’ll still get 6, 5, 4…hours before I have to get up.” It’s a bad habit that many of us fall into when insomnia strikes. Constantly checking the clock adds stress. This increases your stress and worry about sleeping. That makes it even harder to fall asleep. Hide or move your clock so you can’t see it from the bed.
Listen to relaxing music before bedtime. Music can improve your ability to fall and stay asleep. Several studies have shown that sedative music promotes deeper sleep. Music with a slow rhythm of 60 to 80 bpm can improve sleep. A lot of people use classical music. Meditation or chanting music can be a useful tool.
Block distractions by using noise to your advantage. Noise machines create background noise that drowns out other sounds. You are less likely to be disturbed by small noises throughout the night. It also helps to maintain consistency when traveling. Fans or air purifiers can server a dual function of cooling a room and making noise. Unless of course you have nightmares about computer fans. An old box fan is great and cheaper than a noise machine. Other options include apps on your phone that create the sound of rain, wind, etc. White noise can be useful but it’s not the only color of noise. Brown and pink noise have less harsher tones. Find one that suits you best.
Get Yourself on a Regular Schedule
Setting yourself up on a regular sleep schedule will help your body to know when to get tired. This will help you fall asleep faster. Not keeping a regular schedule forces your body to constantly update it’s circadian rhythm. Once you adjust to a regular schedule you’ll find it easier to fall asleep at the scheduled time. A full REM cycle is around 90 minutes long. You want to plan your schedule to all you to wake at the end of a cycle. The reason the suggested amount of sleep is 7-9 hours is because that gets you 5-6 REM cycles. Allowing for some buffer time to fall asleep and wake up. You’ll also want to plan 30 minutes to 1 hour of time to wind down. Watching TV is not actually wind down time. Allow your mind and body time to relax.
Sunlight, specifically certain wavelengths, affect your circadian rhythm. Not enough or too much light exposure disrupts your circadian rhythms. It becomes harder to fall asleep and stay awake. This becomes a problem for people working 3rd shift or in areas with little light. Exposure to light during the day specifically higher on the spectrum helps you to stay alert. White and blue light help stay awake. Computers and phones have night mode that reduces blue light after certain hours. Darkness boosts melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleep. Basically darkness increases the chances you’ll fall asleep. It’s sometimes difficult but getting sunlight, even indirect (cloud covered) during the day will help you sleep better at night.
Be cautious of taking naps during the day. It’s really easy to take a nap when you didn’t sleep well the night before. Short naps during the day can help with alertness. These tend to be 20 minutes or less in duration. Some people call them “cat” naps. Basically you don’t want to get past stage 1-2 of Non-REM sleep. If you do sleep longer than 20 minutes it’s best to go ahead and sleep a full 90 minute REM cycle. Several studies indicate that napping for longer than 2 hours or more is related to poor nighttime sleeping. These same studies also found that napping later in the day reduced nighttime sleeping.
Use Exercises to Help You Relax
Using meditation style exercises can help you to relax. They allow you to quiet your mind. A lot of times our bodies want sleep but our minds keep churning. These types of exercises can help focus and calm the mind. They also help to relax the body. We can hold tension for a long time after the stressful event. Relaxation exercises help to release this tension. Following are a few techniques to help you relax and fall asleep faster. You can use one or all of them in a given night.
Focus your attention on a story or image to move away from intruding thoughts. Start in a comfortable position in bed. Close your eyes. Relax your body. Visualize a memory, place, or story that you find relaxing. Your scene will be unique to you. You want something that will allow you to focus and release other thoughts. Create the scene in your mind. Visualize all the details as slowly as possible. If your mind wonders acknowledge the thought and then return to the scene in your mind. This will take time and practice to get right regularly.
Progressive relaxation is recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. It involves slowly tensing then relaxing each muscle or group of muscles in your body. This helps to relax and “squeeze out” tension in your body. It also gives you something to focus your mind on while doing it. Tense each muscle group for about five seconds then relax for 30 seconds. Start with your toes and progressively move up to your head and neck. Tense then relax your toes. Then tense and relax your feet. Next your lower then upper legs. Then your abdomen and chest. Now tense your fingers, then hands, then arms. Finally your shoulders, neck, and head.
One variant of this is to tense and relax all the muscles you’ve already tensed each time. Once you’ve moved from toes to feet, also tense your toes. It can take a lot of focus once you get past your knees.
Practice breathing exercises to ease tension. Start by paying attention to your breathing. Notice your natural breathing. Consider the air as it enters your nose or mouth. Follow it in your mind down to your chest. Feel your diaphragm expand into your abdomen. Experience it flow out of your body. Look for tension in your body. As you exhale allow the tension to release. With each breath in and out the tension flows away. Visualize your breath spreading beyond your lungs into the extremities of your body. If your mind wonders let the thought flow then redirect back to your breath.
A well known technique is the “4-7-8” Breathing Method. It is a breathing pattern designed for relaxation. It can be done before going to bed or while in bed. Also, it can be used any time you feel stressed. As with most breathing techniques the idea is to exhale slower than you inhale.
Get a bottle of bubbles and blow bubbles before bed. This is easier if you have kids, you’ll likely have bubbles. Bubbles can be hypnotic to observe taking your focus. They also involve deep breathing to blow the bubbles. Finally, since it’s a silly activity it will lighten your mood and mind.
Getting More Out of Less Sleep
In order to reduce the amount of sleep you need make a plan and measure your habits. As mentioned before you want to create a schedule for when you fall asleep and wake up. This will allow your body to get in to a rhythm. That makes it easier to both fall asleep and wake up on time. It may not be the amount of sleep you get per day that has the most effect. Look at the amount of sleep you get per week. Find times in your schedule to catch up on sleep and fuel yourself for the rest of the week. Try measuring sleep in hours per week instead of per day. Plan for lighter days when you know you’ll get less sleep. Plan your most challenging and important tasks for days when you will be getting enough sleep.
Reduce the amount of time you spend in the process of waking up each morning. Set your alarm clock to play music. Make it something you like or enjoy. It will excite you and give you energy to start the day. Understand though that you will associate that music with the alarm. Move your alarm clock out of reach. Put it across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Make yourself get up and move around. Drink coffee or tea immediately upon waking up. This will alleviate the morning groggy feeling and help you make the most of your awake time. Create a ritual or routine around making morning coffee. Prepare it the night before or have coffee machine that works on a timer. Drink water before you go to sleep. When you wake up you’ll have to go to the bathroom. That will make you want to get up and prevent you from falling back to sleep. Avoid drinking too much water within the few hours prior to going to sleep, so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night.
Cut the amount of time you spend falling asleep at night. Avoid phones or computers immediately before bed. Many screens have been shown to display a type of light that may cause restlessness. While your phone may have a night mode you’ll also get your mind going with the desire to click or swipe more. Stop working or any other stressful activities well before you go to bed. Don’t do work in your bedroom. You don’t want to have your bed associated with the feeling you get from work. Keep your bedroom as your place of relaxation. Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol too close to bed time.
Progressively work toward less sleep each night. Some people are genetically disposed to need less sleep. They can survive on 3-6 hours of sleep per night. Remember that the 7-9 hours is based on an average. There are a few steps you can take though to slowly cut back on your sleep. First, get up at the same time every morning. Do this whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. Getting up at exactly the same time every day is key. Next, for a week wait to go to bed by 20 minutes. Then, for the next week delay it by 40 minutes. For the third week, delay it by an hour. Continue cutting down in 20 minute increments until you are sleeping six hours a night.
The Obvious But Not So Obvious
Don’t use any electronics before going to sleep. The screens and the dopamine rush are counter intuitive to sleep. It should be obvious that watching TV, playing video games, using a mobile phone and social networking can make it harder for you to fall and stay asleep. Unfortunately many of us still use these devices right up until the time we expect to fall asleep.
Exercising during the day will improve your sleep at night. Moderately intense exercise will be the most beneficial to improving sleep. Intense is relative to your ability. It also doesn’t mean working out until you pass out. Excessive exercise has been linked to reduced quality of sleep. Exercise increases the production of serotonin which boosts your sleep. It also reduces the amount of cortisol which is a hormone related to stress. The time of day that you exercise also affects your sleep. Earlier in the morning promotes better sleep than later in the evening. Exercise should energize you during the day so you can sleep better at night.
Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine just before going to bed. A study, published in 1994, concluded that alcohol can be relaxing and help you get to sleep. However, it’s damaging to the sleep cycle once you’re out. The end result is a choppy, restless night where you wake more frequently than you would. Caffeine has the opposite effect. It lengthens the 2nd phase of your sleep cycle (where your brain starts reorganizing itself and processing the day). This is great for naps, but not for a night of deep sleep. Caffeine shortens phases three and four, where REM sleep and dreaming occur.
Reading before bed time can help you to wind down. Studies show that reading before bed promotes longer more refreshing sleep. Like the focus exercises it gives your mind something to visualize. Also moving your eyes back and forth across a page can work to relax you. You want to read from an actual paper book. Electronic books emit a kind of light that can reduce melatonin release. This makes it harder for you to fall asleep. The sense of vellichor from smelling a physical book is very calming.
Adjust the position you are in when you are asleep. Quality sleep may be influenced by your body position during the night. There are three main sleeping positions: back, stomach or side. Most people believe that sleeping on your back is best. However, this position could lead to blocked airways, sleep apnea and snoring. According to research, the side position seems to be linked to high-quality sleep. Position is an individual preference and you have to find the one that works for you and your body.
An interesting idea is to wear socks to bed when you sleep. A study published in the journal Nature found that warm feet and hands were the best predictor of falling asleep quickly. Participants placed hot water bottles on their feet. The heat widens the blood vessels in the skin. This causes heat loss and then cools the core body temperature.
If you wake up in the night, get up and do something for 10 minutes. If you can’t get back to sleep within 15 minutes or so, get out of bed and do an activity. Find one that that requires your hands and your head. Puzzles or coloring books are good for this. Stay away from the TV and any type of screens like phones. The blue light has been proven to suppress melatonin. Even in night mode the light will affect your cycle. The idea here is to not lie in bed without sleeping. You want your body to recognize that the bed is for sleeping. Otherwise it becomes a place for thinking, worrying, and stressing. If you aren’t sleeping get up and do something else.
Focus on trying to stay awake. If try to force yourself to fall asleep you’re likely to only focus on not sleeping. Instead, try something called “paradoxical intention.” This involves trying to stay awake instead of forcing yourself to sleep. The idea is that the stress of forcing yourself to fall asleep can prevent you from relaxing. Doing this may relieve excessive sleep anxiety. A sleep study at the University of Glasgow was performed on sleep-onset insomniacs. They were instructed to lay in bed and try to stay awake with their eyes open. It found they fell asleep quicker than participants told to fall asleep without the “paradoxical intention”. Your brain is like a rebellious teenager, tell it not to do something and that’s all it wants to do.
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