I wrote last week about Daylight Savings Time and its deleterious effects on sleep. This week I want to give you some practical things you can do to improve your sleep quality, starting today. This is in no way an exhaustive list, just a compilation of things that I have found useful over the years. It is important to mention that there may be other factors contributing to poor sleep that I do not mention such as trauma and other psychological and medical factors that you may have to address. Be kind to yourself as you navigate these waters.
The first and least obvious piece of advice is that you must start valuing sleep. If you don't recognize the panoply of positives that result from good sleep, then it makes it much harder to adopt the behaviors required. Although, even if you just start doing a few of the following behaviors you will probably start sleeping better, and thus start valuing sleep more. Healthy habits are tricky like that. The more benefit you get from them, the more you crave them.
The next huge piece of advice involves planning. If you do not make time for sleep, its quality will suffer. Let's say that you have to be at work by 9 a.m. and that it takes you one hour to get ready each morning. That makes your wake-up time 8 a.m. Now count back 9 hours and that means your in-bed-lights-out time is 11 p.m. Why 9 hours? The average length of time for one adult sleep cycle is 90 minutes. It's recommended we complete a minimum of 5 of these cycles in a 24 hour period and 6 is ideal. So that's 7.5 to 9 hours of time asleep. A very (very) small percentage of the population has shorter sleep cycles and can get away with less sleep, but you are probably not one of those people. You can survive for a while (years possibly), but it is not good for your health longterm.
3) Morning Light
The third and also non-obvious piece about restful nighttime sleep is that it begins in the morning. An early dose of sunlight for 3-5 minutes in the morning helps to set the circadian rhythm in motion and will lead to better sleep. So if you are one of those people who finds themselves chronically sleeping in, you can reset your circadian by waking up earlier than you would like to (you just have to do this once) and getting exposed to the daylight. Stay awake all day without any naps and go to bed as soon as the sun goes down or slightly before. Also, try to get as much natural light as you can throughout the day.
4) Breakfast and Stimulants
The fourth habit that can reset your healthy circadian rhythm is eating breakfast and avoiding caffeine. Many people consume stimulants (coffee and sugar) in the morning in lieu of food. Over time this can lead to adrenal exhaustion and sleep issues. Experts recommend a breakfast that is high in protein within 30 minutes of waking. It goes without saying that limiting or eliminating stimulants during the day, especially after noon, could help you to feel more sleepy by nighttime. Caffeine can still be in your system 6-8 hours after you consume it.
5) White Lights
The fifth piece of advice is to avoid bright lights (white lights, non-dimmed computer screens, TVs, etc.) at least one hour before your established bedtime. White light, which contains blue light, triggers the pineal gland in your brain to stop producing melatonin. Melatonin is the strongest signaler for sleep and also one of the strongest antioxidants in our body. We don't want to interfere with its production at night. I recommend people get red-light headlamps or orange colored lamps for reading at night (Himalayan salt lamps are the right hue) and to also use screen dimming programs like f.lux, Twilight, or Night Shift with their phones and computers. If you don't have access to red/orange lights or the above-mentioned programs, buy and wear blue-blocking glasses at night when under the light. What is most ideal is to actually read fiction under red or orange light and avoid screens entirely, which brings us to number six.
Similar to drinking coffee in the evening, there are other stimulants to your brain, body, and limbic system that can affect sleep. Intense exercise post 7 p.m. is not recommended and neither is reading the news or watching a heart-pounding horror or action film. Everyone will have a different level of tolerance for these things, so take note of how you respond. Do you find it hard for you to fall asleep because you are worried about your day, do you wake frequently from vivid dreams, are you extra hot at night? All of these could be signs of overstimulation in the hours leading up to bed. Try to wind down and shut your brain off at night. Again, I recommend reading fiction, or if you must watch TV make sure it is light and funny. Stretching, partner or self-massage, sex, or taking a warm bath are all ways to relax.
8) Dinner Choices
This will be one of the more varied areas of advice. The majority of people will benefit from eating dinner 2-3 hours or more before bed and keeping the food choices light. Eating a heavy amount of protein and fat at dinner can lead to excess nighttime hyperthermia. Alcohol has a similar hyperthermic effect and in excess of one or two drinks can absolutely wreck REM sleep. On the other hand, if you are underweight, pregnant or nursing, having a bigger dinner and a pre-bed snack (higher in carbohydrates and protein) can help sleep onset and maintenance. Sometimes the reason these folks wake up in the middle of the night is that their livers get low in glycogen. A good and easy snack might consist of a tablespoon of honey or a cup of bone broth or some jello. The glycine in bone broth and gelatin both help with sleep. The last thing worthy of mentioning is to avoid excess liquid consumption before bed, especially if you are someone who wakes to urinate. I usually stop drinking water 2 hours before bed.
Lots of you probably take magnesium on a regular basis, whether as a separate supplement or as part of a multi-vitamin. Getting adequate amounts of magnesium is essential for our muscles and nervous system to relax. The daily recommended dose for adults is 400-500 milligrams. Most of us are far under that amount. Try starting with 100-200 milligrams an hour before bed and then do another dose in the morning. Magnesium citrate and oxide are the most common forms but in high doses can cause loose stools. I like to take magnesium malate from Jigsaw Health.
10) Bedroom Environment
Our circadian rhythms are set by both light and temperature. The nighttime is a time of less light and lower temperatures, so it makes sense to mimic this in the bedroom. Eliminate as much artificial light in the bedroom. This includes alarm clocks, night lights, charging phones (phones don't really belong in the bedroom if you can help it), and, yes, street lights. If you live in or close to a city you have over 10x the amount of light at night than would naturally occur. Get some block out curtains and make sure your bedroom is cool. Most sleep experts recommend 68 degrees Fahrenheit or below (you ever notice how you sleep better when it's cold out?). If you have a partner who can't get that cold consider using a ChiliPad or other similar bed cooling device. A few other bedroom hacks include using a white noise machine, turning off the wifi, and making sure you aren't sleeping next to electrical wiring. Also consider using a HEPA filter in your bedroom to reduce particulates in the air and reduce clogged sinuses. For that matter, if you are on an old mattress or pillow, please replace them. They are full of dust mite particulates anyway. Consider buying a latex mattress that is hypoallergenic.
Sleep apnea affects 1 in 3 American adults. While typically a condition connected with being overweight and male, it can develop in anyone. Chronic untreated obstructive sleep apnea is a sure way to die an early death. It increases your risk of all diseases. Period. Please take it seriously. There are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of apnea. First, begin a program to lose some body fat if you are carrying an excessive amount. Second, watch your stress level. Excess stress can cause apnea in all people. Third, consider side sleeping or sleeping in an elevated position. Fourth, try taping your mouth from corner to corner with athletic tape. It helps to encourage nasal breathing. You are going to have to trust me on this one. Lastly, if none of these are helping, have your medical doctor write you a prescription for a CPAP machine. Getting a good night of sleep will seriously change your life.
12) Vagal Nerve Tone
Cranial nerve number 10 is called the Vagus or 'wandering' nerve. It leaves the brain and branches to the ears and throat. It then wanders down the esophagus and throughout the digestive system. A branch even goes to the heart. It is the longest nerve in our body and controls our sympathetic/parasympathetic balance. This nerve is easily damaged by chronic stress and can lead to a variety of digestive, immunologic, and cardiac issues. It is vital to keep it healthy by a regular practice of one or more of the following things: exercise, meditation or acupuncture, sauna or cold exposure (especially on the face), humming or singing, sex, and restful sleep :).
If you made it this far, I applaud you. Pick one or two habits to begin implementing from the above list for this week. Once you have implemented them for a few weeks, then pick one or two more. I like to think of sleep as a practice. It will not always be the same day to day, but continual effort to refine its quality will lead to dramatic results in the long term. Good luck everyone. See you next week.