Most humans spend approximately 30% of their lives asleep yet 43% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 report they rarely or never get a good night's rest. Proper rest is a big deal when it comes to physical and mental health. Sleep deficient folks are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity as well as depression.
What's Messing Up Your Sleep
Stress at Night: engaging in stressful activities like watching the news, paying bills or having conflicts with others increases cortisol and adrenaline levels and interferes with sleep. Instead, deliberately engage in calming activities at night and save the stress for other times.
Racing Thoughts: it's unfortunate that the very things that help promote sleep - quiet and stillness - also makes it easy for our thoughts to go on a rampage. Rumination often accompanies anxiety and depression which are exacerbated when our sleep is disturbed, forming a loop that can easily spin out of control. When racing thoughts occur, one of the worst ways to deal with it is to try and force sleep. It seldom works and often can make matters worse.
Unhealthy Food Choices: eating spicy or acidic food before bedtime can increase risk for heartburn or acid reflux. Food high in fats can interfere with the production of orexin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle. High protein foods require extra energy to digest which, when eaten close to bedtime, can interfere with sleep. In addition, it is well documented that sleep deprived individuals tend to snack more often and crave extra carbs and fatty foods, so on top of being tired you're probably going to be struggling with weight.
External Factors: these may seem obvious but factors like room temperature, outside light, street traffic or a snoring partner can be significant disruptions to getting a good night sleep. The more you wake up during the night, the harder it is for you to transition to the deeper stages of sleep.
How To Sleep Better
- Keep to a Schedule: our brains and bodies like consistency. Try to stick to established bed and wake times.
- Eliminate Napping: short naps can be refreshing but if you are having difficulty sleeping at night, push on through to bedtime.
- Avoid Electronics: blue lights from LED screens can mimic sunlight and inhibit melatonin production which regulated our sleep-wake cycle. Give your eyes a break from electronic devices before bedtime to help your hormones.
- Dim the Lights: similar to above. Help your body recognize nighttime by letting it get dark.
- Avoid Clocks: clock watching only serves to increase anxiety about being awake when you should be asleep. If the alarm hasn't gone off it doesn't matter what time it is. Cover the clock if you can't help sneaking a glance.
- Reduce Alcohol: alcohol can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer but it gets in the way of REM sleep which makes you feel less rested.
- Reduce Caffeine: stimulants = bad for sleep.
- Avoid Nicotine: see above.
- Exercise: studies show that sleep is significantly improved when people get 150 minutes of exercise each week.
- Read Before Bed: reading before bed can help reduce cortisol levels and help separate your sleep time from your daily stresses.
- Use Guided Imagery: there are plenty of apps out there. Experiment to find one that works for you.
- Breathing Exercise: exhale through your mouth; close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a count of 4; hold the breath to a count of 7; exhale to a count of 8; repeat x3.
Sleep is a tricky matter because what helps can vary significantly from person to person. What works for me is taking a hike in my mind. If I'm having a difficult time falling asleep I'll pick a favorite trail to follow. If my thoughts start to wander, I'll get back on the trail. I seldom reach the end before falling asleep. Your strategy may be different.
The relationship between sleep and mental health can easily become circular and can spill over into virtually every area of life. Let's work together to get your life back in order.