A night of bad sleep can be one of the most annoying things in life. Tossing and turning. Wondering about how many hours we will be able to sleep this night. Worrying about the day to come. All these are frustrating and overly common experiences that millions of people struggle with every night.
In this article, we introduce some helpful techniques and tips grounded on science that will help you improve your sleep and achieve a healthy night’s rest.
Sleep Education & Benefits
Sleep can be a dangerous activity. It leaves us vulnerable to predators and emergencies. But yet, most animals on our planet need sleep. Why is it then that such a risky biological activity is a necessity for virtually all animals? It must be because it is very important for our survival, right? You are completely correct. The benefits of sleep outnumber its risks. It is an essential activity that helps us recover from the previous day, consolidate our memories, boost our immune system, improve our mood, strengthen our hearts, and a myriad of other surprising advantages.
Unfortunately, our current society has a complicated relationship with sleep. Since the invention of artificial light (aka light bulbs) and the explosion of technical devices in today's society, our sleep quality and rhythm has been gradually worsening. Add to this our society’s relentless quest for productivity, long working hours with little exercise, and we have a recipe for disaster that has culminated in 70 million people suffering from sleep problems in the United States alone.
The most common types of sleep problems can be divided into two categories: hypersomnia and hyposomnia. Hypersomnia refers to sleeping too much, while the latter refers to sleeping too little. Hyposomnia also includes fragmented sleep, where individuals wake up one or several times during the night and struggle to fall asleep again. There are many other types of sleep problems and sleep disorders, but in the present article, we focus mainly on how to manage the most common type of sleep problem: hyposomnia/insomnia.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene consists of the daily practices and habits we can foster in order to achieve a healthy night’s rest. As neuroscientist Matthew Walker eloquently puts it, when sleep is deficient, there is sickness and disease. And when sleep is abundant, there is vitality and health. But, how can we get there and reap the myriad of health benefits that sleep can offer us? Here we outline some helpful practices for improving your sleep.
7 Tips For Improving Your Sleeping Habits
Let's delve into some practical changes we can implement in order to improve our sleep quality and quantity.
1. Cut down on caffeine
Most of us love caffeine, be it in the form of a warm cup of coffee, energy drink, a bar of chocolate, or tea. Caffeine helps us stay awake and alert throughout the day and offers a much-needed pick me up when we are feeling tired. However, too much caffeine can be detrimental not only to physical health but for sleep. Caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in our system for 7 to 9 hours after consumption. Therefore, caffeine in the evening should be avoided. If you drink a cup of coffee at 6 pm, chances are that it stays in your system until around 1 am. So, doctors and scientists suggest that we ideally do not drink coffee after 3 pm.
2. Be mindful of alcohol and drug intake
Many people tend to find refuge in alcohol and use it as a sleep aid. Alcohol can make us feel drowsy and can indeed help us fall asleep. However, alcohol-induced sleep tends to be more fragmented and less refreshing. Individuals also tend to wake up during the night as the alcohol wears off. Therefore, it is recommended that people with sleep problems refrain from alcohol consumption (at least during the nights) and, ideally, consume it only during weekends.
Likewise, some of us use drugs in order to induce sleep. By drugs we mean taking sleep pills, medication, and melatonin pills. Using these types of drugs can be helpful in the short term, but in the long run, they can create dependence where you cannot fall asleep without the help of medication. Unless your medication has been prescribed by a doctor to help you manage a diagnosed sleep disorder, it is best to try to improve your sleeping habits and achieve a healthy night’s rest all on your own. After all, our bodies are biologically wired to sleep without the need of external support.
Finally, one commonly used drug to induce sleep is cannabis. Marijuana, hash, and all cannabis products can induce drowsiness and help you fall asleep. However, they decrease sleep latency and the amount of restorative sleep you get (i.e., REM sleep). This stage of sleep is important for learning and memory. Moreover, cannabis use can leave you feeling drowsy and tired in the morning, which increases the chances of experiencing hypersomnia (sleeping too much as your sleep was not refreshing enough) and increments the chances of napping in the afternoon.
3. Get up, get active
In our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, it has become paramount to practice regular exercise. It not only can improve our heart health, vitality, and our posture; it can help us sleep. Walking, swimming, cycling or any type of exercise you like can help you release energy during the day, which can make you feel more tired during the night and, therefore, achieve a refreshing sleep. It can also help you feel more alert during the day (aka no more coffee). Nevertheless, it is not recommended to practice exercise after 5-6 pm as it can increase your body temperature and arousal level, hence making it harder to fall asleep.
4. Log-off before bed
Our electronics are keeping us awake, that is a fact. The blue light emitted by devices suppresses an important sleep hormone (melatonin) which lets our body know when it is time to sleep. It is therefore recommended to log off during the night, at least one hour before bedtime. If this is not possible, using features such as ‘night shift’ or ‘night mode’ can help maintain our melatonin levels.
The blue light is not the only problem with electronics and sleep. Using social media during the night can increase our arousal levels. The stream of ‘likes’, funny videos, infuriating rants, and vociferous comment sections lead us down a rabbit hole that drowns our brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This cocktail of neurotransmitters makes it harder to put our phones down and keeps us engaged and alert for a long time. Hence, improving our social media habits has become essential in the last years in order to improve our sleep quality. Instead of scrolling endlessly in your bed before going to sleep, we suggest you grab a book, read a comic book, draw, or talk with your partner. This will leave you more ready for a good night of sleep and positively stimulate your mind.
5. Prep your bedroom: A Checklist
An important part of sleep hygiene is having a sanctuary where you can perform this biological ritual. Per our evolution, our sleeping place must feel safe and comfortable.
The recipe for creating the best sleeping place is as follows:
6. Bed = sleep + sex
Similar to the previous point, your bedroom and bed should be a sanctuary for only two activities: sleep and sex. Use your bed only for sleeping and having intercourse. Activities such as working on your laptop, scrolling through social media, reading the news, and so forth, should be done outside of your bed. Our brain is excellent at making associations through a process called classical conditioning. Therefore, if we perform other types of activities in our bed, during night time when we lay down, our brain might feel aroused as it now associates the bed with the angry work emails you received during the day. After some time and practice, you will begin associating the bed with sound sleep (and sex).
7. Balancing your life
A last and perhaps more complex tip is to find ways to balance your life. Work-life imbalance, chronic stress, and burnout are contributing and exacerbating factors of sleep problems. Finding a balance between our different life domains can help us achieve better sleep. This is in line with the tip on exercising more. But also making quality time for spending time with family and friends, on our hobbies, and self-care can help us increase our wellbeing, relationship satisfaction, and sense of meaning. This ultimately helps decrease our stress levels and improve our sleep. You will go to bed happy and fulfilled and will wake up energized and ready for starting a new, exciting day.
3 Helpful Techniques and Strategies
Can’t sleep? Get up
What do we do when we can’t fall asleep? We toss and turn, of course! Most of us tend to stay laying awake in bed, tossing and turning, counting sheep, and remembering every embarrassing thing we have done in our lives. Most of these behaviors can be very counterproductive (counting sheep can be helpful at times). When we stay in bed tossing and turning we tend to get more and more frustrated as time passes by. We frantically check the clock and count how many hours of sleep we will have if we fall asleep right now. These behaviors perpetuate our negative feelings and make it even harder for us to fall asleep. Even worse, they help us associate the bed with a place of negativity, frustration and alertness. So, what is the right thing to do in these cases? To get up!
If you cannot fall asleep or woke up during the night and can’t return to sleep, put on your slippers and get out of bed. Go to a sofa in your living room or bedroom and perform some light activity. For example, read a book, draw, meditate, listen to soothing music, or drink a cup of warm milk. Only when you are feeling sleepy again, return to bed. As discussed before, the bed should be a place for solely sleep and sex. So if you are having trouble falling asleep, put your wakefulness to use in another place. If you remain in bed, you are training your brain to think that the bed is a place for wakefulness and anxiety.
Worries, anxiety, and stress are one of the main culprits behind sleep problems. The bed is not the place for solving problems or worrying about next week’s meeting. If you are having trouble falling asleep because worries keep rushing through your mind, it is best to get out of bed.
You can go to another room and try writing down your worries. You could make a list of your worries and brainstorm possible solutions that you can implement the next day. After pouring out all your worries in a paper sheet, you might feel lighter and have a handy to-do list for solving your problems the next day. After this session, it can be helpful to finish up with a short meditation or breathing exercise to ground you and leave your worries behind in the paper sheet.
Some helpful techniques you can implement when having trouble sleeping or throughout your day are:
No napping & go to bed when sleepy
Napping can be quite counterproductive when we suffer from sleep problems. If you find it challenging to fall asleep during the night, taking a nap during the day could be robbing you from the tiredness needed to fall asleep in the night. So, if you find it challenging to fall asleep, it is best to refrain from napping and to wait until the night to sleep.
Likewise, only go to bed when you are actually feeling sleepy. Our body is very intelligent and able to let us know when we feel sleepy, so follow its call! If you feel the impending need of sleep, go to bed! And, if you want to go to sleep but do not feel sleepy yet, stay out of bed and perform a light activity until you do feel sleepy. If you go to bed not feeling sleepy, chances are that you will be tossing and turning long before being able to fall asleep. Even if you have an important event the next day, just go to bed when you are feeling sleepy. A bit of lack of sleep won’t ruin our plans, despite what our anxious thoughts tell us. And, chances are that the next day you will feel tired earlier on. So, the next day try to not nap, wait until the night, and go to bed earlier. This is an important step for fixing your sleep schedule and part of a therapy modality called sleep restriction.
Improving Your Sleep
Achieving a healthy sleep is a gradual task, it may take time and effort to change your daily and night time habits. Just follow the tips and strategies above and if one day you find it difficult to adhere to some of these steps, do not give up! Any journey of change will have its ups and downs, so if you fall down, dust yourself up and continue moving towards your goals. Remember, you are not alone. Millions of people struggle with sleep problems and are on the same boat, trying to improve their routines and sleep habits. If you need a helping hand, here at AntiLoneliness we are always happy and willing to help. Take care and sweet dreams!
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