We all have to do it, and we have lots of wants and desires about it. We can’t change much about it through willpower, attitude, or motivation. But honestly, when you are getting optimal sleep on the regular, pretty much everything else improves.
Sleep is a biological necessity, just like food and water. Your body does some essential things while you sleep.
- Restores and rebuilds – sleep lowers inflammatory markers and boosts recovery hormones.
- Consolidates information learned during the day and stores it in long-term memory. This is true for social, emotional, and physical. One example of this is muscle memory.
To understand sleep, you need to think of it as a 24-hour sleep/wake cycle, a continuous loop, your circadian rhythm. Each stage affects the next, as you can probably relate. Most people are familiar with the late-night/dragging the next day scenario.
This sleep/wake cycle has three factors that influence it.
Sleep Drive – biological hunger for sleep that builds while you are awake.The longer you are awake, the more likely you are to fall asleep. A neurotransmitter builds while awake, triggering the need to sleep approximately 16 hours after waking up. This response differs for everyone, but 16 hours is the average. While you sleep, your body metabolizes this neurotransmitter and clears it from your body. If you sleep long enough, you wake up feeling refreshed and alert. If you don’t sleep long enough, there will still be some lingering in your system, and although you may feel fine when you wake up, you notice that you hit a wall in the middle of the afternoon. This process can also work against you, though. Say you sleep in on Sunday morning, but you have an early meeting on Monday morning, so you go to bed early Sunday night. If you were not awake long enough to build up that neurotransmitter, you wouldn’t be sleepy enough to fall asleep, and hello, insomnia!
Circadian Rhythm – the ebb and flow of your internal 24-hour clock dictates when you are sleepy or alert.It is usual for there to be a mild dip mid-afternoon, usually 8-9 hours after waking, and a mild spike 14-15 hours after waking. Thus that 2 pm sleepiness that is so common many cultures use this as the opportunity for a “siesta.” It is also why we get that “second wind” after we have been up for 14-15 hours. One theory for this is that evolutionary-wise, falling asleep as the sun went down was not the safest thing to do. You had to have enough energy to prepare a safe place to sleep, make a fire, etc. It is short-lived, but it is there if you are in a generally rested state.
- Stress (Fight-or-Flight) – When your brain thinks you are in danger, it will not let you fall asleep.Imagine you are camping and you hear a bear tearing apart your camp. Do you think you would be able to fall asleep? In our daily lives, we have lots of stressors that can make our brain believe we are in danger – work deadlines, bills, kids, etc. The body’s stress response is the same. We can not reason ourselves out of this response. Some people have been under stress for so long; they don’t even realize it anymore. One doctor I know calls this type of person a “stress leper.” This kind of stress is what is driving the insomnia problem many people face.
5 Ways to improve sleep
- Daytime Behaviors.
Be active – exercise and other physical activities enable you to feel more tired and increase your “sleep drive.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045928/
Drink water -Staying hydrated throughout the day helps to ease the “flight or fight” response. Just remember that chugging water at night to meet your hydration goal is counterproductive because you will be waking throughout the night to urinate!
Avoid afternoon caffeine – Many people think that caffeine late in the day does not affect them. Caffeine may not stop you from falling or staying asleep, but it will impact how much deep, restorative sleep you can achieve.
Don’t eat close to bedtime – You want your body to be in as restful a state as possible when it is time to sleep, and digestion is a very active process.
- Lock in your pre-bed routine – This consistent routine lets your brain know that it is indeed time to sleep. Beyond brushing your teeth or putting on pajamas, this routine could include: stretching or yoga, listening to relaxing music, a hot bath or shower or reading the old-fashioned way, and turning off your devices.
3. Create an optimal sleep environment.
- Get comfortable – make sure you have the most comfortable mattress, pillow, and sheets you can. And those cold toes? They are keeping you from getting deep sleep. Go put some socks on already!
- Get your bedroom as dark as possible – It’s ol to go overboard in this area. I even have electrical tape over anything that glows in my bedroom! Blackout curtains are a fantastic option!
- Cool it down – Ideally 68 degrees or less. If that is not an option, then a fan is a fabulous alternative. You get a breeze plus white noise, BONUS!
- No noise – earplugs or a white noise (fan) machine will do the trick if you live in a noisy environment.
4. Maintain your circadian rhythm by being consistent – You want to try to go to bed and wake up as close to the same time as possible every day. Being consistent helps your body regulate that sleep drive and your brain to turn on and off the hormones needed for falling asleep and waking up at the proper times.
5. Supplements – Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes need a little help. Especially if we are chronically sleep-deprived (whether we know it or not), are shift workers, or are dealing with a stressful stage of life that does not allow for our flight or fight system to turn off.
- Melatonin is an antioxidant and a hormone naturally produced by healthy bodies that tell our brains to start winding down. Several things can disrupt production, so many people take a small dose before bed to help them fall asleep.
- CBD products are also gaining popularity in this area.
- Herbal teas are a popular product. Many different brands make a bedtime version that usually includes chamomile, valerian, lavender, and the like.