We’re currently in the midst of a 21st century crisis. A crisis of chronic sleep deprivation. And it’s making us sick. According to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), nearly 70 million Americans are thought to suffer from some type of sleeping disorder, and at least 9 million of those currently use medications to get their nightly shuteye. Sleep disorders can range from troubles falling asleep, repeated wakening during the night, not feeling refreshed in the morning, and a host of other disturbed brain wave patterns during sleep cycles. Our bodies desperately need good quality sleep in order to “reset” our physiological processes, and sleep is important in maintaining a strong immune system, smooth cognitive functioning, and a resilient cardiovascular system.
Sleep deprivation is nothing to take lightly, and even acute periods of poor sleep have been shown to cause significant physiological and psychological damage. People who regularly have low sleep quality are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, tend to catch colds and flus more often (and more severe ones at that), and have impaired brain function especially with reflexes, emotional regulation, and decision-making. Additionally, a chronic lack of sleep has been linked to weight gain, slower wound healing, depression, and higher rates of accidental death.
So, how can we set ourselves up for the best nightly rest that we can? Practicing good “sleep hygiene” is important, and there are several changes that you can make right away to help your body drift off into dreamland! Here are some tips for making a foolproof nightly routine:
- Power down the electronics
Most of you probably know by now that artificial light affects our brains and hormone outputs, and that the blue light that is emitted from electronics has been shown to halt the release of melatonin. This hormone is important in telling our brains what time it is, peaking after sunset to prepare the body for sleep, and waning at sunrise to encourage wakefulness. A lot of people these days are staring into a little blue screen well into the night, even bringing it into bed with them, and this may be causing serious disruptions in sleep onset and sleep quality. Power down your electronics at least 1 hour before going to bed, and consider using “blue-blocking” software, screen protectors, or goggles to encourage your natural melatonin release.
- Cool the temperatures
Research shows that we sleep better in cool environments, so try taking the thermostat down a notch or two during the night. This dip in temperature sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to go to bed, since in ancient times, nightfall was associated with cooler temps. Consider sleeping with a window cracked, to allow the fresh night air into your room, or with a fan on, to encourage a cooling air flow. Trying to sleep in a warm bedroom can disrupt your natural hormonal cycles, make you feel agitated, and encourage waking in the middle of the night. If you’re worried about getting too cold, pile an extra blanket on your bed, and burrow down!
- Cut the caffeine
Most people these days use some kind of caffeinated beverage to get going in the mornings, but for some, this stimulating affect can last well into the evening hours. So, if you are a heavy coffee drinker (or tea, or energy drinks), try cutting back a little bit for a week or so and seeing how you sleep differently. Or if you’re brave, go for a full caffeine detox for 2-3 weeks. Regardless, it’s always good to stop taking in any stimulants by mid-afternoon. These compounds stay in your system for a long time, so don’t assume that your morning cup will be flushed out by the evening.
- Do some gentle yoga
While it’s generally not a good idea to engage in strenuous exercise within 3 hours of bedtime, doing some light stretching or yoga can be wonderful to release the tension from your day. There are many great and easy yoga poses that can help you get ready for a restful night, including:
- Standing forward fold
- Child’s pose
- Legs up the wall
- Reclined bound angle pose
- Seated forward fold
- Reclined hero pose
- Supported bridge pose
This is especially helpful if you sit or stand at a desk all day, or suffer from any kind of chronic pain or stiff joints. Slow, deep stretching, particularly in a dim, cool environment, can relax your muscles and encourage the flow of feel-good hormones, which calm the mind and soothe the nervous system.
- Consider trying herbs
Mother Nature has some pretty amazing tools to help you calm down your anxious brain, relax your painful muscles, and drift into a peaceful slumber. If you haven’t ever tried an herbal sleep formula, it’s always great to chat with a certified herbalist and make sure the herbs won’t interact with any other meds that you are taking. Plants like valerian, hops, passionflower, skullcap, chamomile, and poppy can help with insomnia and can be taken either occasionally or longer term. If you have a chronic issue with stress and sleep, implementing so-called “adaptogenic” herbs can be a life-changing decision. These would include things like ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, and eleuthero and are great at shifting your physiological systems to a state of more calm and clarity.
The quality and consistency of your sleep is one of the biggest factors in determining your overall physical and mental health. Investing in solid sleep hygiene practices is one of the best investments you can ever make, and these five tips can get you started. And of course, other self-care practices like cutting down on sugar intake, getting regular body and energy work, and doing regular meditation or pranayama exercises can all support your quest for restorative sleep.