As the kids head back to school and Labour Day weekend comes and goes, everyone seems to return to a more regimented routine. With less weekends away camping or summer picnics to attend, people are often eager to get “back on the health train”, somewhat akin to our natural inclination to want to press the re-set button come January 1st.
When people are ready to focus on their own health, they often cite wanting to improve their diet, exercise more often, drink less alcohol, and/or quit smoking. Not very many people mention an intention to improve their quantity or quality of sleep; however, there is a tremendous amount of research supporting the importance of sleep, not only for our daily energy levels, but for our nutritional habits, mood, emotional and relationship health, ability to focus and concentrate, and for physical performance. In Arianna Huffington’s latest book, The Sleep Revolution, she dives into our culture’s current disregard for sleep and the science behind why sleep is paramount for our overall health and well-being. Her findings provide tangible advice as to how we can improve our quality of sleep and sleeping habits.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), insufficient sleep has been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression (1). The CDC recommends adults between 18-60 years old get 7 or more hours per night, 61-64 year-olds get 7-9 hours, and those 65 years or older should aim for 7-8 hours per night. People often know that you cannot “outrun a bad diet” for weight loss or maintaining a healthy body weight; however, how many people realize that a lack of sleep can affect weight management?
Many of us stress about not having enough time to exercise AND get enough sleep. As a result, we often can talk ourselves out of exercising because of the time commitment. Instead, a more realistic approach may be to turn exercise into a daily habit performed in shorter bouts rather than hour-long workouts one to two times per week. For example, fitting in a 20 to 30-minute workout 5 or 6 days per week is much easier to fit into a busy schedule and at the same time, accrues to a greater volume of total minutes exercised (i.e. 2 x 60 minutes for a total of 120 minutes versus 5 x 30 minutes for 150 minutes). The CDC states: “being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night” (2).
Here are some tangible tips to improve your sleep hygiene:
• Dim the lights – blue light, which is the light emitted from our phones, computers, and electronics, along with our household lighting (especially LED lights) suppresses the release of melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Cathy Goldstein, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center, describes how blue light “pushes our internal clock later so that it’s harder to fall asleep and harder to wake up in the morning” (The Strategist, By Maxine Builder). Goldstein recommends avoiding blue light from screens four hours before bedtime. If this is going to be difficult, another solution is to purchase blue-light-blocking glasses (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20030543). These have been shown to lead to better sleep quality as the blue-light is unable to suppress your body’s natural release of melatonin. Conversely, it is wise to expose yourself to light first thing in the morning as this will also help keep your natural rhythms in check.
• Watch what you eat and drink – World-renowned sleep specialist, Dr. W. Chris Winter, MD, and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, suggests eating dinner early (he eats around 6:00 pm) because eating later into the evening can disrupt our circadian rhythms, and you are less likely to be kept awake with heartburn, bloating, or acid reflux. Furthermore, everyone is aware they should steer clear of caffeine near bedtime (preferably consumed in the morning and early afternoon) but we should also be cognizant about alcohol. Initially, alcohol may indeed help you fall asleep, “but later in the night, it changes allegiances and acts as a sleep disrupter” (A. Huffington, The Sleep Revolution), and therefore, can decrease your overall quality of sleep.
• Bedroom ambiance – Think of your bedroom as a dark, quiet, and cool cave. The National Sleep Foundation recommends setting the thermostat between 15.5 to 19.5 degrees Celsius, wearing ear plugs or eyeshades, using “white noise” devices, and blackout curtains to eliminate any extra noise or light. A good rule of thumb to follow is that you should not be able to see your hand (or thumb) in front of your face – otherwise, the room is too bright. In addition, ensure you have a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow. If you are going to sleep approximately one third of your life, invest in being comfortable!
• Nighttime routine – Anything that makes you feel stressed and anxious is probably going to hinder your ability to sleep. Just as children have a nighttime ritual, adults should also have a routine that helps them relax, unwind, and stop worrying or ruminating about work or the never-ending “to do” list. Immediately after dinner, tackle anything that is pressing and get it done. As bedtime approaches, engage in more relaxing activities such as having a bath, reading a book, or meditating. A 2009 Stanford study found that a six-week mindfulness meditation course helped people who have trouble sleeping fall asleep twice as quickly, in fifteen instead of thirty-three minutes (A. Huffington, The Sleep Revolution).
As busy as you are, it is not wise to shortchange yourself on sleep. We need approximately 7 or more hours of high-quality sleep each day to feel rested, have adequate energy, regulate our mood and emotions, maintain positive relationships with others, and to prevent diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Reprioritize your time to get the sleep you need and embrace the health benefits, calm, and clarity that restful sleep can bring.
Huffington. The Sleep Revolution: Transforming your life, one night at a time. New York: Harmony, 2016.
Brandon Marcello, PHD., High-Performance Strategist on The Strength Coach Podcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GaeHuriEdQ
Ethan Green, founder of No Sleepless Nights, highlights his top 10 sleep trackers (in case you want some data on your sleep quantity and quality!). https://www.nosleeplessnights.com/best-sleep-tracker/
Re-Time Pty Ltd was formed in 2010 to help people re-time their body clocks and improve sleep. Re-Timer is dedicated to helping people sleep, and to feel and perform better by using the latest sleep science. https://www.re-timer.com/