Healthy Body, Mind, and Soul Habits #4
After about six hours of sleep last night, which is better than many nights lately but below the recommended number and below what makes me feel rested and fully functional, I admit I’m preaching to myself here. But we all can benefit by making an effort to get better sleep. Most of us are at least a little sleep-deprived.
There isn’t any research I can find that indicates Americans like me are getting enough sleep. Even when we know it’s important, we make sleep more difficult than necessary in the too-short time we leave for it after everything else. When it gets down to it, some of the “everything else” isn’t even necessary. For example, how much time do you spend on social media? I know I spend too much. Which brings me to the first item on my list of ten tips for better sleep:
1. No electronics in bed
I finally got a smart phone last September. Between that and my laptop, I’m really, really bad at this one, even though I’ve been reading the research… sometimes on my phone, in bed. The effect that artificial light from electronic devices has on sleep is getting attention, and rightly so, as we, the already sleep-deprived, take our limitless access to information to bed. Not only are we keeping our brain stimulated with simulated page after page after page of what amounts to visual sound bites, the light that lets us see it tricks our brains into thinking it’s time to be awake and alert. Like sunlight, the blue light we beam straight through our eyes triggers our brain to reduce melatonin production, which means we have less of what tells our brain it’s time to sleep. The brain NEEDS down time, and as much as you may think it is, Candy Crush, or whatever the current game fad is, isn’t it.
2. Establish a bedtime routine
Okay, I know it sounds like I’m suggesting treating ourselves like toddlers, but, hey, if it works for them?!? And what better way to use non-electronic transition time (discussed in #4) than for things that tell you it’s bedtime? Put all those end-of-day things together in a way that r-e-l-a-x-e-s. Meaning, if you’re someone who needs to do stuff like pick up the living room or straighten your home office, or organize whatever before you can settle down, make sufficient room for it in your bedtime routine… and maybe learn to be comfortable with good-enough-for-now. I’m not a soak-in-the-bath kind of girl, but if that works for you, have at it. Put on your jammies if you wear them… or maybe, um, put on a robe if you don’t. Have a (small, healthy) bedtime snack (see #9). Warm glass of milk? Brush your teeth. Brush your hair if you have hair. Read a real book. The Bible is a great choice. What better way than to hem in a day than beginning and ending it in the Word?
Now I lay me down to sleep… Prayer is a great addition to a bedtime routine. Reading Scripture and consciously spending time talking and listening to God allow us to refocus and regain perspective by turning our minds from our temporary circumstances to our eternal God. He is bigger and more powerful than anything on earth. Waking up in the middle of the night with spinning, bouncing, colliding thoughts that just won’t let you go back to sleep? Yeah, me, too. How much better off would we be if we could turn our monster against itself by using the things that harass or haunt us to inform our prayer? Let’s take our persistent and intrusive thoughts and raise them up to lay them down at God’s feet. He’s the only one who can fix all that stuff beyond our control, anyway.
4. Set the scene
We’ve covered keeping electronics out of bed. Giving your brain at least 15-30 minutes of non-electronic time before going to bed, even better; aim for more than an hour or two. Consider leaving ALL electronics OUTSIDE the bedroom (GASP!), and using your bed exclusively for sleep and its, ahem, other traditional purpose. Make your room a space in which you feel welcome and at peace. Declutter. Ladies, don’t go overboard on the pillows that aren’t even meant to be slept on. Calming colors. Just in case, keep handy something to write on, write with, and see by; don’t worry, I’ll explain more later. Most of us have heard that eliminating as much light as possible can help sleep. Having three kids who still sometimes need their mom at night means I can’t safely have a pitch-dark room; and streetlights make it impossible, anyway, even with room-darkening shades. The kid thing also makes the no-pjs option potentially embarrassing or scarred-for-life, but that’s a-whole-nother blog post, which I probably won’t write. But, back off the rabbit trail, it turns out that temperature can be as important as light levels.
5. Reset your thermostat
Research has shown that your body temperature, influenced by your room temperature, can have as much of an effect on your sleep-wake cycle than the amount of light. Which doesn’t mean having a chilly bedroom compensates for checking your email or scrolling through Facebook on your phone in bed. What it does mean is that if your bedroom is too warm, your body will have more trouble reaching its optimum drop to fall-asleep temperature. But if your room is too cold, your sleep is likely to be disrupted later by discomfort; the same is true is your room is too warm. For most people, the optimal temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Yay, me! Our heat is set to 65 in the winter. And we have a ceiling fan for summer, which is also helpful.
As well as improving sleep (and also like sleep) regular physical activity is SO IMPORTANT for all areas of health. If you don’t think it can have a significant impact on your sleep, you’re wrong. It makes sense that if you have a day of significant physical exertion, especially out in the fresh air, your body would be ready for and welcome a hearty night of sleep. If you’re a parent, or were a kid, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Well, they’ll sleep good tonight!” following an afternoon of activities like swimming or cross-country skiing. But there’s more to it than that. Regular exercise is the key to falling asleep faster and having deeper sleep. But exercise too close to bed can leave you too energized to fall asleep easier, so don’t make it part of your bedtime routine.
7. Treat medical conditions
Don’t limit your physical approach to better sleep to exercise and the very helpful habit of establishing set go-to-bed and wake-up times. Various medical conditions can contribute to insomnia. If you are consistently having trouble sleeping and haven’t had a checkup in a while, now is a good time to schedule one, particularly if discomfort or pain are making it difficult to fall or stay asleep. If you frequently wake up tired, you may want to talk to your doctor about being tested for sleep apnea. Because it makes it impossible to get truly restful sleep, sleep apnea can contribute to various other mental and physical health issues. No body system is independent; each affects the others.
8. Limit caffeine
Here’s one that’s easy for me. Caffeine and I don’t get along. So that ship sailed long ago. I remember the last time I drank a Pepsi around dinnertime. And then finally figured out why I was so wired and awake hours later. I know many of you are die-hard (dare I say, even fanatical?) coffee drinkers. Y’all make me nervous. A) The stuff tastes like dirt. B) It’s a drug that can have some serious side effects, creates a type of dependence, and causes symptoms of withdrawal if cut off. Then there are those of you addicted to caffeinated soda. Ew, just, ew. Now that I’ve stomped on a sacred cow, let’s look at what one study found about consuming caffeine just before going to bed, three hours before, and six hours before. Even at six hours before bedtime, caffeine reduced sleep time, sleep efficiency (amount of time in bed actually asleep), and sleep quality.
9. Have a bedtime snack?!?
Sounds good to me! Though I know from personal experience, okay experiences, plural (but, hey! there were other times I felt just fine) that a big serving of ice cream can have less than awesome effects on how well someone sleeps. Particularly when it comes to weird, exhausting dreams. But it turns out there are good choices, really good choices, for people like me who have trouble falling asleep when they feel hungry. Half a bag of Oreos isn’t the answer, and will never be the answer for anything even in one of my junk-foodable moments. Carbs balanced by protein, however, can not only calm a hungry tummy but also improve sleep quality. Think peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers or low-sugar cereal with skim milk. Leg cramps or restless leg syndrome? Consider a banana. There’s quite a bit of info online about healthy bedtime snacks, with a lot from reputable sources. Like most everything on this list, why certain foods are good bedtime snacks could be a post of its own.
Writing is great therapy. Too much on your mind? Feeling overwhelmed? Putting it down on paper can help in several ways. If you carry shame or pain or anger you need to be free of, writing it out and throwing the paper away, or burning it, can bring some freedom. Seeing your heavy words in black and white, small on paper, can destroy their power to crush you. If your thoughts are scattered, giving them form can help you sort through and manage them. Keeping a gratitude journal can remind you of your many blessings when you record them, and remind you that we serve a God who provides, and deserves our gratitude. If you wake up in the night with a head full of things you didn’t do or need to do, you can short circuit the repetition by sitting up and writing them down. Make sure you keep a notepad, pencil, and small light source close by.
Maybe you’ll be like me and decide to take the confusion and pain and victories, and put them out there so others can benefit from what you’ve survived.
Time to Take Responsibility
So… I’m still not getting enough sleep. And still, in part, have myself to blame. Because I’m not doing enough of the things I know will help. There are always other things that distract or displace. The caffeine thing, though, I’ve got that one pretty well covered. A tiny bit sneaks in with chocolate from time to time, but… it’s chocolate, which has many health benefits, so I’m good. That and the thermostat thing, woo-hoo!
It’s easy to just put out there what’s easy and act like we have it all under control. But who really likes that person who acts like they have it all under control? Not me. If I’m not sure she’s a phony she makes me feel inadequate, and who wants a friend who does that?
But, my friends, you know what? We can do this. The stuff on this list, my ten tips for better sleep, we can take on in manageable chunks to help our bodies, and minds, get better rest.
Do you have another tip for better sleep?
Comment below! How’s your sleep? What’s your experience with any of the tips on the list? What would you add? Are there things you’ve tried that you would encourage others to avoid? If you just want to tell me how great coffee is, I suppose you may if you must, but the furthest you will get with me is agree to disagree. Blech.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m smiling more this week.
Want to read more about how electronics are bad for sleep? Asks the woman tapping out letters on her laptop keyboard an hour after she should have gone to sleep…
iPads, tablets, smartphones disrupt good sleep, study finds The Washington Post
Q&A: Why Is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep? Scientific American
How about the benefits exercise?
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Check our more of my Healthy Body, Mind, and Soul Habits series!