By Dr. Joanna Rosenfeld ND, RHN
We are told to get 8 hours of sleep a night each night. Also to drink 8 glasses of water, while we put it 8 hours of work every day, eat 3 meals a day and exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Did we just randomly choose these numbers, or is there science behind it?
Let’s deal with sleep first. As we all know, everyone is different so applying one number to everyone just doesn’t cut it. For adults, the average number of hours needed to feel rested and reduce risk of disease is between 7-9 hours. Knowing the exact number for you depends on a few factors. If you are finding it hard to stay awake during the day, need coffee to help you make it through the workday or feel the need to take naps, it is a good sign that you aren’t getting the sleep quantity and/or quality that you need.
As a general rule, we don’t sleep enough – kids, dogs, work, errrands, friends etc. all cut into our precious sleep hours. But here are some ways to improve your quality of sleep, even if you can’t increase the hours.
BEST SLEEP PRACTICES:
1. Aim to fall asleep by 10:30pm. Research has shown that it’s not only the hours you sleep, but when you sleep that affects how rested you feel in the mornings. The hours before midnight are the most restorative, in large part because it coincides with our natural circadian rhythm. Toward evening, your body ramps up production of a rest-promoting neurotransmitter called adenosine and, triggered by the absence of sunlight, begins producing melatonin, which helps to trigger the sleep cycle. Also, our cortisol (stress hormone) is lowest around 10:30pm helping us to feel tired. Part of the reason you may feel a “second wind” late at night is that you have missed the cortisol low point, and cortisol will increase steadily until it peaks around 7am. If your natural bedtime is much later than 10:30pm, focus on shifting your bedtime 15 minutes earlier per week, each week, until you reach 10:30pm.
2. Avoid screens (phone, TV, computer, tablet etc.) before bed.
Screens before bed inhibit melatonin production, making it harder to fall, and stay, asleep. Put your devices away at least 1 hour before bed, and avoid plugging them in at your bedside table, where you are likely to reach for them in the night.
3. Dim all the lights in your house around 9pm to start signaling to your body that it is time for sleep. Melatonin production is shut down when there is light (natural or artificial), so dimming the lights will increase your melatonin levels. Keep your room dark at night with blackout blinds, or an eye pillow if you can’t get your room dark enough.
4. Develop a bedtime routine. We are great at doing this with kids but somehow we expect that after a busy day at work and at home, we can just fall asleep the instant our head hits the pillow. Unfortunately, the body is not conditioned that way. The reason why bedtime routines work so well is that the ritual prepares your body and mind to wind down. Some of my favourites include having a sleepy time tea (with natural sedative herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, valerian root and catnip), having a bath, meditating, writing, reading and doing some yin yoga poses.
5. Don’t check the time, especially on your phone. As you feel the minutes tick by, it’s natural to want to know just how much precious sleep time you are missing. But checking the time only makes us more anxious about our lack of sleep and gets our mind going – especially if you happen to see that work email pop on your phone while you are checking the time. The same applies if you find yourself waking in the middle of the night. Trust that your alarm will go off when you need to wake up and try to ease yourself back into sleep with some deep breaths.
6. Have a high protein snack before bed. One of the most common reasons for waking up in the middle of the night is due to low blood sugar. This is especially true for people who have blood sugar dysregulation, or who indulge in high carbohydrate or high sugar meals in the evenings. One way to help stabilize our blood sugar until the morning is to have a high protein snack before bed, like a boiled egg or a small handful of nuts. (Side note: another reason for this early morning wakening is related to our stress response and an early rise of cortisol, which your Naturopathic Doctor can help manage)
7. Keep a journal next to your bed and record any thoughts you might be having before falling asleep, especially if you tend to lie in bed with a “to-do list” running through your mind. Jotting down a few things before bed will put your mind at ease and help you drift off to sleep.
8. Avoid exercising late at night. Exercise, especially intense exercise, will increase your cortisol levels and your body temperature, making make it harder to fall asleep. It also makes it difficult to properly re-fuel after your late night workout and typically means you are eating a meal before bed. Exercising earlier in the day will help with sleep so don’t abandon it altogether, but make sure it is 3-4 hours before bedtime.
9. Watch your caffeine intake. Even though you may feel like you can have an espresso at dinner, and then have no trouble falling asleep the reality is that caffeine does affect our quality and quantity of sleep. Studies have shown that coffee decreases our levels of melatonin throughout the night, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Opt for some lower caffeine options during the day such as green tea.
10. Nix the alcohol. A couple of drinks may make it easier to fall asleep, but it alters our sleep cycle and causes sleep disruptions later in the night, especially for women. It also causes us to spend less time in REM sleep, which is important for learning and consolidating memories. The effects are directly correlated with how many drinks you have, so moderation is key.