By Becki Ledford
We live in a world that highly values productivity and hard work. As great and important as that is, many of us sacrifice sleep to make everything else in our lives happen. How often have you heard someone say (or said yourself) that “there just aren’t enough hours in the day” to do it all?
It may seem like no big deal to forego a few hours of sleep now and then, but it can really add up, and the repercussions can be major.
While it may sound obvious, inadequate sleep can leave us exhausted. What may not be so obvious is that exhaustion and fatigue slow down our reaction time. This can be quite dangerous, especially if you are driving.
Lack of sleep can also disrupt hormone regulation, leading to a host of issues, from acne breakouts to significant weight gain. Research suggests that the current obesity epidemic may be related to the fact that we are all getting less sleep than we need.
Hormone imbalances and fatigue can also affect our mood. People who do not get adequate sleep report higher levels of depression and anxiety. There are also implications for memory consolidation, which largely happens while we sleep. If you are suddenly feeling very forgetful, lack of sleep may be the culprit.
With everything we all juggle on a daily basis, how can we ensure increased sleep quantity and quality?
Establish a Nighttime Routine
While you may feel like staying up to watch the next episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix is a good idea and that you can always catch up on sleep later, research has shown that is not really the case.
It turns out “catching up” on sleep is essentially a myth, and our bodies need consistent sleep to function properly. One of the best ways to get our bodies ready for sleep is to establish a routine. It can be whatever you’d like, but here is one example:
- Begin “shutting down” 90 minutes before bed – getting in the mind-set of sleep goes a long way. Don’t start a new project or an important conversation late in the evening.
- Have a cup of herbal tea – this is something you can do to kick off your period of “shutting down” to help your body relax.
- Shower and brush your teeth an hour before bed – getting in this routine teaches your body that whenever you shower and brush your teeth at night, bed is sure to come soon.
- Turn off TV and computer screens 30 minutes before bed – the light from these devices can disrupt your ability to fall asleep quickly. Sooner is better, but at least 30 minutes.
- Get your family or roommates on board – establishing a routine for sleep is difficult if other people in your household aren’t on board. If your family or roommates don’t want to be part of your routine, make it clear to them how important it is to you and that they at least need to respect it. Get someone’s help with the housework or taking care of the kids at night so you can keep your routines and take care of yourself as well.
Even with a routine, you may find that it isn’t always so easy to fall asleep once you get in bed. It may be time to rethink not only when you sleep but where you sleep.
Maximize Your Sleep Space
Years ago, every room in a house had a unique purpose and the bedroom was not used for paperwork, watching television, or eating.
In recent years, however, the bedroom has, in many households, become the center of the home, where activity is buzzing. To help improve your sleep, reserve the bedroom for that purpose.
- Limit clutter in the bedroom – the busier the room looks, the harder it will be to quiet your mind at night.
- Make it dark – to help your body’s circadian rhythm adjust to your sleep schedule, block out as much light as you can (especially important in urban areas with a lot of light pollution). Try blackout curtains or a sleeping mask if you need to.
- Keep it quiet – if your bedroom is noisy, you will have a harder time falling asleep. If your schedule is different from other family members or if you live in a noisy neighborhood, try earplugs.
- Make things comfortable – this one may seem intuitive, but many of us deal with lumpy mattresses, old sheets, and flat pillows for far too long before we replace them. Replace your bedding regularly so that you always sleep comfortably.
But what if even after you have turned your bedroom into a sleep haven and established a routine for the evening you can’t seem to shut off your mind?
- Progressive relaxation – this is a great option for people who feel antsy when they get in the bed, like their bodies just won’t turn off. Progressive relaxation is a method of gently and consciously relaxing each part of the body one at a time until the entire body is relaxed. Practice makes perfect, and there are apps that can help guide you.
- Meditation – it may be that your body is ready for bed, but your mind isn’t. Meditating can help relax your mind to help you fall asleep (and sleep more soundly). If you are new to meditation or find it difficult, there are also apps and recordings you can purchase for guided meditation. The most important thing is to test out the voices on them because you won’t be able to relax if you are annoyed by the person guiding you.
- Light reading – avoid mysteries, thrillers, horror, etc. The last thing you need when trying to go to sleep is wondering whodunit, but reading before bed can help slow your thoughts about what is going on in your own life so you can turn your mind off when you turn off the lights.
See a Professional
If you try all of these tips and still can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep, there is no shame in seeing a professional.
A small dose of a sleeping medication or someone to talk to about what’s going on in your life may be just what you need to get back on track.
Becki Ledford is a marathoner and weight lifting enthusiast. She loves helping people to understand how to live their best lives in mind and body. As an ACSM-certified personal trainer with a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling, she understands that fitness, nutrition, and mental health are completely intertwined.