As someone who has struggled with getting a good night’s sleep since childhood, I almost hate to bring the subject up. If you are getting bad sleep, I certainly don’t want to add to your anxiety about it. In fact, I am writing this after suffering from two nights of insomnia. The good news is that I have been able to get great sleep when I follow better protocols for sleep.
My insomnia flair up was what reminded me that I needed to write this post. You see, I often write about what I needed to research for myself. It ends up working well because so often my readers face the same problems that I do. In fact, if my readers are like 40% of Americans, many of them aren’t getting enough sleep.
Why sleep is necessary for good health
The fact is, lack of sleep can contribute to poor health and low quality of life in many different ways. This is true for adults and children.
The bad news:
- We form poor memories and don’t take in new information well after low sleep. (1)
- Lack of sleep literally makes us crazy. After prolonged lack of sleep, we can experience “short-lived “schizophrenic psychoses”. (2)
- Perhaps related, we know that sleep is restorative to our brains and during sleep the brain can get rid of neurotoxins that accumulated while we were awake.(3)
- Poor sleep is linked to gaining weight. Weight gain is not simply just what you eat. (4, 5)
- Are you feeling like Eeyore? Going to sleep late, and not getting adequate sleep is linked to repetitive negative thoughts. (6)
- It boosts our physical ability – or at least that’s what they found with professional athletes. I know that I sure get a lot more clumsy when I’m over tired! (7)
- Lack of sleep makes us grumpy (and could be a contributing factor to depression and other mental problems). (8)
- Chronic lack of sleep is a risk factor to several cancers. (9)
- Lack of sleep lowers our pain tolerance (10)
- Lack of sleep is linked to poor control of glucose that could lead to type 2 diabetes. (11)
- Children without enough sleep could have hormonal disruptions and be falsely labeled as ADHD, and since growth hormones are released during sleep, could have disrupted growth. (12)
- Lack of sleep is linked to people taking more sick days from work, and a lowered immune system. (13)
- Lack of sleep makes us look awful. We didn’t need a study to prove this, but beauty sleep is real, people. They found that after getting inadequate sleep people did look horrible. Surprise. And it makes us age a lot faster too. (14)
The good news:
That’s all pretty depressing, but the GOOD news is this: When we get adequate sleep, we lower our risk of cancer, diabetes, mood disorders, increase our pain tolerance, have better moods, look better, age less, have better memories, and weigh less. And that’s to name just a few benefits. One sleep expert said that lack of sleep affected every tissue in the body. If that’s true, a good night’s sleep is also good for every tissue of the body!
Now the question is, how do I get a good night’s sleep?
I’m not going to pretend that all sleep issues are an easy fix. In fact, if you have chronic issues, it could be pointing to a serious health concern that you should talk to your doctor about. If the statistics are right, very few of us are getting even adequate sleep. But it was encouraging to look into the research and realize there are some really simple things we can all do to help us get sleep.
There is a lot of research on sleep, so I couldn’t include it all. But this gives you a great start. It goes without saying that I am not a doctor, just someone who loves to share what has been personally helpful. If you have any serious health concerns, please bring them to your health care provider.
1. Listen to relaxing music before bed
Stress and worry can be a big factor in lack of sleep. All of us have stress beating down on us during the day. The ability to stop worrying, and relax enough for sleep is an important part of sleeping well. And a hard one as well. I envy my husband who can, no matter what the crisis, go to sleep in a couple of minutes every night. He has the excellent ability to compartmentalize stress so that he can sleep peacefully. Those of us who can’t accomplish that as easily may need some extra help, and that’s where music comes in. One study found that 35% of those who choose to listen to relaxing music with about 60-80 beats per minutes reported better and longer sleep. Researchers found that the relaxing music caused physical changes that mimicked what happens in sleep such as lower heart and breathing rates, which offers an explanation for why it works for some people. (15)
2. Use hypnosis to deeply relax
I mentioned in a recent post about how this mattress helped me sleep that using some of the same techniques for hypnobirthing also really help me sleep. To tell you the truth, the last couple of nights I forgot to do these techniques, which could explain why I had trouble sleeping. I like to explain hypnobirthing as deep relaxation techniques, and that’s why it works so well for sleeping.
Since getting relaxed enough to go to sleep can be such an issue, this can be the best bet for many people. One study found that when people counted sheep, they took longer to go to sleep. While when they tried guided imagery (a form of basic hypnosis) they went to sleep 20 minutes faster when compared to doing nothing or counting sheep. The researchers thought the imagery was helpful as it reduced your ability to engage with stressful thoughts and entertaining worries. (16)
In a Swiss study, they found that not everyone has success using hypnosis for sleep, but those who found hypnosis suggested deep relaxation techniques helpful had up to an 80% increase of the important “deep sleep”, and a 67% increase in total sleep time. That tells us that when hypnosis works for you, it works really well. (17)
And truthfully, the type of hypnosis that concentrates on helping you learn how to relax deeply is something that everyone should be able to benefit from. Because everyone can learn how to relax deeply.
3. Warm baths before bed
6 healthy young females had either a cool or warm bath before bed. Researchers found that those who had a warm bath became more sleepy at bedtime, had more slow wave sleep (deep sleep), and stage 4 sleep, and that the REM part of their sleep cycle was reduced. (18)
In other words, they slept deeper and better after a warm bath.
Giving your kids a warm bath right before bed is a good idea! But it also works well for the elderly. A separate study found that elderly insomniacs also reported better sleep and sleepiness at night, and researchers found better slow wave sleep after a warm bath at night. (19) Finally, a study examined the self-management of sleep in Japan without medicating. Through a survey, they found that Japanese people listed two things as their top two ways to help them get a good night’s sleep. Taking a bath was number 1. (20)
4. Keep a consistent routine
This is where I also really struggle. But my husband and I concentrated on getting bedtimes consistent this year, and we found it did make a big difference for our kids (and for us when we follow it). And that Japanese study mentioned above that examined what habits helped them sleep well? While the first factor was warm baths, the second was consistent schedules.
The two things you need to look at are consistent bedtimes and waking up times, and also consistent nighttime routines.
This is important for both kids and adults. A study found a positive correlation between a bedtime routine for young children with longer amounts of sleep. (21) Our oldest had a hard time falling asleep at night when she was a toddler. She could take up to two hours to go to sleep (as a side note, removing gluten from her diet seemed to be the factor that was preventing her from sleeping well).
Despite the sleep issues she was experiencing, keeping a consistent bedtime routine for her was even more important for her during that time frame. Another study found that for children between the ages of 0-5 years, that consistent bedtime routines, resulted in “earlier bedtimes, shorter sleep onset latency, reduced night wakings, and increased sleep duration. Decreased parent-perceived sleep problems and daytime behavior problems were also related to the institution of a regular bedtime routine.” (22)
Another study found that young women with consistent sleep schedules weighed less, pointing to the fact that it’s less stressful to our bodies when we have it on a consistent schedule. (23)
5. Drink your caffeine early in the day
I admit that I love coffee and tea, but it’s not doing my sleep any favors when I drink it too late in the day. It can affect your sleep even 6 hours later! Even if you can go to sleep after drinking a cup of jo right before bed, studies have shown that it makes you wake up more frequently, wake up earlier in the morning, and overall, have less deep and reviving sleep. (24, 25)
6. Don’t drink alcohol as a sleep aid, especially long term
Drinking a small glass of wine before bedtime to relax is a natural choice since it can help you feel sleepy. But it turns out that it won’t help you – especially long term – get a good night’s sleep. It may, in fact, help you fall asleep faster, but then it disrupts your second half of sleep, leaving you less rested. Furthermore, if you use alcohol often, you can quickly build up a tolerance to its effect, and could even become dependent on it. (26) Some sleep experts say it won’t hurt drinking a moderate amount here and there late at night, but don’t make it a habit. If you enjoy a cup of wine, have it with dinner instead of late evening.
7. Get natural light during the day
Do you sit in an office with no natural light during the day? Or perhaps you are a busy homemaker who spends most of the day inside a house with closed curtains. Either way, not getting enough natural light during the day has been shown to decrease the amount of sleep you get, decrease your quality of life, and increase rates of physical problems. (27)
Why? Most likely because our body aligns itself to the natural cycle of the sun and moon. When that is disrupted by our modern, artificial lights, we sleep less, we sleep poorly, and we are less healthy as a result.
Studies have found that low access to natural light increases our cortisone levels and decreases our melatonin levels. “Higher cortisol levels were positively correlated with minor psychiatric disorders and depressive symptoms…Lower melatonin levels at 10:00 pm were correlated with depressive symptoms and poor quality of sleep.” (28)
Greet the morning by stepping outside with your cup of coffee or tea. Take your lunch break outside whenever possible, and your breaks too. Take the kids for a walk. Getting in touch with natural light can go a long way in helping your body in back in sync with a natural sleep cycle.
8. Protect yourself from blue light at night
Getting natural light during the day is very helpful, but only half the solution. The other part of avoiding so-called “light pollution” is avoiding blue light at night. Blue light is in all of our TVs, electronics, computers, phones, and even the lights in our house. Unfortunately, blue light is the most potent part of artificial light that disrupts our natural cycle. And if you are like most of us, you spend part of your evening getting plenty of blue light from your computer screen, iphone or TV.
You can do two things to prevent this. You can simply turn off all lights and blue light sources in the evening, OR, you can wear blue light blocking glasses. These amber lenses block blue light, allowing you to do the activities you enjoy at night without suffering the consequences from blue light exposure. Studies have shown a positive correlation between wearing amber lenses with better sleep and mood. (29) It also shows promise of helping those who suffer from insomnia, shift workers, and even some of those who suffer from bi-polar disorder. (30)
You can buy inexpensive Blue Blocking Sunglasses that can be used as regular sunglasses AND for nighttime blue light blocking.
9. Sleep in the dark
Since artificial light can be disruptive to our natural sleep cycles, it goes without saying that sleeping in a dark room is very beneficial. In fact, a study done in Isreal found that those who had the highest light exposure at night had a 73% higher rate of breast cancer. (31). A rat study also found the same correlation between light at night and increased risk of breast cancer. (32) A study done with hamsters found that dim light at night suppressed the immune system. (33)
All good reasons to keep the room as dark as possible when sleeping. Turning off the lights – including a night light – putting up light blocking curtains, and turning off any gadgets that emit light will go a long way in reducing your light exposure.
10. Keep it cool
There is nothing worse than the restless sleep that happens in a hot bedroom. Perhaps because temperatures naturally drop at night, our bodies are designed to sleep in cool temperatures. In fact, some sleep experts recommend that you think of preparing your sleep environment to be like a cave – dark, quiet and cool.
I find that our modern buildings aren’t always conducive to cool bedrooms. I live in the city without any big trees near enough, and our bedroom in our second story gets quite hot and uncomfortable during the summer. Since I can’t crawl into a cave, or even sleep under a shady tree, and since we don’t have central air, buying a window AC has been a real life saver for us. Our children’s AC stopped working recently after a long life (it’s ten years old), and their sleep has gotten dramatically worse since then. Yes, we will be buying a replacement, for all of our sakes!
What temperature you should sleep at is subjective to personal comfort zones. Some research suggests 65F as the perfect temperature while others suggest anywhere between 65 to 72F. (34)
11. Our sleep environment matters
Not only does the temperature matter, but how comfortable we are as we settle down to sleep is very important as well. Do you sleep poorly in a mess bedroom? Put a priority keeping the bedroom tidy. Do you hate scratchy PJs? Buy soft cotton ones. Do you have a sensitivity to dust mites? Make sure you wash your sheets regularly and use a mattress guard.
The Sleep Foundation did a National Sleep Survey, and they found that a full 93% of Americans said that a comfortable mattress is important for a good night’s sleep. (35) The problem is that a lot of us get so used to sleeping on a bad mattress that we don’t even think about how it is affecting our sleep. I know that I didn’t until it had gotten really bad.
One study found that when people switched out their old mattresses for new ones that were supportive, they experienced better, deeper sleep, less back pain, AND less overall stress. This demonstrates that lack of deep sleep isn’t just about feeling tired, it’s about our overall quality of life. (36)
According to the Sleep Foundation, when looking for a new mattress, it’s important to look for four things, support, comfort, space, and matching sets. They also mentioned that memory foam may not be helpful for some people because it keeps you warm (which as we know, can be harmful to our sleep if we are overheated). I recently choose to get an Intellibed, and it has helped me get both excellent support and feel very comfortable while I sleep. This helped SAVE my sleep during the last part of my pregnancy. And unlike memory foam, stays cool. The big reason I looked into their mattresses was because they are made with nontoxic, and without off-gassing materials. (You can read about the alarming amounts of off-gassing materials in crib mattresses here). But then, when I found out that their mattresses also gave unique and excellent back support, I considered it a real win-win solution for us. You can read about our success sleeping on them here, and also get a coupon for getting free sheets, pillows, and a mattress cover when purchasing one.
But the point is this, you need to find a supportive and comfortable mattress regardless of what brand you buy from. I also recommend that you find a brand that uses nontoxic materials whenever possible.
And don’t stop at the mattress. Consider your pillows (once again, memory foam pillow can make your warmer, which isn’t helpful for everyone), your sheets, blankets, pajamas, and even décor and paint color. Whatever helps you feel peaceful, safe, and comfortable, do it.
To sum it all up
This is a lot of information, but it boils down to a lot of common sense suggestions. Keep a consistent schedule for going to sleep and waking up, using a bedtime routine with relaxing rituals (such as listening to peaceful music or taking a warm bath). Avoid caffeine late in the day, and don’t regularly drink alcohol right before bedtime. Get plenty of natural light in the day, and wear amber lenses during the evening to combat light pollution. When you go to bed, make your sleep area, cool, dark and comfortable. Make sure you have a supportive mattress so that you don’t get backaches during the night. As you drift off to sleep, make sure you using deep breathing, or better yet, forms of deep relaxation using hypnosis techniques. Leave worry behind, and rest gently in peace.
What helps you sleep well at night? I’d love to hear!
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