“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” You will see this quote attributed to George S. Patton as well as Vince Lombardi. Regardless, how true.
Previously, I convinced you the importance of this often-neglected pillar of health: sleep. If you didn’t catch that, click here. Rest is something we do when everything else that we need (and, let’s face it, want) to do is finished. It’s not glamorous. We are convinced that it limits our productivity. “Think of all I could get accomplished if I didn’t need to sleep.” I saw that it my own life. I would get as little sleep as I needed to stay awake and be quasi-functional. For that, I paid dearly.
If you are not getting at least 7-8 hours of quality time in bed each night, then you are limiting your ability to achieve wellness in your life. Your children need even more time than this. In fact, chronic, mild sleep deficiency in children can show up as behavior issues, learning difficulties, poor scholastic achievement, and can even mimic attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
So, how do we improve our sleep? Here are 5 steps you can take to start today so that you’re giving slumber its proper place in your life.
- Schedule your sleep.
This is another way of saying prioritize it. Regardless of the quality of your sleep, unless you are in the bed the amount of time your body needs you will never be rested.
While this sounds like a simple step it is anything but. Until you say, “I’m in bed and falling asleep at 10p” and stick to it, it’s never going to happen. There are too many activities that will compete for this precious time. When we say yes to something (binging Netflix) we, by definition, are saying no to other uses of our time (getting a full night’s rest).
You should plan to spend no less than 7-8 hours in the bed, with the expectation that you will get over 6 hours of actual sleep. I personally like to use the Oura ring (not an affiliate) to be able to track my sleep. I literally get to see how everything I do (what I eat, what I drink, when I exercise) impacts my sleep.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon.
Did you know that, for some people, caffeine can still be having an impact on their sleep up to 12 hours after consumption? That means your 4p Starbucks treat can have your brain still energized at 10p.
We get sleepy because a chemical called adenosine builds up in the brain and is responsible for our feeling the “weight” of sleep when we are tired. Caffeine blocks adenosine from getting to its receptor in the brain which makes us not feel tired but more alert.
Sleep is all about winding down, allowing our bodies to do what they naturally want to do: rest. As you will see, anything that does not contribute to settling our metabolism is having a negative impact on our sleep.
- Do not eat or exercise late at night.
Eating requires energy expenditure. Wait, aren’t we consuming energy in the form of calories? Yes, but our bodies must break down the food we eat and doing so takes energy. Going to sleep is no time to ramp up our energy requirements. The same issues occur when we get our daily workout in shortly before bed. Like I said, sleep is about winding down not ramping up.
When we go to sleep with a full belly, our heart rate stays elevated most of the night as our intestines are working to digest the late-night Taco Bell. This negatively impacts the quality of sleep. You might be getting the requisite amount of time in bed, but you are waking up feeling less vibrant than you should because your sleep was not as restorative as it could have been. Don’t consume calories within 3 hours of lights out.
- Dark, cold, and quiet.
I’m convinced Thomas Edison ruined our sleep. Think about it, before the lightbulb when the sun went down, our bodies knew it was time to sleep. There wasn’t much to do after dark other than perhaps read by candlelight, spend time telling stories, make babies, and sleep. Now, we have an abundance of artificial light at the flick of a switch.
When our house is completely lit at 11 pm, our brains are confused. We have a circadian rhythm saying to wind down, but these photoreceptors on either side of our noses are saying, “Nope, it’s still daylight!” That TV that is still on after you fall asleep is still, to a degree, keeping your brain on alert. Similarly, ambient light tells our brain that it we must not let our guard down completely. Blue light is especially bad for sleep because it functions as the “anti-melatonin” to our brain. Like food and exercise, get rid of blue light for several hours before it’s time to turn in.
Our best sleep occurs, when our bellies are empty, our heart rate is down, and the bedroom is quiet, cool (65-68 degrees), and dark. Warm baths before bed can actually help you sleep not because they warm you up, but because after the bath your skin blood vessels dilate to release this extra heat which cools your body down.
- Avoid alcohol at night.
People like a nightcap, especially after a long day, but alcohol in the evening wreaks havoc on our sleep. Not only does it raise our heart rate much like eating food does, but it also negatively impacts our REM sleep.
An interesting thing about REM is that it is an emotional salve God gave us to help us heal from a difficult day. It smooths the edges. You might have the urge at the end of a stressful day to reach for the Jack and Diet Coke (caffeine-free, of course), but will directly diminish your mind’s natural means of reprocessing the day’s events and reframing them in such a way that you are better able to cope with that trauma.
Improving this pillar of wellness definitely requires making some difficult adjustments in your choices and lifestyle. But remember you will either pay the price that is required to be well, or you will pay the price required by being sick. Make the choices that not only bless you with longevity, but also vibrancy along the way!