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Today I want to continue the Foundations 101 series and talk about sleep. Do you get enough sleep? Do you think sleep is even that important?
Well I’m guessing that since you’re reading an article about sleep, you think it’s at least a little important. I know that it is one of the most important things to my health, especially my mental health. I’m way more likely to stress out about even the littlest things when I am short on sleep. And I’m way less likely to be active or eat well.
Let’s talk about how much sleep you need, then what you can do to get more.
How much sleep do I really need?
We’ve all heard that you need 8 hours of sleep per night. But there’s a lot of variation in there. I find that I do best when I have 9 hours in bed. It often takes me a little while to fall asleep – and I’m a total zombie for the first 15 minutes or so when I wake up – so when you take that away, I’m probably the type of person who needs 8 to 8.5 hours.
Athletes often sleep for 10 to 12 hours a night. There are some people with a genetic mutation that lets them get a full nights rest in just 6 hours. But most of us humans need 7-9 hours and 6 hours of sleep per night leads to chronic sleep deprivation.
But what if I can’t sleep that long?
Well, that depends on what’s stopping you.
For people with young ones in the house, of course your sleep will be disrupted. Can you go to bed earlier? Can you take a nap? Check out some of the strategies below to make the most of your in-bed time as well. At the end of the day, you may have to content yourself with the knowledge that this will be just one phase of your life and build up the habits that will help you now and in the future.
For people who have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even with plenty of time in the bed, you can try some or all of these strategies.
- creating a bedtime ritual,
- adjusting your meal and snack time,
- optimizing your sleeping environment,
- speaking to a mental health provider, or
- talking to your doctor about medication.
Creating a bedtime ritual
A bedtime ritual tells your unconscious mind that it is time to wind down for sleep. Think of when you put children to bed. You don’t expect them to go from watching an exciting TV show straight to sleep, do you? Why do we think that adults can do that?
Your bedtime ritual could be as simple as being fully present when you wash your face and focusing on how nice the warm water feels. Or it could be longer and include reading a book, coloring, or working on a puzzle. This is where your preferences on what you find relaxing are super important.
Of course this discussion would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the idea of cutting off your screen use before bed. Studies have been done looking at the effect of artificial light, especially blue wave light, on the body’s release of melatonin (the sleepiness hormone). For myself though, I find that being on my phone or a computer, even with the blue light filter on, keeps me awake. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m actively engaging with the device. On the other hand, I don’t find that watching TV has the same effect. I think it is because it is more passive and I’m not thinking so much.
Exercise for better sleep
I could reference a bunch of research, but I think I’ll stick to telling you two experiences I’ve had that show how too much exercise and not enough movement can both lead to poor sleep.
Recently I was out of town and between staying up late to visit and being woken up early by puppies (mine and my parents’), the most sleep I got in one night was 6 hours. Obviously I was sleep deprived. The next weekend at home, I did a whole lot of nothing – well mostly Netflix binges. It was too much nothing. When I went to bed at 10pm Sunday night, I ended up tossing and turning all night. It was a clear reminder to self that even during an R&R weekend, I need to walk or do yoga or something physically active.
On the other end of the spectrum, a few years ago I had an experience when exercise kept me awake. It was winter so I didn’t want to walk outside so I decided to try some stuff in the house. At about 8:30pm, I decided to set a timer on my phone and jog up and down the stairs. If you’ve never done it, I challenge you to set a timer for even a minute and try it out. It gets to the ‘vigorous’ level of exercise pretty quick! However, I found out the hard way, that it’s not the best exercise to do an hour and a half before you want to sleep.
The exact amount and timing of how much exercise you need to get the best sleep might be a bit different. I find that I do best to keep my activity levels low for at least the 2 hours before bed. I sleep best if I walk or do exercises that work my leg muscles during the day, especially late afternoon/early evening.
Eating for better sleep
The idea of meal and snack timing is similar to the idea of exercise. A big meal right before bed is likely to bed too intense to allow for good sleep. And eating too little will also keep you up.
I’d recommend some self experimentation here. Do you do best eating supper 2-3 hours before bed? Or would 4-6 hours before bed be better? Before-bed snack or none?
This is an idea that I will come back to in the future. For now, I’d invite you to keep a journal of what you’re eating, when, and rate your sleep on a 1-10 scale based on how rested you feel in the morning. See if you can spot any patterns.
Optimizing your environment
This is another area with a lot to talk about. The basics are: cool, quiet, dark. There are all sorts of products available and articles that go into so much depth on this topic. And I’m sure I’ll talk about this again too.
Cool. Our body’s temperature naturally decreases when it is getting us ready for sleep. Having a cool room helps to facilitate that. Plus it let you snuggle into the blankets and get cozy. 🙂
Quiet. For years I have used this one trick to make the room I’m sleeping in seem quieter. Turn on a fan. The fan provides white noise that hides the sudden noises that might otherwise wake me up. The sounds of the house shifting, cars driving by, or people moving around the house, all seemed muffled by the constant, gentle noise of the fan.
Dark. This is hugely important to me. As soon as the sun hits my face, I’m awake. That’s not a problem in the winter, but can be in the summer. Where I grew up, it’s only dark for 4 or 5 hours during the summer. You can get eye masks to make it dark, or just use an old t-shirt bunched up in front of your eyes (harder to lose and you don’t have to deal with that annoying elastic around your head!)
Talk to a mental health provider or your doctor about your sleep
I’d be letting you down if I didn’t mention these last two options.
If you have high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, seeing a mental health provider is going to be the best thing you can do for your sleep. When you let down your guard, stop doing things, and go to sleep, your mind is going to turn up the volume on those issues you have. You might feel like you have it all together during the day, but if you mental health is keeping you awake, you deserve to work on it.
There are also people for whom medication is required in order to get enough sleep. It could be a short-term treatment, an as-needed medication, or it could be something you require long-term. A discussion with your doctor is where you need to go if nothing you’re doing is helping.
Whew! Now what?
That was a lot of information thrown at you, and a lot that I just hinted at. Sleep is also a major area where a lot of research is being done and we are learning so much about the importance of sleep. I’m looking forward to coming back to this again and again.
Join me next week when I tackle the next big idea in the Foundations 101 series: Grow.
Wishing you good sleep,