How did you sleep this week? In the bustle of our day-to-day life, whether we're hustling around to work meetings, trying to maximize productivity during waking hours, or having trouble turning off our screen before bed, it's easy to put sleep on the bottom of our priorities. Some nights, it seems like something needs to be done, urgently, before bed. Other nights, it's a flood of thoughts - replaying our day, our past regrets, or our never-ending to-do list - that keep us up.
Regardless of why we might be short on sleep, it's the simplest way to improve our health, happiness, and productivity. We've all had days at work where we're not as sharp, operating on little sleep and an abundance of caffeine. We've all succumbed to afternoon snack cravings, especially in the face of tiring or stressful situations. The key to staying alert and in-control during the day is a restful 7-9 hours of sleep.
For those who claim they do not need the recommended hours, they might be unaware that neglecting sleep negatively impacts decision-making, problem solving, creativity, memory, learning, mental health, emotional well-being, heart health, brain health, the immune system, and even shortens lifespan. It's also no secret that poor sleep increases our risk for health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker has conducted extensive research on the subject.
If you're not getting enough sleep, you're in the minority of the US adult population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds are already getting 7-9 hours. Luckily, whether you're actively choosing to skimp on sleep or simply struggling to fall asleep, improving sleep is more accessible than you think. All it takes is small steps towards a healthier lifestyle.
Let's all be aware of how much and when we're sleeping. If we don't keep track of when our heads hit the pillow and when we turn off the morning alarm, we lack a proper frame of reference for adjusting our behaviors. Most phones have built-in sleep apps or offer them through the app store.
We'll want to sleep around the same time every day, give or take 30 minutes, even on the weekends. Our body has an internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and ensures we fall asleep and stay asleep around the same time. Make it easier for yourself and your body to have restful sleep by keeping a consistent schedule.
Our bodies aren't made to flip like a switch from wake to sleep. We can dim the lights and shift into sleep mode through calming routines like showering, reading, meditating, listening to relaxing music, or journaling. Showering, for example, relaxes the body and mind and lowers our internal temperature to induce more restful sleep. Wind-down activities also help reduce stress and anxiety.
It’s also helpful to only use your bed at bedtime, instead of lounging in it throughout the day. This makes the act of actually getting into bed part of your wind-down routine.
If you're lying awake in bed, are you scrolling on your phone or watching a show? Blue light from your screen delays the release of melatonin and your sleep-wake cycle. The apps on your phone are often stimulating and engaging, which is great during the day but not conducive to relaxing before sleep. While immediately gratifying, these actions ultimately reduce your quality of sleep and trigger a chain of negative health consequences.
Leave the bedroom, leave the screen, and do another calming activity for at least 20 minutes before returning to bed. Let's help our bodies associate the bedroom with sleep.
Sometimes we find our thoughts keeping us awake at night. How do we stop ourselves from feeling overwhelmed right before bed? In the mornings and late evenings, let's set aside personal time away from work and emails. This is the time for self-care. This is time to get organized and set the day's priorities. If you have urgent matters on your mind, resolve them by jotting down your thoughts and setting them aside for the next day.
Let's also consider what we're mentally saying about ourselves and even our sleep habits. Instead of attributing the blame to who we are as individuals, let's isolate the event. Let's change the narrative from "I can't fall asleep before midnight; I'm bad at sleeping" to "I've struggled a few times with sleeping in the past, but I'm practicing good sleep hygiene and looking forward to better sleep."
Next to sleep, exercise is the easiest way to improve our health and happiness, and beyond improving mood, exercise improves sleep.
For those of you who don't exercise as much as you'd like, the hardest part is starting, but if you put on your workout clothing, you'll find it much easier to pull out the yoga mat or to get out the door and hit the pavement running. The key is to find enjoyment in the process of improving your health; feel proud about taking action for your well-being. Download a fitness app or sign up for a local 5k. Your first step gets the ball rolling.
Towards the end of the day, we'll want to avoid caffeine (teas, colas, coffee), alcohol, citrus fruits, fatty foods, spicy foods, and heavy meals. The aforementioned foods may trigger indigestion and even heartburn. Eating 3-4 hours before bedtime means your stomach is still working hard to digest your meal. Like an active mind, an active stomach disrupts your sleep.
In regards to alcohol, while it can make us feel drowsy and put us to sleep, it reduces our quality of sleep when it interferes with our REM cycle. Fitful sleep is poor sleep, which is why many adults don't wake up well-rested after having a drink before bed. Let's protect our sleep by avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before bed.
Let's take a moment to reflect on our sleep schedule. What's one small step can you take this week to build a healthier lifestyle for better sleep?
Ho Anh, MD is a board-certified Physician. He graduated from the University of Virginia where he received a BS in Chemistry and Doctorate of Medicine. Double 'Hoo! He has spent time as a Locum Tenes doctor practicing with the Veterans Health Administration in San Antonio, Texas, rural medicine on Oregon Coast, and community health in Sacramento, California. His passion to treat patients combined with his interest in innovative telemedicine has taken him from work as Medical Group President Lemonaid Health and Medical Director at Hims to his current role as Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer at Cerebral.