With growing responsibilities at home, at work and with social obligations, it seems harder and harder to get a good night’s sleep.
This is something I struggle with, personally. If I am remotely stressed or anxious, sleep is the first thing to go. I learned about sleep hygiene, which the National Sleep Foundation defines as “a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.” While it isn’t something I have resolved to perfection, I have noticed that implementing some habits have shown a dramatic improvement. I hope that these tips can be helpful for you too.
Establish a sleep schedule
The first thing that made a big difference for me was setting an alarm for my bedtime routine. I tend to lose track of time when I am involved in an activity and by setting my alarm, I get the signal to stop whatever I am doing and start “winding down”. I give myself an hour before bed, so I know when the alarm goes off, it’s time to stop whatever I am doing and start my bedtime routine.
Establish a bedtime routine
Establishing a bedtime routine signals to your body that it’s time to go to sleep. I have noticed that it helps me to relax and calm down. Yoga postures before bed kept my mind going, but I did notice that guided meditation helped a lot. I do need to mix them up fairly often (if not, I memorize the words and notice changes in the tone of voice, which keeps me at attention) so I have found that my best bet is searching for a guided meditation on YouTube and listening to one of those as I fall asleep.
Regular exercise helps to get out of your head and burn energy. Additionally, sleep is the best natural remedy for muscle repair, so your body will want to sleep to offset the effects of exercise. Everyone has different preferences whether it’s team sports, a group class, an individual activity or working with a trainer, so find something that works with your personality. Ideally, it’s best to exercise three to six times per week, and depending on the intensity, at least 20-45 minutes. Remember that consistency matters: working out once a week for two hours won’t have the same effect on improving sleep as 30 minutes, four times per week.
On the days that I can’t get to the gym, I put on my headphones and go for a 35-minute, energetic walk. While the term “power walking” evokes images of elderly people dressed in tracksuits walking around the mall, it is an effective form of low-intensity, low-impact cardio. If you walk at a pace where you can hold a brief conversation, you’re in the low-intensity “sweet spot”, known as “Zone 2” training. Walking might sound basic but it does wonders for sleep and for overall health and well-being.
I read a quote somewhere that said, “On paper, off your mind.” Those five little words have had a huge impact if I am feeling strong emotions and can’t sleep. I have noticed that writing down exactly what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it has been a great help.
The goal is not to resolve the issue, but to get the repetitive thoughts out of your head. Remember that you aren’t trying to win a Pulitzer, so spelling and descriptions of people or places aren’t necessary. Just write until everything is out of your system and you feel satisfied. I would suggest writing the old-fashioned way, because if you use your computer, tablet or phone, you’re exposing yourself to the light from the screen, which will signal to your body that it’s daytime and keep you awake.
One of the biggest mistakes I used to make was to sleep in on the weekends. I used to completely turn off my alarm and sleep until my little heart was content. I didn’t realize how much this negatively affected my sleep cycle. Now that I have an established sleep schedule, I set my alarm to wake up only one hour later than normal on the weekends.
Everyone laughs at me because I drink herbal teas or decaf espressos starting at noon. It’s made a huge difference in my ability to fall asleep, however, so I happily endure the mocking. I do love my morning coffee to get going first thing and it was easy for me to make the switch once lunchtime hit.
Remember that caffeine is also in tea, including green tea, and in most soft drinks. Unfortunately, caffeine is addictive and it may cause withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit cold turkey. I don’t think it’s necessary to stop caffeine altogether to experience better quality sleep, but drinking it less or earlier in the day is certainly beneficial. Swap the caffeinated beverage you usually drink latest in the day either with decaf, herbal tea or sparkling water and see if you notice a difference.
Culturally in Québec, it’s normal to have a glass of wine or a beer after work to decompress. I know this custom varies depending on where you live, but I believe it’s fairly common, especially in the West. Alcohol has a huge impact on sleep quality because it’s dehydrating and it’s one more thing that your liver must process. In addition, drinking alcohol after work affects lifestyle, making it more likely for you to overeat and less likely to exercise. I have no moral objection to drinking, but if you want to sleep better, eliminate alcohol from your daily routine after work.
To find an effective substitute, I would recommend that you analyze exactly what it is you like about your evening drink. If you like the social aspect, taking a class and expanding your social circle while learning something new could satisfy that need. If it’s the “buzz”, give a high-intensity boxing or CrossFit gym a try. If it’s the alone time with your partner, go for a walk together and enjoy some bonding time.
The best part is that all these activities have a double bonus: not only are you stopping an activity that inhibits sleep, but you are substituting it with an activity that promotes sleep. Save your drink for a celebration, a particularly rough day or for the weekend.
As I mentioned earlier, the screens from TVs, computers, tablets and phones simulate daylight and signal to your body to stay awake. Most experts suggest cutting off screen time up to two hours before bed. I’ll admit that this one is my biggest struggle because there is ALWAYS something to look at, even if it isn’t that interesting!
As I mentioned before, I browse YouTube to find a guided meditation, and if I don’t plan it in advance, YouTube turns into Instagram, which turns into Snapchat then Facebook. I just have to suck it up and be disciplined because the quality of my sleep impacts my ability to wake up early and have a productive morning.
Waking up early and having a productive morning
My next article will discuss my thoughts on waking up early and setting up my mornings to be productive. I am naturally a night owl, but by getting good quality sleep and establishing a routine, I found that I could have better, more productive mornings.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional nor do I claim to be. This article is intended for the layperson and includes general ideas to improve sleep quality. If you have difficulty sleeping, regular insomnia or are facing a period of upheaval that is affecting your sleep, please contact your physician.