By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Sleep issues come up in my discussions with patients very frequently, and sleep is one of the most important health foundations for optimal health, and also to heal from any health issue. I will admit that there are cases where it is difficult to completely fix sleep struggles, as with menopause, concussion and chronic pain, but even in the most stubborn cases, attention to the basics of sleep hygiene can make a tremendous difference.
I’m sure you all know the value of sleep – it’s important for your immune system, hormone balance, weight and metabolism, energy levels and brain function. And without sleep our bodies can’t recover and repair from illness and stressors.
Here is my list of top 10 sleep tips:
1. Avoid all screens 1 hour before bedtime
This is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately. The blue from electronic screens affects the rhythms of both cortisol and melatonin levels. The worst culprits are laptops, computers, tablets and smartphones. Turn off all screens a full hour before bedtime to optimize your sleep hormone balance. This also applies to turning on screens in the middle of the night: please avoid this temptation as it makes it much harder to fall back to sleep.
2. Get to bed earlier
Studies show that the most important time to sleep is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. – this is when we sleep most deeply and our bodies repair the most, meaning this is the most rejuvenating window of time. Optimize your sleep quality by getting to bed by 10 p.m.
3. Wake up early
I’ve seen time and time again that one of the best ways to improve your sleep is to consistently get up early. I know this seems counter-intuitive if you’re struggling to sleep well at night, but it is key to breaking the pattern of poor sleep. Getting up early goes in line with your natural hormonal rhythms, especially with the release of cortisol that peaks early in the morning, and you’ll also find an improvement in your stress response with early waking. If this does not come easily to you, just be persistent and consistently move your clock to a 10-11 p.m. bedtime with a 6-7 a.m. waking time.
4. Get outside in the sun in the daytime
Did you know that your body produces more of the sleep hormone melatonin when you have daily exposure to sunlight? If you’re struggling with sleep, get yourself outside for a walk in the daylight. This especially applies to those of us who leave the house in the dark and come home in the dark in the winter months. Make a special effort to get out mid-day for a short walk in the daylight.
5. Darken your bedroom
Blacking out the bedroom can make a tremendous difference in your sleep quality, and blackout curtains are the best solution here although a sleep mask can also help. Your sleep is optimal when the room is so dark you can’t see anything at all! Any light source in the bedroom can disrupt your sleep patterns – night-lights, ambient light from outdoors, light from electronics, alarm clocks or power bars.
6. Cut down on caffeine
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s easy to get caught in the vicious cycle of drinking more coffee and tea to deal with the fatigue of insomnia. Stop all caffeine by noon at the latest, and also watch out for green tea and dark chocolate which both contain a small amount of caffeine and can also disrupt your sleep. If you’re really struggling, consider a trial of 100% caffeine-free for a week to see if you might be very caffeine sensitive, and even morning caffeine may be impacting your sleep.
7. Watch the alcohol
Although you may fall asleep faster after alcohol, REM sleep is significantly disturbed by any alcohol in your system. What this means is you won’t be getting into the deeper stages of sleep, and your brain and body will not be recovering and repairing as well. Suggestions here are to limit drinking to the weekends when you’re able to sleep in a little, and avoid all alcohol during the week. Pay attention to the difference in your sleep quality and how you feel in the morning.
8. Keep the bedroom cool
Our bodies like cool temperature for optimal sleep, and you’re more likely to toss and turn through the night if you’re not cool enough. Apparently the optimal temperature for sleep is about 20 degrees Celcius.
9. Try a bedtime snack
In some cases imbalanced blood sugar can cause you to wake up in the night and have trouble going back to sleep. If you’ve had a high-carb dinner or snacked on carbohydrates or sugar before bedtime, you will get a period of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar in the night. If you’re waking at 2-4 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep, try a high protein snack one to two hours before bedtime to see if it will break the cycle.
One of the best tools to regulate your nervous system, and also learn to turn off the stress response is to have a regular meditation practice. This can vary from a guided meditation to simply sitting quietly and watching your breath. Even a quick meditation for 3-5 minutes is a fantastic start, and there are so many resources and Apps available. Consistency is key with meditation, so choose a time of day that you can commit to regularly – this may be early morning, or before bedtime. If you feel that stress may be impacting your sleep, a regular meditation practice is highly recommended.
I hope you have learned something new from this short article, and some tips and tools to improve your sleep. As I say so often these days, the health foundations, including sleep, are the biggest part of the cure of most health conditions, and also the prevention of disease – so please don’t neglect the basics. And if you are really struggling with sleep due to a hormone change, chronic pain or other reasons that are hard to control, please pay attention to all of these sleep hygiene tools and rest even if your sleep is not currently in an optimal state. Stressing about not sleeping doesn’t help either!
There are also many more ways to improve your sleep with herbs, nutrients and balancing hormones, as well as acupuncture, massage, osteopathic care and more. If you need more support with your sleep, please ask. Here’s to a restful night!
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