By Brooke Stipelman, PhD (Published in the Spring 2016 Abrams and Associates Newsletter)
While the average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, a recent survey reported that nearly 30% of adults reported an average of six or less hours of nightly sleep. In additionto making you feel generally sluggish, chronic sleeplessness is associated with a number of negative effects including poor short term memory, lack of ability to focus, emotional volatility, poor decision making, lower sex drive and overeating. With our hectic work and family schedules, however, many of us find that sleep (along with other elements of self-care) is often sacrificed in the face of other competing priorities. In fact, many of us have been suffering from chronic sleeplessness for so long, that we don’t even know what it truly feels like to be well rested. Moreover, we often fail to recognize the relationship between chronic tiredness and our ability, or inability, to be the best parent, spouse, friend or employee that we can be. Below are some of my top tips to help you get a better night’s sleep. 1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule (even on weekends…sorry) Sticking to a consistent sleep-wake schedule helps set your body’s internal clock. Set a realistic bedtime that works with your lifestyle. You should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, so sometimes it’s helpful to work backwards from your wake-up time. On weekends, try to resist the urge to stay up late and sleep in. A lot of people have the mentality that they can use the weekends to “catch up” on their sleep. While getting a little extra shut eye can be helpful if you have an occasional day or two with little sleep, for someone who is chronically sleep deprived there is no quick fix to erase your sleep debt. I normally tell people to try to stay within plus or minus one hour of their weeknight schedule to avoid disrupting their cycle. After awhile your body will sync with your schedule and you may not even need an alarm clock to wake up anymore. That said, I still have two pretty reliable alarm clocks myself – my kids who are five and two! 2. Get outside One important healthy habit (particularly in the winter) that helps set your clock is getting some sunshine in the morning, ideally in the first couple hours upon waking, but really any time before noon. Sunlight in the morning helps to sync your biological clock with the earth’s day-night cycle. While real-deal sunshine is best, an artificial light box (get one with more than 10,000 lux) will suffice on rainy days or when it’s just not feasible to get outdoors. Some great ways to get your daily dose of sunlight include taking Fido for a brisk morning walk or going for a jog. Research has shown that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous weekly exercise can also improve sleep quality by up to 65%. 3. Ditch the phone and iPad (at least before bedtime) Electronic devices are so ubiquitous that they can sometimes feel like extensions of our body. A study by the National Sleep Foundation found that at least 95% of people use some type of electronic device (e.g. TV, computer, cell phone, tablet, etc.) within an hour of bedtime. In addition to these devices providing mental stimulation, they also emit blue light, the same type of light that comes from the sun. Blue light suppresses melatonin (a chemical in our brain that causes sleepiness) and signals to our brain that it’s time to be awake and active. Therefore, it’s best to power down at least one hour before bedtime. If the temptation to check your email one last time is too powerful, consider moving your charger to a different room. And what will you do with all this new-found time before bed, you ask…. 4. Develop a relaxing bedtime routine The purpose of developing a bedtime routine is two-fold. First, it provides you with an opportunity to take some time for yourself to unwind. Our days are chaotic and stressful, and our bodies need some time to decompress before we get into bed. If you try to go to sleep while still feeling amped up it’s going to take you a long time to fall asleep. Personally, I would rather spend that hour being awake and feeling productive than tossing and turning in my bed! The second reason for a routine is to establish a connection in your brain that this wind down time is associated with bedtime. So what constitutes a relaxing routine? The answer is quite simple – whatever you want. Read a book (a kindle is actually OK), take a warm bath, practice deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, listen to calm music, or talk to your spouse (avoid topics that may lead to an argument). Pick whatever works for you and seems sustainable in the long term. 5. Know when to seek professional help If you are practicing proper sleep hygiene but still suffering from poor sleep it may be time to seek professional help. A medical doctor can help rule out any physical conditions that may be interrupting your sleep, such as respiratory problems (e.g. apnea), restless leg syndrome, thyroid disease and diabetes (among others). Difficulties with sleep can also be a sign of an underlying mental health concern such as depression or anxiety. A psychologist can help you better understand the underlying causes of your sleep problems and teach you skills to manage them.