Today’s fast-paced environment leaves little room for a good night’s rest. Sleep is often the first thing people are willing to give up, whether it is for work, family or recreation. Sleep deprivation is widespread, yet sleep is vital to physical and mental wellness.
“When you sleep at night, you rest both your body and your brain to allow for repair, rest, and reenergizing,” said Dr. Mary Wagner, co-director of the University of Florida’s Pediatric Sleep Program and the UF Health Sleep Center. Without this rest, she added, parts of your brain can become altered, potentially leading to depression, suicide and risk-taking behaviors.
Sleep also contributes to alertness during the day, so without sleep, overall cognitive functioning is lower. Physically, sleep repairs your heart and blood vessels. This is why sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk for general mortality, problems with high blood pressure, diabetes and a whole host of other issues, Wagner said.
Needless to say, sleep is very important for bodily functions. While there are many factors that lead to sleep deprivation, there are several habits you can adopt to improve your sleep.
1) Create a Sleep Schedule
As you plan your week with events and deadlines, you need to schedule time for sleep. The average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
However, Wagner explained, “Sleep is a personal journey in terms of how much sleep you need in order to feel rested. One way to figure out how much sleep you need is to determine how long you naturally sleep before you wake up.”
Recording the number of hours you sleep can help you create a personal sleep schedule. This will establish a regular bedtime, which should remain consistent, even for weekends.
2) No Naps
Unfortunately for nap-lovers, an afternoon snooze should not be penciled into your daily sleep schedule. There is a biological reason that we feel the need to nap, however.
“When you take a look at what controls your level of alertness during the day, there are two things,” Wagner explained. “The first is sleep homeostasis, which mediates sleep pressure and means that the further you are from sleep, the sleepier you should be. The other is a different component where you have a pacemaker inside your brain that sends alerting signals at times when we get tired to keep us awake. The little pacemaker takes a break between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., which is why you’re sleepy, not because you just ate lunch.”
Although you may feel an impulse to nap, this can cause more difficulty falling asleep at the end of the day. If you have to take a nap, sleep earlier in the afternoon for no more than 20 minutes to avoid going into deep sleep.
Another suggestion to improve your sleep is exercising throughout the day. It is especially helpful to exercise in the sunlight. This activity can include going on a run, mowing the lawn or even taking a walk after dinner. Exercising in the sun keeps your circadian rhythms in check, allowing your sleep schedule to remain calibrated. It is important, however, to avoid exercise two hours prior to bedtime, as it can disrupt your sleep cycle. If you feel the need to be active at bedtime, yoga is a relaxing way to wind down. Yoga positions such as child’s pose can release tension while also stretching your muscles.
4) Establish a Comfortable Sleep Environment
Your sleep environment contributes significantly to your quality of rest. An ideal sleep environment is dark, clean, cool, and free from distractions such as cell phone notifications and television. Your sleep environment should be in bed; however, many people use their bed for activities besides sleeping, such as doing work, eating and taking phone calls. Treating your bed as solely a place for sleep will allow you to fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
5) Eat the Right Things at the Right Time
For most of us, dinner is the most substantial meal we have all day. Unfortunately, eating a heavy meal before bed often inhibits you from properly digesting food and can lead to reflux symptoms. You should eat dinner at least three hours prior to bedtime. This rule should also be applied to drinking caffeine in the evening. Furthermore, Wagner advises against alcohol late at night.
“Alcohol may help you fall asleep the first part of the night, but during the second part of the night, your sleep will be less restful,” she said.
While achieving a restful night’s sleep may take away things you enjoy – coffee, alcohol and rich food – it won’t take away your midnight snack, provided that your snack includes tryptophan. Tryptophan is one of the substrates for melatonin, a hormone that makes you tired at night. There are various snacks that contain tryptophan, including walnuts, skim milk and bananas. While not the pizza or ice cream you may be craving, these snacks will help satisfy your hunger and induce sleep.
While these habits may help the average person sleep more soundly, they will not resolve true sleep disorders.
Depending on the diagnosis of your doctor, you may be referred to participate in a sleep study.
“If you have a lot of trouble falling asleep or staying asleep; if you spend a lot of time in bed, but you don’t feel rested; or you are snoring or holding your breath during sleep, that is probably something that needs to be evaluated by your primary care physician,” Wagner said.