When it comes to better health, most people find themselves focusing on diet and exercise. But what about better sleep? We spend about a third of our lives asleep, and getting a good night’s rest is paramount for better health. A New York Times article reports that four out of five people claim to suffer from sleep problems at least once a week, so how do we remedy this commonplace problem?
Well, first we must ask ourselves how much sleep do we really need? As an obvious rule, if you feel exhausted during the day, you probably need more sleep. It has been shown that people who sleep longer than seven hours a night are healthier and live longer. Having less than seven hours of sleep is associated with a range of health issues, such as obesity, heart disease, depression and impaired immune function. The National Sleep Foundation has updated their recommended sleep hours based on age and recommends that individuals age 18 to 64-years-old get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, whereas older adults over the age of 65 sleep seven to eight hours a night. If you feel as though you are meeting these hours, but still find yourself tired during the day, you may be suffering from interrupted sleep or a sleep disorder. If this is the case, you should talk to your doctor and undergo a sleep study to be sure.
Keeping a sleep diary is a great way to track your sleep patterns and what you find may surprise you. First, write down the time you go to bed and the time you wake. Then determine the total number of hours you sleep, and take note of when you took naps or woke in the middle of the night. Next, record how you felt in the morning. Was it alert and refreshed, or was it groggy and tired? By keeping a diary, you’ll have better insight into your sleep patterns and habits.
If you really would like to determine your body’s individual sleep needs, you can try this “sleep vacation” experiment. For the experiment, you will need two free weeks where you don’t have obligation to be anywhere in the morning. What you’ll do first is choose a bedtime that you will adhere to every night. Every morning, record the time that you wake. The first few recordings, you will likely have slept longer due to your body trying to catch up on lost sleep naturally. Those days will not be useful for your experiment, but over the course of a few weeks, you should see a pattern emerge for natural sleep hours. Once you determine just the amount of sleep that your body specifically needs, find a bedtime that will allow you to maintain those hours when work, school, or morning obligations resume.
When you have found just right amount of sleep for your body, your next goal should be to work in daily habits that will train you for better sleep. Key practices that matter are:
- Bedtime: Go to bed at the same time every night, including weekends.
- Don’t Sleep In: Similarly, try to wake up at the same time every day.
- Naps: Avoid taking naps, and if you must, don’t sleep for more than 30 minutes, especially not after 3:00 P.M.
- Keep to a Schedule: Plan your mealtimes, exercise and TV time around the same time every day to keep your body’s internal clock in sync.
- Avoid Screens: Turn off electronics at least an hour before bed. The blue light in your screen acts in the same way that sunlight does by keeping your brain awake when you should be falling asleep.
- Think Spa Bedroom: Make your bedroom a pleasant, calming environment that puts you in the mood to sleep.
- Beds Are for Sleep and Romance: Don’t use the bed for other activities, such as watching television, doing work, or eating or drinking.
- Work Out Early: Strenuous exercise should be reserved for the early part of the day.
- No Night Eating: Avoid eating meals close to bedtime. If your body is investing energy in digestion, it’s not getting the adequate rest that it needs.
- Allow for Sunlight: Keep your blinds open at night so that the sun can enter the room in the morning to naturally wake you. Also, spend at least 15 minutes in the sun to help maintain your internal clock.
- Keep Your Bedroom Temperature Cool: When the room is too warm, it can interfere with a good night’s rest. Taking a hot bath before bed is a good idea because as the hot water evaporates off your body, it also cools you down faster.
Beyond those daily tricks, exercise and meditation can also offer improved sleep at night. Some sleep problems can be attributed to stress and anxiety, and by choosing activities that minimize that stress, you can help your body get better rest at night.
Start moving towards better sleep habits today to see improved health down the road!