Sleep is something that tends to fall by the wayside when we are pressed for time and often is viewed more as a luxury than a necessity. However, sleep is more than just an activity that we do when we lie in our beds (or on our couches while streaming Netflix). Sleep has an enormous impact on our overall health and well being, as well as on our productivity.
Studies show that ongoing sleep deficiency has been linked with an increase of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and compromised immune function. Major restorative functions in the body such as tissue repair, muscle growth, and protein synthesis occur almost exclusively during sleep. In addition, without sleep, we tend to have more difficulty concentrating, learning, and communicating. Memory lapses can increase. How many times have we gotten into our cars for our morning commute only to arrive at our destination without any recollection of how we got there? Furthermore, a study conducted by AAA found the drivers who missed two-three hours of sleep a day more than quadruple their risk of getting into an accident compared to drivers who sleep for seven hours. Federal regulators say that the risk of “driving while drowsy” is comparable to driving drunk.
What are some factors that interfere with the quality of our sleep?
- Stress – this may seem like a “duh” bullet point here, but our bodies are hardwired to respond to stressful or dangerous situations by remaining awake. Back in caveman times, this helped us to survive. Now it’s just frustrating.
- Eating habits – eating before bedtime can cause your body’s metabolism to slow. As our body prepares for sleep, it slows down its functions, including the digestion process. The digestion process itself can keep us awake at night and the slower metabolism may cause weight gain. Additionally, nicotine, caffeine, and acidic foods can also disrupt our sleep cycle. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants, while acidic foods may cause heartburn and indigestion. Lying down exacerbates the effects of heartburn, making falling asleep a challenge.
- External environment such as lighting, your bed, and guess what? Your pre-sleep technology habits. Our body clock adjusts to the changes we observe in the environment. Therefore, it automatically begins to wind down when the brightness level decreases. Bright lights can trick the body clock into thinking it’s still daytime.
- New environment – many people find it difficult to fall asleep in new places such as a hotel, a new apartment, or even a new beau’s pad. Part of that reason is that you’ve left the safe feeling you get from the “known,” which in this case includes your bed or former residence. In the cases where the environment is a hotel or someone else’s home, the comfort of the bed and pillows is a major factor. It’s not the bed the your body is accustomed to. It may be softer or it may be more firm. The same applies for the pillows.
- Medication – certain medications, including those for blood pressure and many antidepressants contain chemicals that interfere with a healthy sleep cycle. Certain pain relievers for migraines and headache can also disrupt your sleep cycle because they contain caffeine.
- Body aches and pain – again, this may seem like a “duh” item, but if you’re in pain and it’s uncomfortable to be in a particular position at one time, it’s hard for you to relax and fall asleep. It’s likely that the body will continue to move around and shift positions, seeking a more comfortable position and by extension, preventing you from falling into that deep sleep we all need.
- Jetlag – it takes time to adjust to different time zones, thus disturbing our sleep timings.
- An erratic sleep schedule messes with your body’s internal clock. This tends to happen most often to workers with rotating shift schedules. However, this also applies to those of you stay up many nights tinkering or watching television and/or sleep all day. How can you blame your body for not understanding what it should do when you try to put yourself to bed at a normal hour? You’ve hardwired it to do otherwise.
What should you do if you think one or more of these factors are impacting your sleep?
- Stress is unfortunately a fact of life. We don’t have control over external stressors, but we do have control over is how we manage our stress. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which amps up the body for an emergency reaction. Your heart rate increases, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. None of these reactions are conducive for sleeping, therefore you need to reassure your body that everything is going to be just fine. A good way to slow the heartbeat and the breath is to breathe. That may sound ridiculous and a bit obvious, but it’s true. A breathing technique I like to practice when I’m stressed is the Three-Part Breath and if it’s before bedtime, I like to practice this technique lying on my back. Close your eyes and make sure you’re in a comfortable position. Place your hands on your belly. Begin the practice of inhaling and exhaling to the belly first. On your inhale, you’ll feel your belly rise against your hands and on the exhale, the belly will pull away from your hands as you contract the belly button to the spine. Repeat this for five rounds. On the next inhale, fill your belly up with air. When the belly is full, sip in a little more air to feel your ribs expand. On the exhale, first release the ribs and then the belly. Repeat this for five rounds. On the next inhale, fill the belly and the rib cage with air. Then, sip in a little more air until your feel your chest lift. On the exhale, release the air from the chest first, then the ribs, and finally the belly. Continue for another ten rounds of breath.
- Pay attention to your bedtime environment. Is your bedroom window facing a street lamp or a neon billboard? Is there a television/BluRay/Game Controller? A digital clock with bright numbers? Do you live on a busy street with high foot and car traffic? Is your bed maybe too soft, too hard, or too “worn in?” What about your pillows? Sunlight is detected by cells in the retina of the eye and sends messages to the brain that it’s time to wake up. The light triggers all kinds of changes in our physiology and behavior. Melatonin levels lower, body temperature rises, and an activation of the hormone cortisol takes place in order to help us feel alert and ready for the day. If, when you try to sleep, there’s light emitting from your digital devices or from outside, it impacts the message sent to your body that indicates that it’s time for sleep. The same can be said for your television or handheld devices. The blue light emitting from these screens can actual delay the release of melatonin and increase alertness, resetting the body’s internal clock to a later schedule. It’s a good idea to power down these devices an hour or two prior to bedtime or at the very least, dim the brightness level of the screen. Instead of reading from your phone or tablet, try reading from an actual book. If your bedroom window faces a bright light, consider shades, blinds, or even blackout curtains. Perhaps exchange your digital clock for an old school one. If you live on a busy street, invest in a sound machine or play music softly to help drown out the surround sounds of urban living.
- When I travel or sleep at a new place, I bring things from home with me that are a part of my nighttime routine. For example, I have chronic neck issues that are aggravated by pillows that are too soft. Therefore I bring my pillow with me on the road. It’s firm and supportive and since it’s the pillow I sleep with every night, it helps to create the illusion that I am sleeping in my own bed, which makes me feel safe. My pillow is rather large, so I’ve even gone so far as to buy the travel sized version of my pillow for trips that require me to fly and where lugging my giant every day pillow just isn’t practical.
- If you think that your medication is contributing to your insomnia, don’t try to fix the problem on your own. Speak to your doctor and be honest about the issue. He/she may be able lower the dosage or prescribe an alternative medication. You may be able to drop the medication entirely by making a life change such as exercising regularly, making healthier food choices, and reducing your alcohol/nicotine/caffeine intake. But again, consult your physician first.
- If you suffer from chronic pain, it’s a good idea to consult your physician to make sure there aren’t any deeper issues at play here. For every day aches and pains, set up your sleep environment so that you’re comfortable. You may need a firmer mattress or a softer one. You may just need a new mattress if your current one is getting on in years. The same can be said for your pillows. Your sleep alignment may be aggravating the situation. If you’re a side or belly sleeper, see if sleeping on your back is even an option. If that is simply not happening, invest in a body pillow or a pregnancy pillow. The pillow relieves pressure points and help you to maintain spinal alignment during sleep. Studies also show that hugging them can even calm you down and help you sleep better. Lastly, I’m not a huge advocate for relying on NSAIDs (aspirin and ibuprofen) as a constant source for pain relief due to the long term effects of using them have on the body. I use a topical CBD oil instead. The brand I prefer uses plant-based, natural, and organic ingredients in their formulas and the farm is located in Upstate New York. The natural ingredients make CBD oil a safer, less invasive alternative to NSAIDs. While I may be slightly biased in that the company was founded and is run by one of my dearest friends, Brittany Carbone, I wouldn’t recommend or mention the product if it didn’t work. I do not leave home without this little roll-on. I keep one bottle on my nightstand and another in my bag. I use it for muscle aches, headaches, and even menstrual cramps. If you use the coupon code yogijedi at checkout, you’ll receive 10% off of your order and if you have any questions or concerns about the products you see on their website, you can message them and an actual person will respond to your questions.
- The quickest way to overcome jetlag is to basically trick your body into thinking it’s in the correct time zone. It can be a rough go initially, but it’ll jump start your adjustment period as opposed to taking your body several day to adjust. If you’re on vacation, several days can mean your entire vacation before having to return home gain (and having to start the adjustment period all over again). Whenever my family and I fly to Europe, we try our best to get the overnight flight so that we’re landing in our new city at the start of that city’s day. Sleep on the plane, which may be easier said than done, but set yourself up for success. Bring a travel pillow, ear plugs, and an eye mask. It’s important that you sleep on the flight because this is the time frame that your body would normally be sleeping anyway. When you land, it’ll be morning at your destination. Don’t go to your hotel to sleep. You can check in and drop your stuff off, but do not sleep no matter how exhausted you are. Force yourself to do a light itinerary to keep yourself moving. I’m not saying that this is the day you tackle Stonehedge on your visit to London, but maybe a museum or a walk to get the lay of the land. Something not too structured. You’ll probably go to sleep earlier than usual that night, but you’ll at least be going to sleep at night, which is vital for your body’s internal clock.
- Develop a consistent bedtime routine. This is especially important for you shift workers who have no choice in the timing of your shift. Developing a consistent bedtime routine informs your body that when you perform this routine, it’s time for bed. For those of you on a normal schedule, make it a point to practice this routine every night at the same time. The body is very good at adapting. The more consistent you are, the more your body learns that this routine signals sleep. My routine, for example, is as follows: Turn off the television (in fact, we haven’t had a television in our bedroom for four years to avoid temptation). Wash my face and nighttime skin routine, brush my teeth, lay down. Half hour answering last minute text messages, emails, or anything else I feel like doing on my phone. Around this time, our smallest cat, Baby Emma climbs into bed to snuggle with me. I read fiction for a half hour-hour. I take one dropper full of CBD oil. I read nonfiction for another half hour-hour or until I have difficulty paying attention to the text, whichever comes first. Lights out. Whenever I deviate from my routine, I have the most difficulty falling asleep.
It’s important to know that it’s never too late to fix a broken pattern. Just know that the longer a broken or toxic pattern continues, the harder it is to fix. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth fixing. Just that it requires more effort.