If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans struggling to get sufficient sleep, you may be just a few steps away from hitting the hay a little harder. Every day, we are inundated with chores, tasks, obligations, and struggles on the physical, mental and emotional level. At the end of the day, unwinding can be yet another chore in and of itself!
Getting adequate sleep is important for a number of reasons including stabilizing mood, heart health, mental health, energy level, immunity and both physical and cognitive performance. Recent studies even suggest that a lack of sleep may increase your likelihood of gaining unhealthy weight. From time to time, we may be forced to pull all-nighters to keep up with life’s insatiable demands, however, habitually getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night will best prepare us to tackle these demands optimally while maintaining good overall health.
If you’re reading this article, you’re already on your way toward improved sleep. Picking up a book or magazine before bed is a great way to relieve your mind of all the residual thoughts leftover from the day that are interfering with your ability to rest peacefully. That, combined with the slight boost in concentration and eye muscle movements required to read, pretty much seals the deal on coaxing you to sleep. Let it go for now, there will be more time for problem-solving tomorrow.
Despite alcohol's ability to knock you out flat for extended periods of time, the quality of alcohol-induced sleep is far from rejuvenating. Studies show that alcohol consumption interferes with a person’s ability to engage in REM sleep. REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement, typically begins within 90 minutes of officially falling asleep. During this stage, the muscles are totally relaxed, and the brain and body participate in a regenerative stage, which contributes to a more productive following day. People who lack REM sleep may struggle with concentration, memory loss, grogginess and learning. If you do partake, do it earlier in the day so your body has a chance to digest the alcohol before lying down to sleep.
For those of you who like to calm your nerves with a nightcap, it may be a good idea to consider other options. Medical-grade cannabis can have very positive effects on the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and quality of sleep. Currently, there is mixed research on the effects of cannabis on sleep, some suggesting that cannabis, like alcohol, may interfere with REM sleep, others suggesting just the opposite. However, qualified medical marijuana patients consistently report waking up feeling refreshed after a full-night’s rest while using cannabis as a natural sleep aid. The same reports are unavailable for alcohol users, most likely due to a little thing we’ve all come to fear called hangovers. When using medical marijuana as a sleep aid, be careful not to overdo it or consume sativa-dominant strains, as doing so may increase heart rate and alertness, furthering your inability to sleep.
If you spend most of your day relatively immobile, odds are your body isn’t going to feel the need to sleep quite as early as your mind might. Desk jobs are notorious for causing this discrepancy between body and mind. It’s important to regain that equilibrium for the sake of your sleeping habits, however. Unfortunately, busy schedules don't exactly make time for a trip to the gym before or after work, so if you are bound to a desk all day long, get outside and go for a walk on one of your breaks. If you do feel like going the extra mile so to speak, make sure to get your exercise in at least an hour before going to bed so you aren’t overly energized when it comes time to rest.
Stay clean and comfortable
Maintaining good hygiene and comfortable surroundings helps create a more suitable environment for sound sleep. Throughout the day we encounter bacteria, viruses, allergens, dust, molds and more, which can all contribute to sneezing, coughing, itching, congestion, labored breathing and a general feeling of discomfort. Keeping your garments, linens, and overall environment free of contaminants will help prevent additional distractions that keep you from a better night’s sleep. Wearing breathable clothing and keeping the room temperature cool will also help lull you into deep sleep, as your body temperature naturally decreases during this process. Even better, save some time for a hot shower before sleep to cleanse your body as well as help relax your muscles.
Recent studies have pointed to a possibility that the high intensity light emitted by technology including smartphones, televisions, tablets and computers may in fact delay a person’s ability to fall asleep or become tired. Some researchers believe this happens as an involuntary reaction to bright light that imitates the sun. They believe that this artificial light emission may signal our brains to prepare for being awake, since sunlight is typically associated with hours spent awake. This is why reading a book is generally preferred over watching a show within the last hour or two before bed, so we can attempt to prime ourselves for sleep rather than activity. Listening to upbeat music is also not recommended, as it may inspire an adrenaline rush to the bloodstream. On that same note, playing high intensity video games or watching a thriller right before bed might cause your body to tense up, delaying your ability to relax and sleep even more.
For some, meditation may bring to mind a calling of the spirits and singing Kumbaya. And for some, this may work, but for the sake of this article, having a full-fledged séance is not necessary to improving sleep. Basically the point here is to decompress, and allow yourself to let go of all the frets you’ve encountered over the course of the day, bringing both your mind and body into a tranquil state. Ancient breathing exercises have long been favored by yoga enthusiasts as a means of achieving deep relaxation and meditation. Voice coaches also teach their students these techniques to improve lung capacity.
While there are hundreds of different strategies, one of the most simple and effective methods is the 16-16-16. While lying flat (preferably on a yoga mat or something similar) relax your shoulders and waist, allowing all of your weight to sink down into the Earth. Inhale fully within a 16 second count, hold for 16 seconds, and then distribute a full exhale within another 16 seconds. After repeating this cycle three or more times, you will begin to feel fully relaxed and refreshed. Preceding these breathing exercises with some stretching will also lend itself toward a deeper sense of relaxation upon completion.