How are you sleeping? For many, the busyness of life can lead to late evenings or extra early mornings to get things done, therefore cutting sleep short. Or, as your head hits the pillow, the to-do list in your brain prevents you from falling asleep. Perhaps you wake in the middle of the night with thoughts that keep you up until the time you planned to wake in the morning. Sleep disruption of any kind can impact your health from impairing cognition to decreasing physical and mental performance to contributing to lifestyle diseases, like heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and dementia. Sleep is one of the fundamentals of well-being, along with diet, movement, and stress-reduction. It's a biological necessity.
Personally, when I was younger, I underestimated the importance of sleep. I would fight sleep when my eyes felt like they had lead weights on them at the end of a long day while trying to finish a movie. Or, I would set my alarm at a ridiculous hour to squeeze in extra 'me time' before work. I wasn't listening to my body and was cutting my sleep short, thinking it's just sleep and I can sleep later. Boy, was I wrong! What I was really doing was cutting my life short, increasing my risk for lifestyle diseases, like Alzheimer's disease, and contributing to my inherent anxiety. Now, I value sleep just as much as I value dark chocolate. (Note: I don't recommend you consume dark chocolate before bedtime if you're sensitive to caffeine).
Sleep impacts every system in your body, including your cardiovascular, muscular, nervous, endocrine, skeletal, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and the reproductive system. Sleep also affects metabolism, and is linked to weight gain and loss. Lack of sleep can also lead to making poor eating decisions and selecting more processed foods that are higher in empty calories. Sleep deprivation also has been linked to cancer, injuries, and decreased cognition. One study even showed that the more regular you sleep and the more often you sleep soundly (in slow wave sleep) the more likely you are to extend your lifespan and improve lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels.
If those aren't enough reasons to make you want to clear your mind, clean off your bed, and go to sleep, then keep reading to learn more.
Good sleep has been shown to:
regulate blood sugar
improve focus and concentration
help to maintain a healthy weight
minimize symptoms of anxiety and depression
reduce risk of lifestyle diseases, like heart disease and Alzheimer's
Components of Good Sleep
Good sleep can lead to good physical and mental health, improving daily quality of life and preventing the risk of lifestyle diseases. There are three factors that constitute good sleep: the amount of time you sleep, the quality of your sleep, and your sleep routine.
Amount You Sleep
How much sleep you need changes with age. Experts recommend school-age children get at least nine hours a night and teens get between eight and ten. Most adults need at least seven hours or more of sleep each night. Some say that you need less sleep as you age, but experts say that isn't necessarily true. Sleep may be disrupted more with age, but you still may need seven hours or more to function well and support good health.
Another thought is that you can catch up on sleep over the weekend if you don't sleep well all week. Research shows that, while you may feel better with a nap or sleeping longer over the weekend after a week's worth of bad snoozes, sleep cannot be recuperated over the weekend. One study looked at a group of people who were consistently sleep deprived compared to another group of people who were sleep deprived during the week but "caught up" on sleep during the weekend. Both groups gained weight, had unstable blood sugar, and disrupted their circadian rhythm. Meaning that catching up on sleep over the weekend didn't help the latter group.
Sticking to a sleep routine is a good habit to create, if you're not already doing it. Going to bed at the same time each night can help with consistently good sleep. Your body sets your “biological clock” according to the pattern of daylight where you live, which helps you naturally get sleepy at night and stay alert during the day.
Things that may disrupt sleep include:
Caffeine (usually from coffee, tea, and soda)
Certain health conditions, like heartburn or asthma
Untreated sleep disorders, like sleep apnea or insomnia
Eating too late at night or eating foods that may cause disrupted sleep (like saturated fat and sugar)
To sleep well, avoid caffeine after noon, minimize alcohol consumption, especially before bedtime, and eat to support sleep. To learn more about foods that promote sound sleep, visit our article, How Eating Plants Helps You Sleep Better.
The Magnificence of the Brain While You Sleep
Adequate sleep enables your brain to prepare for activities, like learning, creating, and memorizing. The brain has a waste management system called the glymphatic system that detoxes the brain while you sleep. This system brings fresh clean fluid to the brain while collecting waste and sending that waste to the bloodstream, which delivers the waste to the liver and kidneys where it's excreted. Scientists have found that one of the waste products that is excreted in this fluid is beta-amyloid, the protein that is linked to Alzheimer's disease. Getting good, sound sleep can support the detoxification system of the brain.
This brings us to the question, should we eat before bedtime? In order for your brain to do its detox thing, it's best not to consume a full meal before bedtime. When you do, your body switches gears into digestion mode instead of brain detox mode. Consuming a meal several hours before it's time for bed and allowing your food to digest as much as possible before sleeping may be best for getting the full benefits of sleep. That said, some individuals sleep well with at least a little something in their belly (guilty) so they don't wake up hungry in the middle of the night. If this is you, consider a small snack an hour or two before bedtime, like cherries, nuts and plant-based yogurt; apple and almond or peanut butter; or a handful of unsalted pistachios. See this article for more on sleep promoting foods.
How To Sleep Well
After learning about all of the healing magic that happens while sleeping, I personally changed my sleep attitude. I now go to bed when I'm tired (and don't try to fight it), try to stay in a sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each night (with a 70% success rate — it's a work in progress!), and practice meditation and breathing to clear my mind so I can rest better without interruptions.
Here are some things that may help you fall asleep easily and stay sleeping soundly:
Stick to a nighttime and morning routine: Going to bed and getting up at the same time helps set good sleep-wake rhythms.
Shut down all devices (phone, ipad, tv, etc) at least 30 minutes before bedtime: Blue light from electronic devices can block the release of melatonin, the hormone that prepares you for sleep. Try reading a good old fashion book instead.
Creating a sanctuary sleep space: Keeping the room cool, blocking out light, and implementing things that help you feel calm and peaceful, like aromatherapy or soft music, may help your body relax and sleep well.
Set the temperature to cool, but not too cold: Sleeping in cooler temperatures (between 60-68 degrees F), but not too cold, promotes good sleep.
Creating a wind down routine: Having a routine that prepares your body for sleep can help you relax and destress. Try taking a warm bath, listening to peaceful music, or practicing a restorative yoga routine. (See 3 Restorative Yoga Poses for some ideas.)
Eating a dinner that is fiber-filled and (plant) nutrient rich: Eat a satisfying dinner that is filled with colorful plant-based foods that contain nutrients to help you sleep well.
Sipping on a calming tea: Teas that can create a sense of calm include lavender, chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm. Sip on them an hour before bedtime and not right before bedtime to give your body a chance to move them through to prevent waking up in the middle of the night.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine is a stimulant and, while it affects everyone differently, it can be the culprit in disrupted sleep. Alcohol is a depressant and may cause you to fall asleep quickly, but it does not help you stay asleep all night. If sipping on something in the evening helps you relax, try one of the teas mentioned above.
Participate in regular movement: The time that you exercise or workout is up to you, whether it's early morning, in the evening, or during lunch hours. While research shows that morning workouts may benefit sleep the most, the key is simply to exercise daily. If you prefer later evening workouts, try to give your heart rate time to slow down and your body time to cool down before heading to bed.
Limit naps: Studies do show that short naps, lasting 15-20 minutes, may be beneficial and improve mood, alertness and performance on activities of daily living and other tasks. However, long daytime naps over an hour may make it hard to fall and stay asleep at night.
Back to the initial question — How are you sleeping and are there any areas above in which you could implement for an even better night's sleep?