Sleep Saboteurs And Saviors: How To Get The Rest You Need To Feel Your Best
I have never been a great sleeper; the stories surrounding my infant years are legendary, and they echoed tauntingly in my ears when I bred my own night-owl. When I got older, I defied babysitters’ orders and would always wait up for my parents, which often led to cold washcloths being tossed over my face when I refused to obey the alarm clock.
Years later, I remember consistently answering the question “How are you?” with “Tired.” Sure, I was a physician-in-training, and that answer was probably accurate, but still, I normalized never-ending fatigue for many years. Motherhood was another black hole of sleep deficit, which definitely took me until my kiddo was in kindergarten to fully recover from.
Now, I can finally declare I am a great sleeper, even in the face of this anxiety-producing pandemic, which is a good thing, given what we know about the effects of acute and chronic sleep deprivation. Getting less than 7-9 hours of sleep a night can result in immediate changes like irritability, clumsiness and the tendency to make poor food choices (one study found that after one night of sleep deprivation, folks consumed nearly an extra 400 calories!), but over the long term can have serious consequences like poor memory, high blood pressure, decreased immunity, heart disease, increased risk of stroke and even death.
So, what are some of the ways we sabotage our sleep? And what can we do to make healthier choices and finally drift off to dreamland?
The Sleep Saboteurs:
SmartPhone Use: It seems our phones are an extra appendage these days, always attached to our body, eyes glued to the screen scanning for the latest news crisis or facebook friend request. But research tells us that screen time can lead to poor sleep via the exposure of our retina and brain to blue light, which decreases melatonin secretion, the chemical responsible for the sleep-wake cycle in our brains. Using a blue light filter can help, but generally, avoiding looking at screens for a good 1-2 hours before bed is the current recommendation.
Alcohol: While a “nightcap” might seem like a good idea in theory, or that final cocktail at a late-night party (even if you’re taking an Uber), too many drinks can set the stage for poor sleep. While alcohol may help you pass out, it can interfere with REM sleep (the restorative kind), interrupt normal circadian rhythms, so you wake up long before you’re rested, worsen breathing problems, and of course, it’s a diuretic, which means extra trips to the bathroom.
Caffeine: Another partner in slumber crime, the after-dinner espresso, or the late afternoon power coffee break can wreak havoc on sleep. Even non-herbal tea contains enough caffeine to disrupt sleep. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it is both the amount consumed during the day, as well as how close to bedtime you consume it, that matters. In scientific studies, when subjects drank coffee even 6 hours prior to falling asleep it had negative effects on sleep latency, total sleep and sleep quality. There is also the tendency to rely on caffeine for “performance” and to mask tiredness, so you won’t slow down and get rest when you really need it. There are genetic factors at play, and while some folks can indulge in an Irish coffee for dessert, I know even a decaf coffee after 3pm is a recipe for disaster for me! And sorry, to be the bearer of bad news, but even chocolate can fall into this category for sensitive folks.
Late Night Bingeing: That midnight pizza run or burger and French fries with spicy sauce are just about the worst things you could be consuming to foster sleep. High fat, fried, and spicy foods can interfere with sleep in several ways: digestion can take 2-3 hours so you want to avoid eating large meals right before bed; breaking down food also raises body temperature, which promotes arousal; and these hard-to-digest foods may cause heartburn and indigestion. A recipe for insomnia!
The Sleep Saviors:
Melatonin: A naturally-occurring hormone that is produced in the brain, melatonin turns on at night, after sundown, to trigger the onset of drowsiness and sleep. Some people are deficient, and things like shift work and international travel can disrupt natural melatonin production. You can find melatonin supplements on the shelves of most natural food stores and even mainstream supermarkets, and it does appear to work well, taken at the correct time and dose, depending on what you are using it for. Often the doses sold in stores are too high, with the recommended dose being between 1-3mg. There do not appear to be long-term harmful effects of melatonin use, but be sure to speak to your healthcare provider, especially if you have other medical conditions or may have an underlying sleep disorder that requires attention. Personally, melatonin has been magical for me, and I now sleep like a baby! In some cases it can also cause vivid dreams, so be forewarned.
Magnesium: While it’s one of the most common elements in the human body, involved in over 600 reactions, many people are deficient in magnesium, despite a healthy diet. Approximately half the population in the US and Europe are deficient in magnesium, and women are at greater risk. Magnesium is involved in supporting neurotransmitters that help promote sleep and prevent restless leg syndrome, a common cause of sleep disruption. Magnesium also improves mood and energy levels and low magnesium levels are associated with stress and anxiety, which can also interfere with sleep. You can get magnesium through foods like dark leafy greens, whole grains, seeds and nuts, legumes, dairy and meat (as well as caffeine and chocolate!), and if you think you may be deficient, speak to your doctor about possibly considering a supplement. A relaxing bath with magnesium salts can also be a nice way to promote sleep.
Movement: We know that exercise is the solution for everything, and that holds true for sleep, provided you are not engaging in vigorous exercise too close to bedtime. Getting at least 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day can lead to improved sleep duration, quality, reduced stress and anxiety, and it can even improve insomnia. Plan more vigorous workouts earlier in the day, and stick to walks or restorative yoga in the evenings to ensure restful sleep.
Meditation: Between 30-50% of the population report some type of insomnia, and much of this can be attributed to stress. Enter meditation. We know that meditation has a whole host of benefits, from mood to focus to longevity. And when it comes to sleep, a regular meditation practice can also cause metabolic changes in the body like increased melatonin levels, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, and greater activation in the parts of the brain that control sleep. Meditating right before falling asleep can be a game-changer not just for the metabolic reasons (which are substantial!) but because it can create a bedtime ritual that becomes familiar and expected and can signal sleep. How do you start a meditation practice? Simple. Begin with deep breathing techniques, or try downloading an app like Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer to get some free guided meditations. Warning, you may fall asleep before you even finish!
In our current fast-paced, badge-of-business society, prioritizing sleep isn’t glamorous or popular, but it does become necessary when a lack of sleep affects your performance and your health. Perhaps this whole global pandemic will encourage us to slow down and actually give sleep the attention it deserves. Why not make it trendy to refuse that third glass of wine, turn in early with a good book, and put down the phone? You may find that rest is just what the doctor ordered…
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