Why Do We Need Sleep (and how do we get it)?

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Sleep is an essential component of a well-rounded wellness routine.  In all, we’ll spend about a third of our lives asleep. During this time, our brain is hard at work though our bodies are at rest.  The brain clears out debris that has built up during the day, prunes cells to maintain a stable volume, and rehearses new ideas that were picked up while awake.  These processes are critical to our health and our mental abilities. Without sleep, we can gain weight, experience diverse health problems, have difficulty focusing, and make slower decisions.

Despite the importance of sleep, 70% of Americans report at least occasional sleep issues.  One cause is the growth in technology that allows us to stay connected all the time. It’s hard to step away from work when your email updates every time you unlock your phone.  It’s hard to find quiet time when entertainment is available 24/7 on streaming platforms.  

How can we build up habits to encourage healthy sleep in a modern world filled with bright screens, noisy distractions, and constant communications?  Here are five suggestions to elevate your sleep.

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1. Get exercise.  Regular exercise can help you get longer, deeper, and more restorative sleep.  Mind-body exercises such as yoga can also reduce the stress hormone cortisol and produce anti-anxiety effects that allow you to fall asleep easier.  Be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise can increase endorphins and raise your internal body temperature. These inhibit your ability to fall asleep.  If you like to exercise in the evenings, leave a few hours before you go to bed for these effects to wear off.

2. Switch off the screens.  The light emitted from many electronic screen devices is similar to the blue light from the sun.  This tricks our brain to think that it’s still day time and reduces the production of melatonin, the compound that helps us fall asleep.  Try to stay off any screens for at least 60 minutes before bedtime. Without adequate sleep, your prefrontal cortex (the decision maker of the brain) is less activated the next day, which causes difficulty focusing and making decisions.

3. Cut off caffeine.  Caffeine is a stimulant that can boost your mood and keep you awake by blocking adenosine receptors, a neurochemical that contributes to sleep.  Caffeine takes a long time to clear out of your system, with only half of it gone in the first 3-5 hours after you consume it. Caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bed can reduce the total amount of sleep by 1 hour.  About 4-6 hours before you head to bed, cut off caffeine for the night.  

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4. Establish a consistent schedule.  Your body has an internal clock regulated by hormones and neurochemicals.  Changes in the levels of these cause you to fall asleep and to wake up. Work to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (yes, even the weekends).  This lets the hormone pattern adjust and helps you get to sleep easier. If you’re consistent enough with this pattern, you may get to the point where you don’t need an alarm clock in the morning!

5. Write out 10 to-dos.  A study has shown that if you write out 10 to-do items before bed, you’ll decrease the time it takes to fall asleep.  This practice externalizes the stressors in your mind. You’ll reduce the anxiety that you’ll forget something important by the time you wake up and fall asleep easier. 

Do your body and mind a favor and practice good sleep etiquette.  It’s important to get enough sleep each night. But your actions can determine how easily you achieve that amount.  Try out even one of the techniques above and see if you can improve your sleep tonight. And when you wake up, start the day with a delicious cup of yaupon!