Achieving sleep wellness and getting a better night’s sleep, requires balance amongst the other waking elements of your life. Getting enough sleep is something you need in order to achieve that balance. It’s a lovely catch-22, meaning the problem of sleep is complex. This isn’t to say the solutions are necessarily difficult (they can be), but the fact is, sleep touches on every major element of our lives and vise versa. So, it can take a combination of things to achieve a better night’s sleep and a better life because of it.
The American Cancer Society shows us that, in the past 15 years, we have started getting less than the minimum recommended 7 hours of sleep. Thirty-five percent of us don’t get enough sleep, and those people are 4.2 times more likely to get sick. Modern life can take its toll, but adequate amounts of sleep are vital to our long term health in a myriad of ways. It is one of the fundamental factors for overall wellness.
Below, you will see exactly what sleep does for you, the things that can happen when you don’t get enough, and some actionable tools to help you or someone you care about get better sleep and improve their overall wellness.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH SLEEP?
If you pulled ten random people aside and asked them what happens when they don’t get a good amount of sleep, what would be the most common answer? Tired? Sluggish? Unmotivated? Fall asleep at work? All related to a lack of energy. This is accurate, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
When you don’t sleep, being sluggish is the least of your worries. In fact, people getting less than 7 hours of sleep are 12% more likely to die prematurely. It’s estimated that a lack of sleep costs us about $411 million per year. Needless to say, if your goal is to live a healthier, happier life, you don’t want to be facing these problems if you can help it.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DO GET ENOUGH SLEEP?
On the other hand, when you do get 7 or more hours of sleep? Let’s look at just what your body does when it’s asleep. Here are some of the more significant things you body does while sleeping:
- Your brain processes the day’s information, creating and storing long term memories.
- Your body releases hormones to help regulate sleep (melatonin) and repair the body (growth), as well as numerous others that help regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response) gets to relax. Not doing so raises blood pressure.
- Cortisol levels slowly decrease (stress hormone). Cut sleep short and it doesn’t have a chance to pick back up before waking.
- Your body releases cytokines, a protein that helps your body fight inflammation and infection, key to your immune system.
- REM sleep, which builds over the course of the night, getting longer the closer to wake up time, is when your brain processes information, helping with long term memories and better mood the following day.
So, sleep deprivation can generate a whole slew of problems. Getting a better night’s sleep is important not only for what your body needs to do, but to be consistent with it. Your body loves consistency. It adores a regular schedule.
How can you get your body on this schedule? Firstly, you need to make it a priority. Only 1 in 10 Americans consider sleep to be their top priority over fitness, work, hobbies, and social life. If you don’t consider it a priority, it will be WAY easier to excuse it off.
Getting better sleep is literally one of the most efficient health prevention measures you can take, along with exercise and nutrition, and they are dependent on each other to function well. Don’t sleep and you lack energy to exercise and your appetite is altered. Don’t exercise and you make it difficult to fall asleep and don’t burn off those calories you consume. Eat poorly, you lack energy, gain weight, and make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. It’s a three way scale you must keep in balance.
5 PRACTICAL THINGS YOU CAN DO TO SLEEP BETTER
DOCUMENT YOUR DAILY AND BEDTIME ACTIVITIES
Before you make changes or even plan to make changes, step back and take a look at your current circumstances. Awareness must happen first before effective change can occur.
Journal. I’m personally fond of actual journals and handwriting (they’re fun to shop for and writing by hand has its own benefits), but note on your phone or computer what is going on. Not only do you want to be aware of what you are doing/feeling in the time leading up to bed or just waking up, but what you are typically doing throughout the day. What you are eating and when? What exercise are you getting and when? What are you doing the couple of hours prior to bedtime? What’s your stress level? Do this daily and create the general picture of your day. Gaining this awareness will allow you to also understand when unique factors interfere with your sleep habits. Know yourself!
A HEALTHY SLEEP ENVIRONMENT PROMOTES BETTER SLEEP
Much like with work, your surroundings can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of what you are trying to do. You want to dump the distractions and make it appealing.
Clutter. While it doesn’t interfere with your actual ability to get into bed (for most folks anyway), clutter fosters a mental state of disarray, of being undone. It’s important to feel settled when you try to sleep. Organize your room.
Comfort. You want to physically feel comfortable when you go to bed. It should be dark, slightly cooler than daytime temp, with a mattress, pillows, and coverings that allow you to comfortably sleep. Investing in a good bed and pillows makes a world of difference (it’s worth the money spent), as does a window air conditioner if temperature is an issue.
Noise. You want consistency and no distractions when you sleep. If you are frequently awakened by random sounds from the outside world, then invest in an app or get a device that generates white noise (ocean, rain, etc.). Have a noisy partner? Consider ear plugs. I used them when I worked nights so daytime noises didn’t wake me.
Smell. Odor is a strong, mental signifier. Ever had the smell of a particular food stir childhood memories? There is a reason that aromatherapy can be effective. Some scents, like lavender, are known to have soothing effects. Candles, incense, oils, plugins, there are a number of ways to make your sleeping environment smell pleasantly. Note to blow out flames before lying down.
GETTING BETTER SLEEP REQUIRES A GOOD ROUTINE
Your body really wants to know the plan. It can handle the random curve ball, but in general, it needs that rhythm of routine. When you are going to bed, your body wants a heads up. It wants lead time to get prepared, so do yourself a favor and give it that.
Cease strenuous activity at least 90 minutes before bed. Your body needs time to stabilize. Sex? Well, that won’t necessarily put you to sleep, but I’m not going to tell anyone to sidestep that. Understand that it can be beneficial to “schedule” your romance.
Stop any mentally active pursuits. Don’t watch television in bed. Don’t consume social media in bed or make phone calls. Turn off the phone. Seriously. Bed is bed.
Dim the lights. An hour before planned bedtime, start turning things off or dimming them. It helps to signal the brain that sleep is incoming.
De-stress. Take the time to focus on turning off the day, even if it’s just ten minutes. Write in a journal, do some yoga or tai-chi, meditate, set up some aromatherapy. Figure out those things that let you set aside the events and problems of the day. You’ll deal with it all better when rested. One of those obvious things, but stress is a significant factor in losing sleep. Stress management is a whole deep dive unto itself.
Timing. Figure out when you need to get up, with enough time to not feel rushed about your morning activities and get up at that time every day, other than unique circumstances, and go to bed at a time such that you will get 7 hours of sleep per night on average.
Consistent process. Map out the routine, whatever it is. Note it. Follow it. Having the reference point helps to put it into action and to analyze how it’s working and allows for adjustments. Be flexible and persistent.
EXERCISE FOR BETTER SLEEP
While it is important to establish a healthy place to sleep as well as the process for getting there, how you go about the rest of your waking hours makes a difference too. Remember that it’s all interconnected. Don’t be doing things during your day that make getting to sleep more difficult. Regular exercise is one of the most consistent benefactors for sleep.
Consistent exercise. Personally, I think it should be everyday. I sometimes see the “at least M-F for 30 minutes”, but as far as body routine goes, do it every day. Your body is a biochemical machine. It thrives on regular, consistent things.
Does it need to be strenuous? Twenty to thirty minutes of exercise that raises your heart rate by 50% is probably adequate for sleep purposes. Do not spend the entire day sitting around, and find a way to get some regardless of weather. Don’t go more than an hour at your desk before getting up and moving around for a few minutes. Walk the stairs at work on your lunch break for 15 minutes. If your exercise routine is typically outdoors, have an indoor plan to compensate. For the purposes of sleep, intensity is not so much the issue as doing it consistently. If your exercise is for greater fitness, all the better, and if your work is strenuous, don’t forget about the non-strenuous days.
SLEEPING WELL REQUIRES EATING WELL
The relation between what you consume and sleep is complicated. It is not simply a matter of, “Eat ‘X’ and you will sleep better!”. If only, right? The research on nutrition and sleep is incomplete. One thing that is clear however, is that health issues created due to poor eating habits can affect your sleeping. Sleep deprivation can affect your hunger levels. You can eat fruits with melatonin, which may help directly with helping you fall asleep or take supplements, but there isn’t a ton of research yet on the effects of long term supplement use. The point is, eat well, and limit the bad things. Nutrition is it’s own vast well of knowledge and it’s difficult to give specific advice, because it can depend greatly between individuals based upon their own unique circumstances. I’ll do a deeper dive on nutrition and sleep in the near future.
One additional bit of information not specifically related to any of the above categories. If, when attempting to fall asleep and you can’t, for say 20-30 minutes, don’t keep trying. Get up, repeat a calming part of the bedtime routine for 15-20 minutes, and try again. Your bed is to sleep in, not toss around and be frustrated in. Don’t let your body get used to that idea. You want to break bad bedtime habits and form new ones.
Change is hard. Your life circumstances can make any of the above items difficult to address or deal with. Kids, job, partner, family, physical or mental health issues, the environment you live in, all can have and do have an impact. Being able to assess, plan, try, reassess, adapt, and try again takes motivation and effort. Part of your plan should be to reward yourself when you make positive progress, however small the goal. Also, be accountable to the failures. They happen, for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Own up to them, learn, and move on. The road to a better night’s sleep and a healthier, happier life is a long one, with no short cuts. You can make it more enjoyable however, and you can get support along the way, whether from friends and loved ones or enlisting the assistance of a coach.
So, if you are really wanting to get a better night’s sleep, consider the following steps:
- Document and assess your situation
- Make a plan and set goals in small achievable amounts.
- Establish a routine. Try, assess, adjust, and retry.
- Examine the nutrition and exercise in your life and adjust in a way that compliments your sleep routine.
- Reward yourself when the plan works.
I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’ve not presented a “new way” to improve your sleep. My point in wanting to help folks, “figure stuff out” is to emphasize the fact that sleep is paramount to your health. It is, in fact, foundational, along with nutrition and exercise, to achieving body wellness. It is also key to maintaining mental and spiritual wellness. Make getting a better night’s sleep a priority! Seek out a coach or consultant if you want the added support of someone with resources who will help hold you accountable to your goals. It is one of those things that is so easy to put off for another day. Sleep wellness can make numerous other parts of your life better. It’s not easy. Change never is, but it is “easier” if you set up for it, plan it, and do it in a way that sets you up for success, relative to your specific life circumstances.