Previously, we reviewed the concept of sleep debt and how the majority of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. It is one thing when we don’t prioritize sleep and we allow other responsibilities and tasks to take precedence. However, it is another thing when we struggle to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, in which case sleep disturbances interfere with meeting our sleep need. Remember, our sleep need is between seven to nine hours per night. A good general rule is to aim for eight hours of sleep every night.
Many Americans try to resolve their sleep disturbances in ways that can actually make poor sleep worse. Here are three common sleep aid mistakes people make:
- Consuming alcohol to fall asleep: Alcohol may help people fall asleep quicker but it has been shown to disturb REM sleep and be particularly disruptive to sleep in the second half of the night.
- Taking over-the-counter sleep aids: Many people use sleep aids with antihistamines to help them sleep. However, the use of antihistamines for the purpose of sleep presents potential complications. While antihistamines may help you fall asleep, overall sleep quality is compromised. Many people also develop a tolerance very quickly.
- Watching television to fall asleep: The light in televisions and computer screens tricks your brain into thinking it is still daylight, affecting melatonin production, which has a direct correlation with our ability to fall asleep. Laptops, tablets, and phones are just as harmful as television. Avoid electronics for 2 hours before bed.
To successfully start improving sleep try the ten following ways to counter sleep disturbances and best support sleep:
- Sleep in a dark room: Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland’s production of melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for creating your circadian rhythm, or biological clock. Cover your windows and turn off night-lights if you are able. If you need a light, install a low-wattage yellow, orange, or red light bulb.
- Get some sun: Your circadian rhythm needs light. Ten to fifteen minutes of sunlight exposure in the morning will let your internal clock know that daylight has arrived, making it less confused by weaker light signals during the night. Do your best to get outdoors daily for thirty to sixty minutes during the brightest portion of the day.
- Take a hot bath 1.5-2 hours before bed: Baths increase your core temperature and when you get out of the bathtub the resulting rapid drop in body temperature can signal to your body that you are ready for sleep.
- Know your biological clock: Most people’s melatonin release peaks around nine or ten at night. Falling asleep is easiest during peak melatonin releases. When your melatonin peaks you will likely feel a rush of fatigue and start feeling ready for bed. If we go to bed after our melatonin peaks it is harder for us to fall asleep and get into deep levels of sleep. Pay attention to your own biological sleep clock, which is probably in tune with going to bed around nine or ten o’clock. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Cool temperature in room: Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 and 68 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep.
- Identify physiological barriers: Some common physiological factors that affect sleep are hormone imbalances—especially in perimenopausal and menopausal women—thyroid problems, uncontrolled stress and anxiety, poor diet, food sensitivities, and imbalances in the intestinal flora, to name a few. It is a good idea to seek the help of a trusted naturopath or medical doctor versed in non-pharmaceutical sleep interventions to identify and address the root cause.
- Consume foods that support sleep: Believe it or not the food we eat before bed as well as throughout the day has a significant impact on our sleep. I had a client who could not sleep more than four hours a night until she ditched sugar and processed foods and increased her intake of vegetables and minimally processed food. She also identified that a dairy sensitivity was a major contributor to her poor sleep (and depression). She now sleeps 7 to 8 hours a night consistently.
- Avoid caffeine in the evening (or all together): This isn’t news right? Some individuals can’t even have caffeine in the morning without being affected in the evening hours.
- Exercise. The 2013 Sleep in America® poll concluded that exercise, or physical activity in general, is good for sleep, regardless of the time of day the activity is performed.
- Get your kids to stop waking you at night—stay tuned for next week’s post on how to improve your sleep when your kiddos are sabotaging your slumber.
For more information on ways to improve your sleep message me for a free copy of Chapter 6 in my book, Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.