6/02/17

10 lifestyle practices for stellar sleep

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

Yay, June!

It's June, which means:

  • No school
  • Warm, sunny weather
  • More outdoor activities!

Yet something to keep in mind ... 

man reading in bed in low lightAlthough this time of year can be great for our health, there is one important aspect of health that can suffer if we're not careful. That area is sleep. With daylight hours getting longer, it can be tempting to pack more activity into our days and skimp on sleep. 

In a previous post I wrote about how sleep is so important on our journey to great health. Sleep helps us with:

  • Cognitive functioning
  • Mood
  • Energy level
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Immunity
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Weight management
  • A more youthful appearance

But what if we struggle with sleep?

In this post I wanted to focus on things we can do to improve our quality of sleep. My friend Becky Wallon is a physician assistant in Carle's Sleep Medicine department. She works with patients who suffer from a variety of sleep problems.

I asked Becky about lifestyle recommendations for improving sleep quality, and she gave me some great advice, which I will share with you in this post. For organization purposes, I've grouped the recommendations into three categories: intake, environment, and activity.

INTAKE

woman peacefully drinking morning coffee1. Avoid (or at least limit) caffeine. At this point you might be thinking, "Hold up, don't even try to take away my coffee!" I get it. I love coffee, too. Of course, avoiding caffeine altogether would be ideal for better sleep. But if you (like me) do not want to imagine a world without coffee in it, try to at least limit your caffeine intake and drink it earlier in the day. Personally, I have one small cup of coffee in the morning and drink water the rest of the day.

This way I can still enjoy coffee (in moderation), yet limit the negative effects of caffeine, and allow time for the caffeine to get out of my system before bed. 

2. Avoid late-night meals and late-night alcohol. Although large meals and alcohol can make you sleepy, they can compromise the quality of your sleep. In other words, you might get to sleep quickly, but you might also wake several times throughout the night. It's best to eat a light meal and drink a small amount (if at all) earlier in the evening. 

ENVIRONMENT

3. Make your bedroom all about sleeping. Make it comfortable, quiet, dark, and slightly cool. Avoid using your bedroom as a place for working or watching TV. 

4. Pay attention to lighting. Exposure to light at night (particularly blue light) decreases the body's secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's natural circadian rhythm. Avoid bright screens (such as the TV, computer, or phone) for 2-3 hours before bed. If getting up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, use minimal lighting, such as a night light. In the morning, however, bright light actually strengthens the body's sleep rhythm.

5. Hide the clock while in bed. Sometimes looking at the clock makes us anxious about how little sleep we're getting, which makes it difficult to relax, which makes it hard to sleep, which keeps us awake and looking at the clock, which makes us anxious about our inadequate sleep ... . You get the idea. 

It's a viscious cycle.

I've certainly done this. Best to avoid the clock-watching drama altogether. :)

6. Get out of bed if you can't sleep. If you are lying in bed and simply cannot sleep, get out of bed, go somewhere else, and do a quiet and relaxing activity in low light. (I've listed some examples of relaxing activities in the next section.) Return to bed once you feel more tired.

ACTIVITY

7. Exercise regularly but not too close to bedtime. Engaging in regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality. However, exercise also increases alertness and can therefore make it difficult to fall asleep right afterward. For this reason, it is recommended that you exercise earlier in the day.

8. Avoid naps. Short naps (20-30 minutes) have been shown to improve alertness and performance during the day. However, for some people they can interfere with sleeping at night. If you have problems sleeping at night, it's best to avoid naps during the day.

limit naps to short or non-existent for better nighttime sleep9. Do relaxing activities before bed. A nightly winding-down bedtime ritual with low-key activities is helpful because it signals to your body that it's time to relax and prepare for sleep. Some examples include:

  • Leisurely reading - Remember to avoid screens and use low light. 
  • Journaling - This helps to get thoughts out of your head and can keep your mind from being overactive when it's time to sleep. (For more information on the health benefits of writing, check out this post.)
  • Activities with your hands - Examples include knitting or art work.
  • Taking a bath - Adding Epsom Salt and/or essential oils can offer a calming effect.  

10. Keep it consistent. Try to maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up time every day. Avoid shifting your sleep schedule too late on the weekends.

Lastly, if you have tried all of these and are still having difficulty sleeping, or if you suffer from any of the following:

  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea and other breathing disorders
  • Sleep walking/talking
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Seek help from a medical professional who is trained in diagnosing and treating these disorders. It can make a big difference in your health and quality of life.

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.