Friday, January 17th is National “Ditch Your Resolution Day.” We’ve all been there. But, 2021 can be different for you—and I’m going to tell you how you can turn your resolution into a lifestyle…starting with the “why.”
Sleep regulates so many of the functions your body needs to maintain optimal health and wellbeing, which translates to your day-to-day patient care, emotional balance, nurturing relationships and managing all the “things” in life. Sleep-related errors cost organizations billions of dollars yearly, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Insomnia is reported to be the most common sleep disorder, with 30% of adults struggling and 10% living with chronic insomnia. Nearly 40% of adults fall into the “short sleep duration” category by the standards set by the American Sleep Association.
But, there’s something more that you hear about less often, and that’s sleep quality. Falling asleep with ease, infrequently waking up during the night and the ability to fall back asleep within 20 minutes when you do wake throughout the night are all examples of good sleep quality. Just like in veterinary medicine, quality can be more important than quantity.
What does all this mean for you? Adopting sleep hygiene habits can transform not just your nights, but also your days. Our biological clock helps regulate sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone release, blood pressure and body temperature. Therefore, mastering the formula for your sleep can translate to success in other areas of your life.
After I had my son in April, my friends reminded me about the importance of sleep and that sleep deprivation is actually used as a means of interrogation, and it is debated to be a form of torture. I needed no reminder, as I battled insomnia in my 20’s and it is the utmost priority for my wellbeing routines.
Common misconceptions fuel poor sleep habits, such as having an alcoholic beverage at the end of a hard day. It may bring the sandman earlier in the evening, but the quality of sleep is the price you pay, as it reduces REM sleep. And, scrolling through social media before bed confuses your brain, making it difficult to “shutdown.”
You may be aware of what poor sleep looks like in your life. If not, now is a great time to start connecting those dots. So, let’s do something about it so that you can operate at your optimum level. Here are some practical tips I’ve distilled from years of experience and study.
Structure Your Evening Routine with the 3, 2, 1 Wind-down
No food three hours before bed. Give the GI tract time to digest before bed—the term “meat sweats” is a real term for a reason. You can and should test this. Keep notes on how well you sleep as you move up dinner time. I send myself emails as a reminder of habit changes, whether the following day I am feeling better or worse by what I ate, or when I ate it.
Baby steps are crucial in creating lasting habit change. Limit food to minimal intake; better yet, choose fruit or foods that have melatonin content such as cherries and take very little energy to digest.
Two hours before bed, limit (baby step), and then completely eliminate, all work. That may mean no emails, no social media, no charting, and no discussing the family budget or other topics that will excite the brain and confuse the hormones needed to switch from being “on” and performing to “off” and resting.
One hour before bed, align your body and mind to rest and prepare for sleep.
Meditation is a perfect way to do this to reconnect the mind and body while physically allowing your muscles to be at ease. Simply relaxing on the couch can be sufficient as well. If you must exercise in the evenings, aim for pre-dinner workouts.
Utilize “do not disturb” on your phone, as well as the phones of others in the house, starting a few hours before bedtime. Success is more likely when surrounded by positive support and like-minded individuals. Exercising gratitude when people support you in this is huge!
You have to find out what works for you. Start tracking how long it takes for your mind and body to begin relaxing. For example, I take longer than my significant other.
Sample routine; shower, eat dinner, shut down the house/prepare for the next day, relax, meditate, lay down.
Schedule “Mentally Taxing” Conversations
This means anything that will make you start processing with your brain or elicit strong emotions, which can be draining yet invigorating. These conversations may take place with someone you live with, or even your self-talk. If you are going to reflect on a recent scenario for whatever reason, save it. Actually plan a time in your schedule to address it and stick to it, building trust with your own brain.
Pillow talk is not the time and place for problem solving. You will be far more effective at solving these issues with a good night of sleep. Having what starts as an innocent conversation at the end of a day when you and your spouse’s batteries are drained can quickly turn sideways. The same conversation the next morning can be far more fruitful and connect the two of you.
Establish a Bedtime
Yep, I said it. We all thought as adults we were free from the dreaded “bedtime.” You can think you’re cool without one, but some of the most successful people in the world have a bedtime. You’ll notice a pattern of carving out specific times dedicated to specific activities along the road to being well. You don’t have to do the work of determining what should be done, suffering from decision fatigue day in and day out, you already know each day what the flow will be. Of course, there can be exceptions!
Choose Your Spectacles Wisely
During your evening hours when you are looking at screens, put on a pair of blue light glasses, which can be found on Amazon. And don’t wear sunglasses during the day at lunch. Your eyes are the gateway for sunlight to trigger your hormones which regulate the proper production for sleep and wake periods. So, if you go for a walk outside at lunch, you are less likely to have a crash in the afternoon and more likely to get sleepy once the sun goes down—which can prevent you from reaching for the caffeine after lunch and further delaying your bedtime.
Turn the Temp Down
Add this step to your nightly routine of shutting down the house (if you don’t have a programmable thermostat). Optimal temp for sleeping is 68 degrees. I know what it is like to live with another human who is not of the “flame on” variety, and instead looks for the thickest pair of sweatpants. So be reasonable with your thermostat, but aim for cool temps.
Support Your Physical Body
Invest in a quality mattress that will support your aging body and help you recover physically. Allow yourself multiple lumbar-sized pillows to support the space between your body and bed. Popular spots are between the knees, under the knees and ankles, behind your lumbar area or between your arms (one that your hand and wrist can lay over if your arm is under your head). This helps to promote circulation to joints. Pillows can hold in dust mites and trigger respiratory issues, also leading to disruptions of sleep, so make sure to wash and dry routinely.
Appeal to the Senses
White noise, sleep music or binaural beats can help light sleepers drift off or stay asleep. Certain sounds can promote healing on a cellular level. Diffusing relaxing oils and opening the window to allow fresh air in can both aide in what our brains find conducive for relaxation. Having clean, soft bedding help both touch and smell.
Contrary to popular belief, blackout curtains do not work in your favor. A dark room is necessary, but when the sun rises, the light cues hormone production to gently and gradually wake up your system. An abrupt alarm interrupts the current cycle that you are in, often resulting in a groggy feeling and being unprepared for work/school mode.
Mindful breathing and a performing a body scan are my number one recommendations for helping the sleep process along. That is accomplished simply by bringing your awareness to the breath and the sensations of breathing; being aware of where you feel the breath—at your nose or in your chest—and the rise and fall of your abdomen. Beginning at the crown of your head, do a scan, releasing muscle tension throughout the body, allowing the tongue to fall away from the roof of the mouth, your furrowed brow to rest and your shoulders to melt, and then notice the sensation of the blanket against your skin.
Do what you can in incremental steps to integrate these new habits into your daily life, peacefully. Forcing your way into relaxing by trying to implement new habits without being mindful of the benefits along the way can cause people to misunderstand cause and effect, get down on themselves for not being perfect and, therefore, give up.
By following these tips and starting from where you are, you will be well on your way to unlocking your greatest potential in restful and restorative sleep—not just for the new year—but for years to come. +