There is significant research indicating that the best way to improve our mood, performance, energy level and ability to limit our food intake is the right amount of sleep. While sleep has been found to be critical for daily functioning, we often do not give it a lot of thought. May is Better Sleep Month and is a perfect opportunity to evaluate and fine-tune our sleeping habits. Improving the timing and duration of our sleep can pay dividends.
Chronic lack of sleep has been associated with poor school and job performance, an increase in accidents, weight gain, depression and anxiety. As Americans, we often pride ourselves on sleeping less and doing more. There is a significant cost associated with chronic lack of sleep, however. Over time, decreased sleep quality or quantity actually makes us less efficient. While every individual needs a different amount of sleep, on average an adult requires between seven and eight and a half hours of sleep a night. Too much or too little sleep can cause increased health risks.
Taking a little time now to assess your sleep habits can be very worthwhile. Making some small changes in your sleep routine and environment can make a big difference in how refreshed you feel in the morning. The following guidelines will help you maximize the restorative quality of sleep.
» Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
It’s important to set your biological clock to an assigned bedtime and wake-up time each day, even on weekends. If you feel you really do need to sleep in on weekends, limit the extra time to one to two hours. Any more time sleeping in will interfere with you going to bed on time and lead to a “jet lag” effect. The more consistently you adhere to this set time, the more efficient your body will become at sleeping during this period of time.
» Ban digital devices from the bedroom.
Digital devices such as cell phones and iPods emit a blue light that stimulates our brains and can interfere with sleep. The mere presence of these devices can provoke anxiety and worry. If you really must have a digital device in your room when you sleep, turn it to silence and make sure you can’t see the light it emits.
» Sleep in a cool, dark and quiet room.
Optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 and 71 degrees with layers of blankets on the bed to keep warm. Use a sleep mask and a noise machine, if needed. Sleeping in a room that is overly warm, cold, noisy or light can interfere with sleep.
» Do not go to bed very full or hungry.
Avoid eating big meals within three hours of bedtime to allow your body time to digest the food. Also, limit any spicy food close to bedtime and limit fluid intake so as not to cause you to need to get up in the middle of the night to urinate. It’s important not to go to bed hungry either. If you feel you want a light snack before bed, consider milk, whole grain cereal, cheese and crackers, or an apple with peanut butter. These foods contain tryptophan and may make you feel drowsy.
» Limit caffeine and alcohol prior to bed.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake and should be limited after midday. Alcohol is a depressant and should also be limited. It can make you fall asleep more easily, but can interfere with the quality of your sleep, causing many night awakenings.
» Limit naps during the day.
A nap during the day can be refreshing if it is kept short (30 minutes or less) and occurs prior to 3 p.m. If you are consistently napping, evaluate if you are giving yourself enough time to sleep at night.
» Exercise daily.
Exercise has been shown to help regulate sleep. Exercising outside has the added benefit of exposing your body to the sun that helps regulate your biological clock. Do not engage in vigorous exercise three hours prior to bed as this can make it difficult to fall asleep.
» Develop a relaxing pre-bedtime ritual.
The routine of preparing for bed can be a relaxing and get you ready to sleep. Consider a warm bath or shower, quiet reading or listening to calming music as a pre-bedtime routine.
» Seek help if you consistently have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, consider seeking help. A sleep study can determine if you suffer form sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or other sleep issues. A sleep medicine professional or a psychologist who works with sleep problems can support you in developing cognitive and behavioral strategies to address primary and secondary insomnia. Resources about improving sleep and diagnosing sleep disorders can be found at sleepfoundation.org, bettersleep.orgbettersleep.org and sleepapnea.org.
Wishing you a good night of sleep!
— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at email@example.com. She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.