According to the National Sleep Foundation, poor or insufficient sleep affects at least 45% of adults.
Trying to function properly and get through your daily activities without enough sleep after just one night feels like trying to swim in molasses. Many people suffer from problems with sleep, or insomnia, on a regular, on-going basis.
Adequate sleep is one of the most essential requirements for good health. Inadequate sleep can result in poor attention and focus, difficulty with processing information, depression, weight gain and increase the likelihood of sickness.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you may be wondering what are the causes? And more importantly, what can be done to help? In this article, I’ll answer these questions and explain how to reset and optimize your sleep schedule.
What is Good Sleep?
Good sleep is based on the quantity and quality of sleep. In a report published in the Sleep Health Journal, good sleep is defined as being asleep for a minimum of 85% of the time you are in bed, falling asleep in 30 minutes or less, waking once per night maximum and being awake for 20 minutes or less throughout the night after initially falling asleep.
Insomnia can be short-term or acute, lasting from one night to a few weeks. Long-term or chronic insomnia is defined as sleep disturbance for a minimum of three nights per week for one month or more.
Before technology allowed us to record brain activity, sleep was perceived as a passive period of inactivity in which the brain shut down all but essential functions in order to rest. We now know that far from being inactive, sometimes when we sleep the brain is actually more active than during waking hours.
When we first drift off to sleep, we enter a sleep phase called non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM). This phase can be divided into three further parts which last on average around 60 minutes before we enter the rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep phase.
REM sleep makes up approximately 25% of our total sleep. This sleep cycle continues throughout the night.
What Causes Poor Sleep?
There are a wide variety of reasons why we may suffer from poor sleep. Changes in lifestyle and daily routine, and in particular the occurrence of a significant stressful life event can trigger insomnia.
Sickness is another common cause. This includes pain and physical or emotional distress.
Insomnia can also be associated with some medications – for example, cold remedies containing caffeine, and medications used to manage conditions such as asthma and high blood pressure.
Environmental factors such as excessive noise, too low or too high temperatures, and light can also disturb sleep and cause distress.
Our behaviors – including how our internal body clock is working – and the behavior of others prior to attempting to sleep can also have an impact on our quality of sleep.
How To Optimize Your Sleep Schedule
If you have trouble sleeping, the good news is there are many different ways to improve your sleep pattern.
1. Create a Relaxed Mood in Your Bedroom
Imagine you’re in a bar or café, with a TV on or music playing, people talking, laughing and moving around. Even if you happened to be tired, is it likely you’d fall asleep? Probably not.
The same goes for your bedroom. We are stimulated by noisy, busy environments, and relaxed by quiet, more serene scenarios. So you must aim to create the latter in your bedroom.
De-clutter your bedroom and keep it tidy so it’s a pleasant space to be in. Create a soft atmosphere with low-level lighting. Think about fitting a dimmer switch in your bedroom, or, providing it doesn’t cause a fire hazard, use an attractive scarf to diffuse the lighting.
Check your bed and mattress. In particular, a good mattress which is right for you – and this is unique for everyone – can make a world of difference when it comes to a good night’s sleep.
If you have a TV, computer or other such equipment, move them out of your bedroom to another area of your home. They give your brain the idea that your bedroom space is also a work or leisure space for wakeful activities.
Consider the temperature in your bedroom. Too cold makes it tough to sleep while you shiver, too hot makes us more irritable and sticky. A temperature just below body temperature helps us to feel more sleepy.
The colors in a bedroom also contribute to mood. Top house paint manufacturers Benjamin Moore recommend cool and neutral colors like pale blues, lilacs and greys, whites and creams to create a calming bedroom atmosphere.
2. Get Into a Regular Routine
We are creatures of habit. Our body clocks literally work like clockwork, so your sleep quality can be improved by going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time every morning. Your body will get into the habit of expecting bedtime, and respond accordingly.
If you’re having problems sleeping at night, try not to nap during the day. Even though a nap makes us feel more refreshed, it also makes it harder to sleep at night if you’re having difficulties getting a full night’s sleep.
3. Take a Look at Your Diet
What we eat and drink – and when we consume it can have a significant impact on sleep. Eating a big meal late at night has been shown to decrease the quality of sleep, so if you have your main meal in the evening, give yourself at least three hours to digest your food before bedtime.
Melatonin is a sleep-inducing antioxidant found in tart cherry juice. The body can produce its own melatonin but needs vitamin B6 to do so. Increasing your intake of B6-rich foods like bananas, chickpeas and fish, especially salmon, halibut and tuna can help to improve sleep – although probably not as part of the same dish!
A deficiency of magnesium has also been linked with poor quality of sleep. Increasing the amount of magnesium-rich foods like bulgur wheat, barley and other whole grains, leafy greens like spinach, kale and chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds and kefir can help to improve your sleep.
Short and poor quality sleep is associated with consuming sweetened, caffeinated beverages and the effects of caffeine can last for up to 12 hours, so switching to decaffeinated drinks in the afternoon and evening can dramatically improve sleep. Similarly, avoid all sugary snacks in the evening.
A great way to keep an eye on what you eat is by keeping a food journal, this can help you to identify if certain foods could be the root cause of your sleep disturbances. My Fitness Pal is one of the most popular tools to keep record of what you eat, count calories and track exercise. This could help you to keep track of what could be letting you down in the food department when it comes to getting a good night’s rest.
4. Alcohol and Sleep
Although having a nightcap might seem like a good idea, research suggests otherwise. Despite reducing the amount of time it takes us to fall asleep, alcohol has been shown to reduce both the overall amount and quality of sleep. In particular, consuming alcohol before bedtime significantly reduces the amount of REM sleep. Research shows that the more alcohol consumed, the more drastic the effects.
5. Physical Exercise and Sleep
Research has shown that physical activity stimulates and causes the body to be more alert due to the rush of released endorphins.
If you’re having trouble sleeping and you usually exercise in the evening, try exercising in the morning or at lunchtime instead.
Also, consider the forms of activity and exercise you do – for example, yoga has been linked to relaxation and improved quality of sleep.
If you’re new to yoga, you can try it in the comfort of your own home with some awesome yoga apps. A great one is Pocket Yoga, which is available in the itunes app store.
6. Meditation for Sleep
Meditation is an ancient practice which has become more popular in recent years. Given the meditative principles of silencing and calming the mind, it’s not surprising that research suggests a positive effect on sleep quality.
It takes time and practice to develop good meditation skills, but as an introduction, try a guided meditation for sleep, many of which are widely available on the internet free of charge.
7. Prepare Your Body for Bedtime
If we’re on the go all day, right up until bedtime, it’s difficult for our bodies to just switch into sleep mode. What we do in the day, and particularly in the evening – has a big influence on our quality of sleep.
At least 30 minutes before bedtime, dim the lights, turn off the TV, put down your iPad and eliminate other noises where possible. Consider putting your phone on silent, and leaving non-urgent calls and messages until morning.
Try to create a regular bedtime routine. Good things to include are reading a book – as long as the plot doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat, or listening to calming music.
Many people find that taking a bath makes them feel more relaxed and sleepy, others report beverages like warm milk or chamomile tea increase feelings of calmness and help them to prepare for bedtime.
It can be more difficult to sleep when we have lots of things on our mind. If you are worrying about situations or problems, it can help to write them down.
Some people keep a notepad by the side of their bed to write any problems down if they wake through the night. Other people report filling in a journal as part of their bedtime routine helps.
8. Essential Oils
Various different essential oils have been researched and found to help improve quality of sleep. It is thought that the inhaled oil creates a biological signal causing the brain to release many different chemicals that calm the nervous system.
Lavender, sandalwood and cedarwood have all been scientifically proven to promote sleep, and can be used by added to a carrier oil according to the manufacturer’s instructions and applying to your pillow, bedding and nightwear.
9. Medical Treatments for Insomnia
If lack of sleep is affecting your daily life, it’s worth considering going to see your doctor. There are traditional medications available which are worth considering, particularly for severe short-term sleep disturbance. In longer term problems some medication can create dependency or require a higher dose to remain effective.
However, sleeping pills are not the only form of medical treatment available for insomnia. Research indicates both psychobehavioral and cognitive behavioral therapy can both significantly help with insomnia.
Acupuncture has been shown in research to be highly effective in improving quality of sleep – in fact, many people who have a course of acupuncture for entirely different medical conditions report increased quality of sleep after acupuncture treatment.
The most important things to remember if you are suffering from disturbed sleep is that you are not alone – at least 50% of the population suffer from problems with sleep. While a lack of sleep can make you feel helpless, there are a number of things you can try to take control of your situation and improve your sleep.
In general, it’s important to make sure your bedroom is a nice, inviting but relaxing space, and to try to develop a calm evening routine that helps to prepare for bedtime.
Consider how your daily routine, exercise and diet could be influencing your night time sleeping pattern, and look at what you can do to change things to help you improve your chances of a good night’s sleep.
Record the changes you make to your routine, and how it affects your sleep. Different solutions work better for different people, so it’s important to try a variety of solutions to help you to improve your sleep.
If there’s no improvement after making changes, consider seeking medical help, but with an open mind – medical treatment for insomnia are not all pharmaceutically based anymore.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself in respect of not sleeping. Getting worried and anxious about it is unlikely to help improve things. Try to keep calm and stay positive.
This article was originally published in Health Ambition