You’re lying there in bed.
Alert. Staring at the ceiling.
The house is quiet.
Everyone else is sleeping.
“Why can’t I just go to sleep?” you start asking yourself, pushing yourself further and further from the rest that you desperately want.
If you find yourself in this scenario, stick around. In this article, I’ll be covering the basics of why we need sleep, what happens when we sleep, and tips for getting those hours of shut-eye.
Why sleep is so important
Sleep is essential to our health for many reasons. It helps regulate our immune system and many other bodily functions, including metabolism, cognitive function, thought and memory processing, and cell regeneration.
There are 5 phases of sleep:
- Phase 1- Non REM sleep.
- Phase 2- Non REM sleep.
- Phase 3 and 4- Slow Wave Non-REM sleep.
- Phase 5- REM sleep.
The first phase starts a few minutes after closing your eyes, and the last phase begins about 1.5 hours after you fall asleep. It is important that a person cycles through all the phases of sleep at least 4-5 times per night. To achieve all the cycles, you must get in roughly 6-8 hours of sleep nightly.
During these sleep phases your body slows down your heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. Additionally, a hormone called human growth hormone (GH) is released. This hormone is responsible for controlling metabolism, and when produced in sufficient amounts, it can help reduce body fat, improve lean muscle mass, and increase cardiovascular and respiratory function.
When you don’t get enough sleep
GH is released 1-2 hours after sleep has started (phase 5). It’s function is optimized when your first sleep cycle is complete before 1-2 AM.
When you’re sleep-deprived, and your bedtime is too late, GH release is delayed. As a result the GI and digestive cycles slow down,leading to weight gain and constipation. In addition, your risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and decline in cognitive function (including memory and thought processing) increases.
If you identify with the scenario in the intro, correcting your insomnia and ensuring that you are getting your hours of shut-eye is important to living a happy and healthy life.
Tips for getting yourself to sleep better and longer
While sleep may be alluding you now, rest assured that if you make a few adjustments to your routine and lifestyle, you’ll find yourself in the land of “zzz’s” in no time. So, as promised at the start of this article, here are seven tips and recommendations to help you on your way to better and longer sleep.
Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day.
- This includes the weekends! Depriving yourself of sleep during the week with plans of “catching up” on the weekends can disrupt your sleep-wake cycles and make falling asleep more difficult. It’s best to set your bedtime and wake up time at least 7-8 hours apart for optimal benefit. If you have trouble motivating yourself to get up early on the weekends, make plans with a friend to have breakfast, walk, or exercise to help keep you accountable for waking up on time. I promise that it will become easier within a week of sticking to the same schedule, and you will start to feel more rested and rejuvenated.
- Avoid napping during the day, especially in the evening. If you feel the need to nap, do so in the early afternoon and no more than 30 minutes. Excessive daytime sleep can throw off your sleep-wake cycles and make falling asleep more difficult at your determined bedtime.
Keep evening lights as low as possible for a few hours before bedtime.
- Low lighting stimulates the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. This hormone also helps to regulate your circadian rhythm or sleep cycles. Keeping your lights low before bedtime can help you feel tired and ready for bed at the appropriate time.
Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, cool, and comfortable.
- Your bedroom should be your sanctuary from the world. Keeping it free of noisy distractions helps to keep you asleep longer during the night.
- Studies show that bedrooms kept between 60-67 degrees fahrenheit are optimal sleeping conditions. Since our bodies naturally reduce our body temperature when we sleep, setting the thermostat lower induces this natural reaction and helps you fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Light is one of the body’s most powerful time cues. The sun’s warm light entering your bedroom can cause you to prematurely awaken long before your alarm goes off. If you have a lot of windows in your bedroom, consider a room darkening shade or curtain to help block the light out.
- Make sure that your mattress and frame meet your needs for comfort and support. A worn out and lumpy mattress can lead to a poor night’s sleep and even neck and back pain due to poor spine support. If you sleep with a partner, make sure your mattress is big enough to allow you both to move easily in your sleep.
- Lastly, never use your bed for anything but sleep and intimacy. All other activities, like TV, work, and reading, should be done elsewhere.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep. However, the type and the time of day you perform this exercise can either help or hinder your sleep. Do Aerobic exercises at least 4 hours before your bedtime. This gives your body time to come down from the endorphin high triggered by aerobic exercise. Exercises to perform closer to bedtime include Yoga, meditation, and stretching to induce relaxation.
Don’t eat too close to bedtime.
- Eating, especially heavy or spicy foods, too close to bedtime can lead to reflux or heartburn. A general rule of thumb is to wait for 3 hours before lying down in bed. Waiting allows time for digestion to occur and your food to move from the stomach and into your intestines, reducing the occurrence of heartburn.
- Beverages or foods with caffeine, such as tea, coffee, or chocolate, can also hinder the onset of sleep due to its stimulating properties. It is best to enjoy these beverages and foods at least 6 hours before bedtime.
Use the bathroom before bed.
- No one likes having to wake up to use the bathroom during the night. Make sure to limit all liquid intake at least 1-2 hours before bedtime to prevent excessive urination during the night. If you comply with this rule and are still experiencing frequent urination during the night, you may want to consult your PCP for further insight and evaluation.
- If you follow the above and still aren’t asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, get out of bed, and go back only if you’re sleepy. Avoid any screens such as TV, phone, or e-readers. Try doing a menial task like folding the basket of laundry that’s sat around for a week.
- If your mind racing is the cause of your insomnia, keep a notebook near your bed to write down your thoughts. Brain Dumping will help to calm your mind and allow you to fall asleep.
Your journey to a better night’s sleep without counting sheep starts by following just 1 or 2 of the above tips. If you can incorporate all of them, then you’ll be ahead of the game.
If you run into trouble creating an action plan to get yourself to a better night’s sleep, book a call with me so I can help you develop achievable steps to reach your goal of a better night’s sleep. You can find me at https://embody-pt.com/health-and-wellness-coaching/ or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Clinton PT, DPT, OCS, WCS, FAAOMPT, NBHWC
Susan is a certified health and wellness coach, an award-winning physical therapist in professional achievement, and co-owner of Embody Physiotherapy and Wellness in Sewickley, PA. She is an international instructor of post-professional education in women’s health (including GI issues in women), orthopedic manual therapy, and business psychology. Susan is the co-founder and board member for the foundation: Global Women’s Health Initiative. She is also the co-host of the 5 five-star podcast, “Tough to Treat,” the guide to treating complex patients, and “The Genius Project,” reframing the treatment of persistent musculoskeletal pain.