By Laurel-Lea Shannon
As anyone who suffers from sleep deprivation knows, there’s a world of difference between a good night’s sleep and a bad one—feeling energetic versus feeling fatigued, even-tempered versus irritable and moody. Why does a good night’s sleep make such a difference to how you feel the next day? Sleep is restorative. It shifts your body and mind into low gear—your heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism slow down, your cells repair themselves and make new cells, and neurotransmitters in the brain are restored to normal levels. All of which not only give you the energy to work and play but help you to think more clearly and improve your memory and your mood.
“Losing even one night’s sleep has a marked physiological effect on the body,” says neurologist David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book. Lack of sleep weakens your immune system leaving you vulnerable to flu and colds. It can cause spikes in blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic condition that accelerates brain aging. And sleep problems are associated with mood disorders such as irritability, anxiety and depression.
Being sleep-challenged, I’ve made a study of what interferes with sleep, and what are the best ways to gain access to slumberland and stay there for eight or nine hours. Here are my seven best ways to get a good night’s sleep:
Reduce caffeine: This is something that I resisted for years. Being sleep deprived, my energy sagged in the afternoon. My solution? Two cups of strong black tea. Not only did that pick up my energy for the rest of the work day and evening, but, unbeknownst to me, it also interfered with my sleep cycle. It didn’t seem possible that that tea I drank at 3 pm could be responsible for waking me up twelve hours later at 3 am (and keep me awake for two hours). A naturopath convinced me to reduce my morning caffeine and eliminate my afternoon tea. It took a few days but the quality of my sleep improved dramatically. If you’re caffeine-sensitive, even one cup of coffee in the morning can steal your shut-eye.
Limit alcohol: Alcohol can cause you to wake up frequently during the night, preventing you from getting into the deepest phases of sleep. It takes two to three hours for your body to clear the alcohol in one drink from your system. If you drink, do it at least four hours before you go to bed. And remember, the recommended alcohol limit for women is one drink per day.
Get enough light and dark: Optimizing your melatonin levels (the hormone that helps regulate sleep) requires lots of daylight during the day and complete darkness in the evening. Most of us have inadequate light during the day and too much light in the evenings. If you work in an office all day, try to get out for a walk before work and at lunch time.
Unfortunately, we’re all over-exposed to light in the evening. Watching TV or working on the computer in the evening also disturbs your sleep cycle. Screens emit quite a lot of blue light, which reduces melatonin. Rather than watch TV or work on your computer, read a book or magazine that relaxes you before bed.
At night, keep your bedroom dark and cool. It will help you sleep better. That’s because melatonin increases in the dark and when your body’s core temperature drops slightly. How dark should your room be? Even a small amount of light (i.e. street lights, night lights, lights from clocks) can interfere with your sleep. Eliminate the small lights from your bedroom. If you don’t have opaque blinds to block out street lights, consider wearing a sleep mask. They completely block out the light and are easy to get used to.
(Some people find that taking between 3 to 6 mg of melatonin for a few days before bed can restore their natural sleep cycle. Health food stores carry melatonin but it’s best to check with your doctor before taking it.)
Exercise helps: Lack of exercise can cause insomnia but exercising too late in the day can also cause it. That’s because exercise revs you up and increases your heart rate. Work out in the evening and you could be in for a long night of tossing and turning. On the other hand, a gentle evening walk, what the Italians call a passeggiata, can be calming and help you wind down before bed.
Keep to a sleep routine: If you have trouble sleeping it can be tempting to sleep in to make up for sleep you didn’t get during the night. But it’s better to establish a sleep routine and stick to it, even on the weekends. Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time helps establish a sleep routine.
Protein: Eating a small amount of high-quality protein at each meal will level out your blood sugar and help keep you from experiencing low blood sugar, which can mess with your sleep cycles. To calculate how much protein you need, read More Power with Protein.
Meditate: If anxious thoughts keep you awake at night, consider taking up mindfulness meditation. A daily meditation practise that takes as little as five to fifteen minutes has been shown to have profound effects on the emotions and the brain. A recent article about meditation in the New York Times, states that with as little as five minutes per day “a happier outlook is yours for the taking.” And you don’t have to meditate for years before you see other big changes. Studies have shown that when participants meditated for only five weeks, mindfulness meditation changed how they felt and thought — and it does that at a neurological level, changing brain activity.
To meditate, sit quietly and focus on your breath, allowing your thoughts to come and go while continuing to return your attention to your breath. That’s it. Choose a time that works best for you and commit to that. The benefits come with regular daily practise.
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