This year may be the most important yet for our collective understanding of sleep. The time we previously thought of as “offline maintenance mode” is actually a highly active, important process of cataloging short-term memories. And a sleep deficit as small as one hour per night substantially increases the risk of high blood pressure, unwanted weight gain, and rapid onset type 2 diabetes.
Science has also discovered that it’s not just how much sleep we get, but the quality of that sleep. Deeper, darker sleep (with blackout shades and cool temperature) is now being linked to better outcomes and longer lifespan in breast cancer survivors. (Experts call this practicing “good sleep hygiene.”) The positive effects on the immune system are undeniable.
As parents, we protect our kids from colds and other infections by teaching them to wash their hands. Why not put a couple of basic systems like that in place to enhance our nighttime brain activity? If you’re a “night owl” type who has a difficult time adhering to traditional sleep schedules, these 10 tips may help you get to sleep faster:
1. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
2. Get out and move more. Take Yoko Ono’s advice: “Walk until your body feels like dancing, then dance! You will find that you no more have difficulty in sleeping at night.”
3. Cover any clocks in the bedroom, and don’t look at the time in the middle of the night.
4. No alcohol, caffeine, or food two to three hours before bed.
5. Make the room very dark and cool, setting the temperature somewhere between 65 and 72 degrees.
6. Use white noise or guided sleep meditation to quiet your mind while falling asleep.
7. Establish a pre-bedtime ritual, such as a bath or shower.
8. Use essential oils or homemade sachets of real lavender in your bedding. Don’t change bed linens too often — slightly slept-in sheets are more comfortable to the body.
9. If after 20 minutes you haven’t fallen asleep, go do something outside the bedroom that is relaxing and boring. Then try again. Don’t lie in bed kvetching.
10. Last but not least, consider any stimulants you’re using (especially caffeine). Dark chocolate, while packed with antioxidants, also packs a wallop of caffeine compared to milk chocolate. Many people don’t even think of caffeine as a drug, because it’s in everything — energy drinks, Frappuccino, etc.; even some yogurts and ice creams contain 30 to 60 milligrams of caffeine.
“If you have any sleep disturbances — fairly common for people with HIV — caffeine can make them worse,” says Cade Fields-Gardner, director of services for a Chicago-based HIV nutrition firm. In a study of HIV-positive people and caffeine use, those who reduced their caffeine intake by 90 percent for more than 30 days saw a dramatic improvement in sleep quality. “It may be worthwhile to look at your caffeine consumption and, in some cases, to make the choices to reduce your intake.”
Wellness editor Sam Page is a fitness trainer and lifestyle expert in Los Angeles. Twitter: @SamPageFitness, Facebook.com/SamPageLA