9 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

February 26, 2022

dog sleeping in bed

Wake early, work out, sip your coffee, pack the lunches, dress for work, drive in rush-hour, work, meetings, manicure, commute, cook dinner, chauffer kids, help with homework, do the laundry, walk the dog, go to book club, shop for groceries, answer email, call your mom, read that new book…. What’s missing here? Sleep!

How hard is it to get a healthy amount of sleep every night? Very! Life seems to move faster with every passing year. There is so much to do every day that you hardly have time for yourself. And while you can cut out that manicure without suffering ill effects, the same can’t be said for sleep. Without a healthy amount of quality sleep, everything else on your to-do list is at risk.

Why is sleep so important?

Quality sleep is critical to maintaining your overall health and well-being. Sleep refreshes your cells, aids your memory, helps regulate moods, and helps clear away waste proteins that built up in your brain during the day. It sort of reboots your body and brain. Sleep helps your neurons make connections, helping you learn and make memories. Without adequate sleep, you may have a harder time concentrating and notice your response times are slower. Over time, too little sleep or poor-quality sleep increases your risk of chronic disease, obesity, and mood disorders.

Sleep deficiency is tied to depression, suicide, risky behavior, poor decision making, and difficulty solving problems, regulating behavior, and controlling emotions.

In short, sleep affects your body, mind, and behavior. It affects nearly every body system.

What regulates our sleep cycle?

You’ve probably heard of your circadian rhythm, or biological clock. This is your body’s natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness, which is influenced by factors like light, stress, hormones, and sleeping habits that we develop (like staying up late, sleeping during the day).

Cortisol and melatonin and sleep

The hormones cortisol and melatonin are crucial to regulating your circadian rhythm and sleep quality. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body to sleep. Your melatonin levels begin to rise, on average, 14-16 hours after you wake up, preparing you to sleep again at night. If your circadian rhythm gets off schedule (night owls, anyone?) or if you don’t produce the right amount of melatonin, you can have trouble sleeping.

Cortisol, on the other hand, is responsible for your sleep/wake cycle. It is produced in the morning when it’s time to wake, and levels rise during the day to give you energy. It then falls when melatonin takes over your rhythm in the evening.

What’s keeping you awake?

If cortisol and melatonin are supposed to be regulating your sleep cycle, what’s keeping you awake?

Stress — Cortisol is also the stress hormone responsible for our fight-or-flight response. Your brain responds to any stress as a life or death situation and releases cortisol. Too much cortisol makes your brain react as if you are in danger, making it difficult to sleep.

Shift work or unusual sleep habits — Our bodies are designed to sleep at night and be awake during the day. When we work against that natural cycle, due to shift work or habits, we create a disconnect between our biological clock and our environment. We can adjust somewhat, but it remains difficult to work against the signals that normally prompt our cycle.

Electronics — The circadian rhythm is sensitive to light. In our distant past, it was the morning light that triggered the release of cortisol to wake us up. Now research has discovered that the light from our computers, phones, tablets, and energy-efficient light bulbs actually delay the release of melatonin. So checking your email, watching a video, or reading an e-book before bed to wind down will have the unwanted effect of keeping you awake.

Caffeine and other stimulants — American or Canadian, we love our coffee. But it does tend to keep us awake. Research has shown that caffeine delays our biological clock, even as long as six hours after drinking our last cup.

Hit the reset button for better sleep

Going to sleep is easier if you help your brain and body, settle and move into a calm state in advance of sleep.  Sleep isn’t like a light switch that we can flick on or off; it’s a process that our body gradually moves in and out of.  If we recognize that process, then it’s easier for us to assist our mind and body to move in and out of sleep.  Here are some tips for hitting your reset button when sleep seems like an unattainable dream:

  1. De-stress — Yoga, exercise, practicing mindfulness, and laughing with friends are a few healthy stress busters that can help lower your cortisol levels. The better equipped you are to deal with stress, the healthier you will be. A little bit of yoga, or even the yoga breathing practice, can help you mind move towards the sleep state.
  2. Light therapy — Reintroduce your body to its natural sleep/wake cycle by spending time outdoors, in natural light, and sleeping when it’s dark. Make sure your room is dark for sleeping; this helps your mind to maintain good sleeping patterns and hormone levels.
  3. Limit caffeine and other stimulants — Caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes can negatively affect the amount and quality of sleep you get. If you indulge, limit your intake and stop more than six hours before bedtime.
  4. Unplug!— Dim the lights and put down your electronics an hour or two before bedtime. Create a ritual of putting your devices in a place outside the bedroom for the night and learn not to be tempted by them.
  5. Be consistent— Consistent sleep patterns can help you long-term. Irregular sleep and wake patterns can confuse your circadian rhythm.
  6. Melatonin can help— On occasion, a melatonin supplement can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep. It’s important to know that a very tiny amount of melatonin can be more than enough for many people. Talk to your doctor before starting any supplement and try a micro-dose of melatonin to start (break up the smallest dose pill and start there.  It’s always best to use the smallest amount necessary).
  7. Control your environment— Set up your bedroom to optimize your sleep experience. Minimize noise and lower your thermostat (it has been shown that you sleep better in cooler temperatures).
  8. Relax with a pre-bed routine— Techniques such as meditation or book reading (a real book – not an e-book) can help wind you down.
  9. Deep BreathingDeep breathing has been clinically proven to calm and relax us. Build a routine that includes 2-3 minutes of deep breathing to calm your mind and ready your body for sleep

Still awake?

If you still can’t catch those zzzz’s, consider talking to your doctor to rule out a sleep disorder. Good quality sleep, and plenty of it, is too important to ignore.

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