By Dr. Ariel Campbell
Most adults have experienced symptoms of insomnia at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation between 30-50% of adults have occasional difficulties falling or staying asleep, waking up early, or waking up not feeling rested. Lack of adequate sleep can negatively influence our daily functioning by leading to impairments in attention and concentration, increased irritability, and overall poorer mental health. However, for those of us who suffer from occasional insomnia there are a number of healthy habits we can incorporate into our daily routines to improve our quality of sleep.
In order to understand how and why these habits can be useful in promoting restful sleep, knowing some basics about sleep is helpful. Our sleep is regulated by our body’s natural circadian rhythm. This circadian rhythm is responsible for our feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day and is controlled by light and dark signals that occur naturally in our environments. For adults, sleep proceeds in a predictable pattern that involves 4-5 repetitions of a 90-minute sleep cycle, with each sleep cycle including 5 sleep stages. During sleep, a number of changes happen in our bodies – our heart rate and breathing slow down, our blood pressure and body temperature drop, our bodies produce and regulate a number of important hormones including those that impact growth and hunger, and our brains cycle through varying levels of activity.
Now onto some of the daily habits that can promote and improve sleep…
First, developing a bedtime routine can be an effective strategy for helping our minds and bodies transition into a state of relaxation after a busy day. Having a structured pre-sleep routine that includes a relaxing activity, like reading or listening to music, can promote sleep by helping us to form habits that actually function to cue sleep. Stimulating activities and screens, on the other hand, should be avoided during the 30-60 minutes before bedtime and as a general rule of thumb the only activities that should be carried out in bed are those related to sleep and intimacy. Additionally, an essential part of any good sleep routine involves keeping regular sleep and wake times, even over the weekend, insofar as this helps to maintain a consistent circadian rhythm.
Second, attending to certain factors within our sleeping environment can help to ensure high-quality sleep. Since light is a powerful cue for our body’s internal clock, keeping the bedroom as dark as possible while sleeping and dimming the lights one hour before bedtime are helpful sleep habits. If fully avoiding screens before bedtime isn’t possible, switching your cell phone or computer screen into nighttime mode is advisable because the blue light of daytime mode (as opposed to the red light of nighttime mode) will actually delay the release of melatonin making it harder to fall asleep. Keeping the bedroom temperature between 60-70 degrees while sleeping is another useful strategy that works by helping our bodies to maintain the drop in body temperature that accompanies sleep. And lastly, since our brains are still active and responsive during sleep a final consideration when it comes to structuring our sleeping environment is to limit noise as much as possible. Noise tends to be most disruptive during the first and second stages of sleep and during the second half of the night. Additionally “peak” sounds, for example busy street noises, are more damaging to sleep than ambient background sounds. If it’s difficult to eliminate noise while sleeping, white noise can help to reduce disruptions in sleep due to sound. Today, there are many apps for white noise but a fan or air conditioner that produces a consistent sound will also do the trick.
Third, certain exercise and dietary habits have also been shown to impact sleep. Aerobic exercise, like walking, swimming, or biking, can aid in sleep by increasing the amount of time our body spends in the deeper and most restorative stages of sleep. 20 minutes or more of daily aerobic exercise engaged in 4-5 hours before bed is recommended. While your morning coffee can help energize you for the day ahead, drinking a second cup of coffee during the afternoon or evening hours can disrupt sleep. Additionally, alcohol has been shown to cause impairments in sleep – although it may initially cause drowsiness and induce sleep, consuming alcohol before bed is associated with significantly more sleep disruptions during the second half of the night.
And finally, the timing, size, and content of meals can play a role in getting a good night’s sleep. For improved sleep, it is generally recommended that your largest meals be eaten earlier in the day and that snacks consumed before bedtime include complex carbohydrates and avoid sugar. Complex carbohydrates like whole-wheat breads, vegetables, fruit, and nuts break down slowly and help to prevent sudden spikes and crashes in blood sugar that can interfere with sleep.
While occasional symptoms of insomnia are common and not a significant cause for concern, they can nonetheless be disruptive to our daily routines. By using the above strategies for managing bedtime routines and environments as well as diet and exercise, you can develop healthy sleep habits that will promote a full night’s sleep and help you to wake up feeling rested and refreshed.