There is nothing more frustrating than tossing and turning while waiting to fall asleep. And chances are, if you’re one those who struggle with sleep, you’ve tried it all, from medication, to counting sheep, to counting your partner’s exhales. But the answer is often simple and it begins the moment you wake up. Here are a few daytime strategies to help you align your body and mind for optimal sleep.
1. Establish a regular sleep-wake schedule
The single most effective strategy for improved sleep is establishing a consistent schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Pre-deadline days, weekends, birthdays, and holidays are no exception; your circadian rhythm does not, unfortunately, accommodate your social life or your professional obligations. It is vital to maintain consistency despite the occasion.
Inconsistent sleep schedules correlate with poor sleep quality, increased sleep latency [time it takes to fall asleep], and shortened sleep duration. To establish consistency in your sleep routine, start by determining your sleep need. The majority of the adult population requires 7.5 to 9 hours each night for optimal performance and alertness the following day. However, this need fluctuates with age and activity level, and is largely specific to the individual.
Studies show that most people overestimate their actual sleep and underestimate their sleep need [you would have thought it’s the other way!], so choose a realistic schedule that fulfills your true sleep need and stick to it. Adding one to two more hours can dramatically change your health, your mood, and your daytime performance.
2. Ditch the snooze button
If you’re getting enough sleep and keeping a regular schedule, you should have no use for an alarm, much less the snooze button. It’s not an issue of mind over matter, it’s a physiological necessity. If you’re not getting enough sleep or if you’re waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle, you’re going to feel drowsy, but pressing the snooze button won’t help.
Pressing it affords you only a few minutes of fragmented rest, which leaves you feeling more groggy than you would otherwise. Either set your alarm later to maximise quality sleep or bite the bullet and wake up on the first alarm and plan for a power nap or an earlier bedtime.
3. Expose yourself to bright light every morning
Your body’s physiological [circadian] rhythm is a symphony of physiological and behavioral patterns conducted by the suprachiasmatic nuclei [SCN], a 20,000 neuron area in the brain’s hypothalamus. Through electrical impulse, the SCN controls the crescendos and decrescendos of body temperature, hormone production and release, neural activity, and resultant patterns of drowsiness and alertness. These cycles maintain a pattern that is nearly 24 hours in length, but they depend on external stimuli, namely light, to keep the cycle in sync with the 24 hour progression of the external world.
Start your day by exposing yourself to bright [ideally natural] light for at least 15 minutes first thing in the morning to “sync” your circadian rhythm and activate the systems that keep you awake and active.
4. Avoid light exposure within one hour of sleep
Melatonin is a hormone chiefly responsible for coordinating your circadian rhythm. Its release is dependent on the absence of light. The absence of light triggers melatonin release, which initiates the onset of sleep and is integral to every stage of sleep thereafter.
Electronic devices like TV and iPads emit daylight spectrum light. As long as you’re in front of a screen or under bright household lights, you’re inhibiting melatonin release and sleep onset. It’s important to avoid light exposure for an hour before going to sleep or wear blue light blocking glasses to prevent retinal stimulation. This cues your body to release melatonin and ready itself for sleep.
5. Cut caffeine from late afternoon to bedtime
It takes at least six hours to metabolise caffeine, so it’s a good idea to stop drinking energy drinks, sodas, coffee, and tea from late in the afternoon until bedtime. Also avoid other caffeine sources, including chocolate or java flavoured desserts and protein bars, and more surprising sources including some weight-loss pills and pain relievers.
The final caffeine caveat is to mind your decaffeinated beverages. The FDA designates decaffeinated coffee as containing 2-5mg of caffeine per 5oz cup. This concentration alone can disrupt sleep and considering that most retailed decaf coffee contains levels far exceeding this limit, it’s wise to completely cut coffee consumption from mid afternoon.
6. Avoid alcohol consumption within three hours of bedtime
If you’re one to partake, you know that alcohol, being a depressant, can make you drowsy. But don’t let this sensation fool you into believing that alcohol consumption aids sleep. Alcohol, in fact, does just the opposite. It disrupts your circadian rhythm, causing mid-night awakenings and preventing restorative REM sleep.
Aside from disturbing your physiological sleep rhythm, alcohol can increase snoring and sleep apnea by decreasing muscle tone and it will likely cause disruptive trips to the restroom [not the kind of rest you want or need].
Avoiding alcohol consumption within three hours of bedtime ensures a restful and uninterrupted snooze.
7. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise reduces the incidence of insomnia, decreases snoring and sleep apnea through weight loss, and improves overall restfulness through improved respiration and circulation.
Body temperature is an important component of circadian rhythm. Core body temperature spikes during exercise, then plummets approximately five hours later. Coordinating this with the natural rise in body temperature in the morning or the natural drop in body temperature preceding sleep optimises the onset, quality, and duration of sleep.
Morning and afternoon exercise are therefore optimal, while evening and late night workouts are likely to delay the onset of sleep. However, if you opt for a morning workout, be sure not to compromise your nocturnal sleep requirement.
8. Eat a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet
When it comes to diet, the major aim is stabilising blood sugar, obtaining necessary micronutrients, and balancing consumption of protein, fibre, and healthy fat. Doing so will promote healthy hormone production and release, avoid inflammation, equip your body with adequate fuel, and ultimately contribute to optimal sleep latency, quality, and duration.
Stabilise blood sugar by eating meal low in glycemic index every five hours. Avoid processed foods and added sugar. This will help regulate cortisol levels, preventing disruption of REM sleep.
Build your meals up from a base of vitamin and mineral rich veggies, clean proteins, and healthy fats. This will provide the necessary precursors for sleep inducing hormones, while minimising inflammation and spikes in blood glucose.
Begin curbing difficult-to-digest foods three hours before bedtime. This includes spicy, fried, and high protein foods. Instead, opt for fruits such as cherries, kiwis, and bananas, which are readily digestible and packed with potassium and magnesium for muscle relaxation.
9. Quit smoking
Cigarette smoke is a multifaceted sleep thief. Nicotine, a stimulant, inhibits the onset of sleep and causes insomnia and increased awakenings. Individuals who smoke cigarettes are also 2.5 times more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea due to inflamed tissues in the nose and throat.
Smoking alters the expression of genes that facilitate circadian rhythms and may permanently hamper the quality of your sleep. Quitting relieves symptomatic sleep problems and avoiding cigarettes altogether places you among the soundest sleeping demographic.
10. Practice mindfulness
Maintaining a prayer life or cultivating a meditation or yoga practice has been linked to healthier sleep habits and sounder sleep. These practices maintain stress hormone levels during the day that otherwise accumulate to disrupt the onset and depth of sleep come nighttime.
Meditation enhances neural plasticity and network synchronisation, which allows for seamless transitions into and out of deep sleep.
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