Happy National Sleep Awareness Month! Last week we learned about the importance of a consistent sleep schedule and 3 important components of the sleep-wake cycle: hormones, circadian rhythm, and sleep drive.
Today we’re talking about healthy habits for sleep. These tips are not a substitute for speaking with your physician, therapist, or sleep specialist but offer general guidelines and actionable steps to improve your sleep.
Overall lifestyle habits
Early light exposure
One of the best things you can add to your daily routine is getting bright light exposure first thing in the morning. Last week, we learned about the circadian rhythm – the mechanism in your brain that regulates your sleep-wake cycle – and this system is significantly affected by light exposure. Try drinking your coffee by a brightly lit window, take a morning stroll around the block, or use a light therapy box (ask your doctor or sleep specialist) to help improve your sleep.
On the flip side, too much bright light 2 hours before bed can keep you up – so try dimming the lights and using blue-light blockers (see more below) in the evenings.
Consistent moderate exercise (think: a brisk walk) can improve both sleep onset (how long it takes you to fall asleep) and reduce daytime sleepiness. It can also reduce stress and provides many physical and mental health benefits! Try 20 minutes per day.
A caveat for exercise: don’t exercise vigorously within 2 hours of bedtime. Exercise can elevate nervous system activity and get in the way of falling asleep. If you’d like to move your body closer to bedtime, try a relaxing yoga class (try yin yoga or yoga nidra) or gentle stretching.
Meals are another vital part of regulating our sleep-wake cycle. Eating meals at consistent times helps the nervous system stay balanced and operate optimally. Try to avoid heavy meals 2 hours before bedtime – digesting food can elevate body temperature and make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
You probably know from your own experience that stress negatively impacts sleep. Stress elevates cortisol, increases heart rate, and can lead to rumination and worry. Working with a therapist, journaling, mindfulness practice, focusing on controllable stressors, exercise, and relaxation training can all help you manage your stress so it doesn’t impact your sleep.
Sleep hygiene and bedtime routines
Keep a comfortable bedroom
Spend some time looking around your bedroom and ask yourself what you can add or remove to make it more comfortable. Ideally, you want a comfortable bed, a cool (but not cold) temperature, minimal or constant noise (like a white noise machine or a fan), and no light. Feel free to add helpful tools such as ear plugs, blackout curtains, and eye masks to block out light and sound.
If you’re struggling with sleep – avoid naps
Remember sleep drive from last week? Sleep drive builds up over the course of the day to help us fall asleep at night. Have you ever had a snack before dinner and ruined your appetite? The same can happen with naps and sleeping at night. The impact of naps varies from person to person.
Avoid caffeine 4 - 6 hours before bedtime
Remember that caffeine doesn’t just mean coffee – caffeine is found in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate, and many over-the-counter medications.
Avoid alcohol after dinner (or all together!)
Alcohol may feel like it’s relaxing you and helping you sleep, but it disrupts and fragments sleep if consumed too close to bedtime. Try limiting alcohol consumption to 1 drink (for women) or 2 drinks (for men) with dinner rather than in the hours after. Even this low amount of alcohol can be disruptive to sleep, however, so indulge occasionally (or not at all!).
Limit blue light 60 - 90 minutes before bedtime
Did you know that bright light exposure from our devices can reduce melatonin levels? This is particularly true for blue light emitted from things like our phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs. If you must use technology after sunset, I recommend using a blue light filter (check your device settings!) or install a free app called Flux.
Start winding down from the day 60 minutes before bedtime
Give yourself some extra time to build a sleep routine 60 minutes before bed. You can try: dimming the lights, getting into cozy pajamas, spending 20 minutes in a tub of hot water, taking time to wash your face and do your skin care, reading a book or doing a puzzle, meditating, journaling, and/or practicing gratitude.
I know that’s a lot! To prevent feeling overwhelmed, remember to start where you are and choose 1 or 2 habits to work on at a time.
These tips are not a replacement for assessment and treatment by a sleep specialist, physician, and/or therapist.
For more support and guidance, book a consultation with me to get started with a specialized treatment for insomnia called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).