Sleep is one of the most important things that we can do for ourselves and our health, yet most of us are not getting enough good sleep. Sleep deprivation does more than just make us feel tired. It can raise our blood pressure, cause memory loss, prevent healthy weight management, impair our immune system, and more.
For many of us, getting to sleep and staying asleep are difficult tasks. While there may be a medical reason that sleep does not come easily, there are many things that we can pay attention to in our behaviors and routines that may help to correct sleep issues.
Get the right amount of sleep for your age
Believe it or not, the amount of sleep that you need to function well may depend on your age. The younger you are, the more sleep you need. As we get older, our bodies and brains are getting closer to full development. The younger a child is, the more developing they are doing, and therefore, the more sleep they need. Are you getting the right amount of sleep for your age?
Newborn (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
Infant (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
Toddler (0-3 years): 11-14 hours
Preschool (3-5 years): 10-14 hours
School Age (6-12 years): 9-11 hours
Teenage (13-18 years): 8-10 hours
Adult (18+ years): 7-9 hours
Understanding REM and NREM Cycles
Most of you have probably heard of Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep, but what does it mean? REM sleep is when we dream. It is the time during our sleep where we are processing what happened through the day and allowing new information to sink in. Infants generally have 50% REM sleep and 50% quiet sleep, whereas adults have closer to 10% REM sleep. This is because babies have more to process because they experience more new things, and are doing more developing.
Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM is the part of our sleep where we are not dreaming. In REM sleep, our eyes are moving under the lids, and sometimes we have changes in breathing or move around. In NREM sleep, we are still. There isn't much moving, and our breathing tends to be steady.
We feel our best when we wake at the end of a sleep cycle. When we are woken up in the middle of an REM or NREM cycle, we tend to be more groggy and can sometimes have headaches or fatigue throughout the day. The first cycle is generally between 70-100 minutes in length, and each of the cycles that follows it is about 90 minutes in length. If possible, try and time your alarm so that you wake up toward the end of a cycle.
Are you a morning bird or a night owl?
Some people are morning people, some people are night people. I, for one, am a night person. I get my best bursts of creativity at night. When I get up early, I tend to be more groggy and crash early in the day. For some people, the exact opposite is true. The reason for this has to do with when we get our best quality of sleep. Some people get their best sleep at night, so going to bed early and waking up early is refreshing. Some of us get our best sleep in the morning, so when we wake up early, we are cutting into the time when our sleep is most beneficial. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. They get their best sleep in the wee hours of the morning, so whether they stay up late or get up early, they are still getting their most beneficial sleep. There is evidence to support that this is genetic, so it isn't really something we can change, but knowing where you fall can be helpful.
Most of us don't have too much control over our schedules, so this isn't the easiest thing to change. Try to pay attention to when you get your most beneficial or creative bursts of energy. Is it first thing in the morning, during the day, or at night? If like most people you fall somewhere between the 2 extremes of night people vs. morning people, it will be easier for you to vary your sleep schedule by a few hours one way or the other without it affecting you too much.
Ditch the electronics
I know, it can be hard for many of us to not look at screens. Most of us probably don't even realize how much we do it. The fact is, the light from electronic screens can interfere with our ability to go to sleep. Blue light, which is given off by electronics such as TVs, computers, tablets, and cell phones as well as many energy efficient light bulbs, triggers an alert in our brains that interrupts our natural sleep/wake cycles. It is best to avoid looking at too much blue light within the hour before sleep. Try reading a book, meditating, listening to music or the radio, or other low energy activities that don't involve a screen.
But wait... did you notice that I mentioned energy efficient light bulbs as sources of blue light? It is unfortunate, but as we are forced to replace our light bulbs with more energy efficient models, our sleep may be effected. The solution? Try changing the light quality. I recommend finding a lamp, using a low wattage bulb, and covering it. I cover my lampshades with scarves or chiffon fabric. I have had people talk about the dangers of covering light bulbs, but you shouldn't have any problem as long as the fabric doesn't touch the bulb itself. Try to avoid over head lights in the hour before sleep. I would also recommend covering up any power lights from electronics. For example, I have a dock for my phone on my bedside table, and it has a small power light. I put a piece of fabric over the light because small electronic lights can interfere with our sleep. Basically, when you turn off the lights, you shouldn't be able to see any other light sources around the room.
Think about your food and drink
What we eat and drink in the evening can have a profound effect on our ability to go to and stay asleep. In general, it is best not to go to bed on a full stomach. The act of digesting can raise your heart rate and can result in waking during the night.
You are more likely to get a good night's sleep if your bedroom is a comfortable temperature. Studies have shown that the ideal temperature for sleep for most people is between 65 and 72 degrees. Our body temperature naturally dips when we are sleeping. Having the temperature in the room too high, can interfere with your body's natural heating and cooling cycles.
Take a warm bath or shower
Many people prefer to take their showers in the morning, but rinsing off in a warm shower or soaking in a bath can actually help you to sleep better. Warm water is very relaxing and can help you to unwind after a hard day. It can also help your body with it's natural temperature regulation. When you get out of the warm water, your body temperature should naturally drop, which makes it easier to fall asleep. The steam and heat can also help to clear out your airways if you tend to have allergies, a cold, or trouble breathing at night.
If you still prefer to shower in the morning, try rinsing off for 5-10 minutes before bed, and then do the actual washing when you wake up.
Aromatherapy is a great tool for almost anything, including falling and staying asleep. For sleep issues, try lavender, jasmine, vetiver, valerian, chamomile, patchouli, or frankincense to name a few. You can diffuse essential oils in a warm or cool diffuser, put the oils with water in a spray bottle and spray your pajamas and sheets, apply topically, use the oils in the wash cycle when you wash your sheets, or drink herbal tea.
Color therapy can play a part in your ability to sleep well. To get to sleep, try cool colors like blues, greens, and purples rather than warm colors like reds, oranges, and yellows. Try purchasing sheets and blankets, painting your bedroom, or having artwork in cool colors.
When you wake up...
Believe it or not, how you wake up can have an effect on how you sleep. The first thing you should do when you wake up is open your curtains and expose your eyes to sunlight. Sunlight helps by telling your brain that it is daytime. When your brain is exposed to varying amounts of sunlight throughout the day, it develops an internal clock that tells you when to be tired and when to wake up. If you wake up before dawn, this is not really an option, but if you can, try to expose your eyes to sunlight throughout the day.
Don't hit the snooze button! I used to be a chronic snoozer. I would set my alarm for about 30-45 minutes earlier than when I had to be up, then hit the snooze button repeatedly. This is a really bad idea. By dozing off for 5-10 minutes, your brain prepares itself for sleep again, and if you fall back to sleep, you will wake up before completing a full REM cycle, which will make you feel more groggy than if you had just gotten up when your alarm went off the first time. It may take some training to get out of the habit of hitting the snooze button, but once you give it up, you should find that you feel more refreshed once you get out of bed.
An ideal morning should begin with the curtains opening to let in natural sunlight. Then, you should spend 10-15 minutes in bed with the light coming in. I recommend using this time to stretch, or sit up and read, do a crossword puzzle, or meditate. During this 10-15 minutes, don't lie down and go back to sleep. This is the perfect time to wake up your body and mind before getting up. Do things that stretch your muscles out, and make you think. Of course, this is an ideal morning, which most of us don't have regularly. Do what you can depending on your schedule, and who is next to you. At the very least, try to wake up slowly. Stretch a little before getting out of bed. It is much more beneficial than snapping awake and jumping out of bed right away.
Meet the Author
Amanda Tarver, (LMT, CEIM, PES, RMT) is a massage therapist and birth worker in the Chicago area. She is dedicated to using a combination of bodywork and education to help people live a better quality of life.