Wellness is a vast topic, and there are literally thousands of tweaks we can make when we want to improve our health. So what’s a really good place to start? The answer may surprise you. I suggest you start with sleep! Sleep is the least sexy thing to talk about…and it’s arguably the most important! If you don’t get good quality sleep, it’s like trying to build your house without a foundation. No matter how well you eat or how much you move, your house is going to crumble.
What exactly does sleep do for us and what are the benefits? Sleep detoxes and rejuvenates the brain. Sleep is like your brain’s personal housekeeper, cleaning up the cobwebs, picking the strewn toys off the floor, and putting all the leftovers in the compost, leaving your brain a pristine space to begin your day. After a good-night’s sleep you will be clear-headed and have improved focus, the ability to make better decisions, and greater memory recall.
It alleviates stress, improves mood, and supports your immune system! In fact, there was a study done where participants were exposed to a cold virus; groups were divided into four categories: <5 hours, 5-6 hours, 6-7 hours, and > 7 hours of sleep a night. Guess which group was the least likely to get sick? The well-rested group of 7 or more hours only had a 17% chance of catching the cold virus. In fact, the group who got under 5 hours of sleep a night had a 45% chance of getting the cold. That’s a huge difference! Ever notice that when you’re stressed and low on sleep, that’s right when you get sick? It’s not bad luck; sleep (and stress) is playing a big role.
And as a long-term consideration, chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimers and other psychiatric disturbances, such as Bipolar Disorder. The point is that sleep is super important beyond just not wanting to feel tired the next day.
So how long should we be sleeping? 8 hours really is the optimal amount of sleep for most people, but it varies by individual anywhere from 7-9 hours; anything under 7 hours and your body really starts being impacted significantly. Something most people don’t realize is that when we miss out on sleep, we cannot make it up. So if you’re sleeping in one day of the week to “catch up” on sleep, or you stay up late one night with the idea that you’ll go to bed early the next, this really isn’t working. Your brain and body needs adequate sleep each night to repair and detox.
How can we improve our sleep? Here are 5 simple steps:
1. Prioritize it
Bet you didn’t like this first one, huh? I know, I know, it’s really not the quick fix we’re all looking for, but it’s the first step to better (+ more) sleep.
You want to figure out your ideal bedtime and then try to stick to that time, give or take 15-30 minutes, each day. It’s important to keep your body on roughly the same sleep schedule so that it knows when to produce the proper hormones at what time for optimal sleep at night and energy during the day.
First, let’s look at your ideal sleep time. This is the time you want or need to be awake each day, minus 8 hours (so if you need to be up at 6 am, your ideal sleep time would be 10 pm). This is the time you need to be asleep; it’s not the time you start getting ready for bed. That means that you need to allow enough time to do your bedtime routine and then allow your body to fall asleep (which can take up to 15-30 minutes for a lot of people) prior to your ideal sleep time. So you need to add up the time it takes to complete all pre-bedtime activities and subtract them from your ideal sleep time. This is the time you need to finish your evening activities and head to bed. I highly recommend setting an alarm on your phone for this time, at least at first. (I go into more detail on this in my Get More Energy 5-Day Challenge, which you can sign up for below.)
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2. Stop the evening snacking (and drinking).
It’s 9 o’clock, the kids are finally asleep, and it’s time to turn on Netflix and grab your fun little snack and glass of wine…because you’ve earned it, right? I totally feel you. After a long day it’s so nice (and so good) to treat yourself! But you’re doing yourself a disservice. First, that snack and glass of wine are going to impact your sleep. Eating before bed, especially something high in sugar, makes your blood sugar surge. This will make it harder to fall asleep, and harder to stay asleep. Often that 3 am-ish wakeup we experience is from a blood sugar crash (and subsequent coritsol surge), which can be caused by nighttime snacking. Alcohol also has this effect. Snacking before bed (or eating a late dinner) also causes our core body temperature to increase, which inhibits our ability to sleep well.
Studies also show that snacking before bed on carbohydrates and protein results in a higher daily caloric intake, so if your goal is weight-loss, it’s another great reason to find a substitute for that snack. Some ideas:
- Herbal teas – these are great and can actually help you relax into sleep, like Chamomile. I personally love this Tulsi Sweet Rose tea or this licorice mint tea for its subtle sweetness
- Sparkling water with lemon or lime juice or fruit-infused filtered water on a warmer night
- If you want something to keep your hands busy, give yourself a mani/pedi or a facial mask. Crafty? Take up knitting or crochet. These are examples of another form of soothing self-care that doesn’t involve ingesting anything.
3. Create a bedtime ritual.
Mentally and physically preparing your body for sleep is an important part of falling asleep. This may include a shower, or washing your face and moisturizing, brushing teeth, etc. Maybe you add a 5 minute bedtime meditation, or you read for 15 minutes before bed. Perhaps you write in a gratitude journal or a one-line-a-day journal. These are all great activities to do before bed, and if we ritualize them, we are setting ourselves up for sleep success. Decide on your routine – it can be short and simple – and stick to it. I think you’ll find yourself looking forward to this transition time when you create a positive ritual, rather than it being the “chores” you have to do before you go to sleep.
4. Turn off screens (or use blue-blocking glasses) at least 1 hour before bed.
I don’t know about you, but about a year ago, I started noticing that when I would look at my phone in bed, I could stay up for 30 minutes or more without getting sleepy – no matter how late it was! It wasn’t until I switched over to my book that I would fall asleep, and I would only get through maybe a page before my eyes were shutting. Why is that? Blue light! Blue light from screens (and also the brightness of indoor lighting) signals to our bodies that it’s still daytime and prevents us from producing melatonin, which is necessary for sleep.
Picture the sun. In the middle of the day, the sun is bright in the sky and is emitting a high percentage of blue light. By evening, the sun is lower in the sky, and it’s giving off this very warm, pinkish light. It’s the time of day photographers often refer to as the golden hour because that’s literally what it is. A very low percentage of blue rays are coming through. Before people had electricity, our bodies relied on the sun to tell us when we should be awake and when we should be preparing for sleep. And the setting sun’s red light was triggering our melatonin production. Pretty cool, right?
So our goal is to mimic this as best we can with the technology we are now surrounded by. That means a couple hours before bedtime, turning down our indoor lights, or better yet, replace them with lights than can turn to red light, such as this one. This also means turning off screens 1-2 hours before bed. But for those of us who love to wind down with a good show, or who work on our computers at night, that’s not realistic. So you can wear blue blocking glasses while you look at your screens to allow melatonin production to occur. You will likely notice yourself getting pretty sleepy while wearing these blue blockers, so they may even help you get into bed sooner, which will help you with my first tip. 😉
5. Create a sleep sanctuary.
Doesn’t that just sound nice and inviting? Try to make your bedroom feel like a bedroom at a relaxing spa resort. Take out the unnecessary clutter, add some plants, and optimize it for sleep. What do I mean by that? Here are some easy things you can do:
- Remove the tv, if you have one. Watching tv is one of the worst things you can do in your bedroom if you’re prioritizing good sleep. I’m not saying no tv, just watch it in another room!
- Get blackout curtains or buy a sleeping mask. A dark environment is essential to quality sleep.
- White noise from a fan or earplugs will keep outside noise from disturbing your sleep. So, unless you have a baby who wakes at night, one of these is a great addition to your sleep toolkit.
- Cover any LED lights from chargers with black electrical tape or move them out of your room.
- Swap your bedside table bulbs with dim/dimmable bulbs or red light bulbs.
- Charge your phone away from your bed so you’re not tempted to scroll in bed!
- Read a regular book or dim the light on your kindle as low as it goes. Avoid reading books on a bright tablet that strains your eyes.
- Keep it cool! Open the windows or turn on a fan. A cool environment (ideally 61-67 degrees F) means you’ll sleep much better.
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