8 Things to Do Today to Sleep Better Tonight

I don’t know if you’ve noticed (I’m kidding – I know you have), but disruptions in routine can lead to disruptions in sleep.

Now, in the midst of the covid-19 crisis, we’ve been in a disrupted state for 6+ weeks at the time of this writing. The natives are getting restless, and I don’t *just* mean stir-crazy.

Even if you haven’t fallen ill or know/love someone who has, you’ve been impacted in a deep and meaningful way by the measures taken to manage covid-19 and #flattenthecurve. You and countless others have likely experienced insomnia, vivid stress dreams, backward sleep schedule, or some other sleep disturbance. I know I have. Why?

Overnight, the US unemployment rate skyrocketed exponentially as non-essential businesses furloughed and laid off employees. If you’re among that group, I am deeply sorry for the upheaval, fear, and uncertainty you’ve been experiencing.

If you’re among the fortunate that have continued working, only from home, you have less to worry about. But no matter – here’s a large helping of stress: everyone is home now, including the kids on their computers and pads with their teachers and classes. So in addition to Zoom meetings for you, you get to manage Zoom meetings for your Junior(s).

Yeah, I’d say we’ve got enough disruption to turn us out of our comfortable beds.

Now more than ever, we need some sleep hygiene tips, and stat.

Keep reading; I gotchu.

Even before our current crisis, the number of hours we spend in sleep had drastically diminished over the past several decades. Americans reported sleeping an average of 8-10 hours nightly in the 1950s (which was also the last time that one blue-collar job could support a family and pay off a mortgage. But that’s a topic for someone else’s blog).

By 2010, that number had decreased to less than 7 hours. Whoa.

On top of that, a large percentage of us report poor sleep quality, so that even when we are able to clock 7-9 hours of sleep, we’re still exhausted.

We have yet to fully understand the entirety of sleep’s restorative impact on our physiology. We do know that sleep deprivation degrades health by increasing risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and depression – and quite possibly a whole mess of other conditions.

Fortunately, sleep quality is much more important than quantity. Your health, longevity, and effectiveness is benefited much more by 7 hours of fully restorative sleep than it is by 9 hours of suboptimal sleep.

There are things we can do during the day and before bed that will make our time in bed both easier and more effective. Behold, I give to you 8 Sleep Boosting Behaviors to try today (and 9 Sleep Busting Behaviors to try to eliminate).

1) Morning Sun. Get at least 30 minutes of early-day sun exposure. The more skin you expose to the sun, the better here. This increases the amount of serotonin your body produces. Not only should it improve your mood and increase energy during the day, you’ll get to sleep better at night.

2) Curtail caffeine consumption after 2 pm. It takes the average adult body about 5-6 hours to eliminate half of the caffeine consumed. So if you’re drinking coffee or tea up until dinner, the caffeine receptors in your brain will be completely occupied by the stimulant. Problem is, the same receptors are also bound by a chemical called adenosine, which is important to energy transfer (metabolism) and sleep promotion, but the adenosine can’t get to them if caffeine molecules are in the way. Give your brain a chance and cut off the caffeine early in the day.

3) Get regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime (see #7 in the Sleep-Busters list below)

4) Turn lights down 2-3 hours before bed. Honor your natural biorhythm by switching indoor illumination to warm-spectrum light – red, orange – kept dim when the sun sets (or before in the summer. Just as sun early in the day stimulates serotonin production, turning the lights out at the end of the day signals the brain to convert serotonin to melatonin, which is your sleep hormone. Likewise…

5) Set a screen curfew. Turn off all screened devices 1 hour before bed. The blue light emanating from screens is detrimental to sleep as well as to eyesight. (See #3 and #5 in the following list) If you can’t turn off the screens – say, you’re working on a project with a tight deadline – turn the light down, install warm-light software, or wear blue-blocking glasses.

6) Practice a bedtime routine, including:

a. Wash – your face and take a warm shower or bath about an hour before bed. This signals the hypothalamus to lower your core body temperature, which is a sleep-inducing process.

b. Dress – change into pajamas or loungewear. Another signal that it’s time to relax

c. Write – make a to-do list for the next day so you don’t have to hold your action items in your head.

d. Read – an actual paper book. Something light. Fiction is best here.

e. Talk – have a real-life conversation, either by phone or in person.

7) Stretch. Stretching after your warm shower signals the brain to relax and release tension in the muscles, which will improve your sleep quality.

8) Create the ideal sleep environment. Here are some important things to include:

a. Cool – the ideal temperature for optimal sleep is 62-68○. To cool your bed without running up the AC bill for the entire house, consider a Chilipad (https://www.chilitechnology.com/products/chilipad-sleep-system?gclid=Cj0KCQjwka_1BRCPARIsAMlUmEqstWb4iztJU-7E6RaqMCkptHrfw8Ujk6NgII-Z66UsUGu44x2nMaIaAqmuEALw_wcB)

b. Dark – eliminate all blue light, and as much light overall as possible. Black-out curtains are excellent, but if they're not an option, try a sleep mask.

c. Quiet – excepting white noise and fans.

d. Bare – sleep in minimal loose clothing.

e. Sanctuary – protect your sleep space by using your bed only for sleeping, reading, talking, and lovemaking. Making your bed as soon as you get up, and only turning the covers down at bedtime sends the visual signal to your brain that bed is for sleep.

When you’re analyzing your current bedtime routine, you may find a few of the following sleep-busting habits. Some are the opposite behaviors of what’s listed above, some are observed detriments

1) Consuming caffeine late in the day. The obvious corollary to #2 above.

2) Eating a late heavy dinner with too little fiber. This type of meal is hard to digest, and the work it takes to do so can interfere with sleep.

3) Watching television until falling asleep. Hello, screen. Even if you fall off and don’t think you’re waking up, your sleep won’t be as deep as it could be.

4) Alcohol consumption too close to bedtime. That nightcap is appealing, but alcohol actually has a bi-phasic stimulating effect. Drink it too close to bedtime, and it may energize you instead of relax. Try chamomile tea instead.

5) Cyberloafing. See #5 above.

6) Falling into bed without getting ready for bed.

7) Exercising less than 2 hours before bed. Intensity is your friend in exercise, but not late in the day as it stimulates the brain and metabolism, disrupting the hormonal letdown necessary for deep sleep. The ideal time to exercise is mid-day, or morning.

8) Analgesic and antihistamine use too close to bed. For some, these medicines are stimulants in disguise.

9) Midnight bedtime. Brain studies have shown that the deepest, most restorative sleep occurs before midnight in most adults. Not that midnight is some magical hour, but your circadian rhythm is atuned to sunrise in your time zone. Deep sleep cycles are more frequent earlier; as the night stretches toward sunrise, lighter REM sleep dominates over resdtorative deep sleep. The later you go to bed, the harder it will be to accumulate enough restorative sleep.

Do yourself a favor: commit to these 8 sleep boosters for 30 days. It's a great way to decide if a practice benefits you. I'm guessing you'll discover that it does, even when life returns to whatever semblance of normal awaits us.

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