by Mary Daniel
Getting little to no sleep, or sleeping poorly takes a toll. Many, if not most of us know how it goes; instead of easing into slumber, we toss and turn, staring up at the ceiling, hashing over all we didn’t get done or will have to face in the morning. And life gets in the way — your newborn, a dog with an itch, a cat walking over your head, a late night out with friends. Sleep is as essential as food and water, though many of us don’t prioritize healthy sleep, instead putting it on the back burner until that toll is too severe.
Research shows that getting good sleep, and enough of it at the right times, is vital for our health (mental and physical), our quality of life and even our safety. Too little sleep is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart and kidney diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression.
There are steps you can take to ease more reliably into the good sleep we all need. Here are some tips to up your Zzzs.
- Make your room as dark and cool as possible.
The ideal sleeping temperature for most of us is 62 to 68 degrees. Your bedroom should feel chilly; use as many blankets as you want, but be sure to keep room temp on the cool side.
Use blackout shades or curtains, cover up any lights from electronics, or use an eye mask. Contoured eye masks are good if you have sensitive or dry eyes.
- Get direct morning sunlight for at least 10 minutes.
Getting bright light first thing in the morning reinforces your body’s natural circadian rhythm, balancing important neurochemicals that will energize you in the morning (norepinephrine) and help you sleep at night (melatonin). Ten minutes of direct morning sunlight on a bright day will do the trick. (If it’s overcast, shoot for 20 to 30 minutes.) College Park’s trolley trail is my go-to for a quick morning walk. In general, the more sunlight you can get before noon, the better your sleep will be.
You can also use a bright therapy light to help maintain your circadian rhythm; use it first thing in the morning, just as if you were out in sunlight. Look for a 10,000 lux, full spectrum light; you’ll find many inexpensive options online.
- Don’t eat for at least two to three hours before going to bed.
Eating revs up your digestive system, and putting it to work right before you go to bed interferes with your body’s natural sleep rhythms. You’ll sleep better if you eat your last meal or snack two to three hours before you hit the sack.
Alcohol makes many of us feel sleepy, but it isn’t your friend through the night — even a single drink can lead to tossing and turning, and you might find yourself awake again at 2 a.m. If you do drink alcohol, try and have your last drink at least 6 hours before heading to bed.
- No caffeine after noon.
Caffeine leaves the body slowly; that cup you had at breakfast doesn’t fully clear your system for 12 or more hours. Caffeine does offer health and brain benefits, so if you enjoy that kick, there’s no need to hold back as long as it’s not interrupting sleep. Aim to have your last cup before noon, though, and consider cutting caffeine altogether if you struggle with sleep.
- Move in the morning (and throughout the day).
Move your body often throughout the day — ideally in ways that bring you joy! — and avoid strenuous exercise four hours before you hit the sack.
-Avoid screens and lower the lights in the house 1 to 2 hours before bed.
If you need to be on a screen or simply want to watch TV, use blue-light blocking glasses (the kind with the dark orange/red tint) and ignore comments about how ridiculous they look!
- Keep your wake-up time as consistent as possible.
Waking up at about the same time every day, even on weekends, helps regulate your circadian rhythm and trains your sleep-inducing neurochemicals to fire off at the right time every day.
Eager for more ideas on how to improve sleep quality? Here are a few bonus tips!
-Create a shutdown ritual to mark the end of your day.
Pick a time that you want to stop working (at your desk, around your house, with kids’ homework, training the dog) and create a ritual to help you relax a few hours before bed. Think about things that help you slow down — reading, listening to music, doing gentle stretches, cuddling with that dog. Build your personal ritual. Some families create rituals they do together to unwind before bed. Experiment and create ways to slow down that work for you.
- Try a white noise machine.
White noise machines drown out ambient noise. Many machines can be set to sounds of rain or wind, music, or true white noise that cancels out other noises. It might take a night or two to get used to using one, then you won’t want to sleep without it.
- Try meditating.
Meditation can calm a tense body, relax a busy mind and boost one’s energy and outlook. If you’ve never meditated before, I recommend Insight Timer, a free app that has good meditation options, including some created specifically for sleep.
- Take a hot shower or a bath with Epsom salt about an hour before bedtime.
When you’re falling asleep, your body naturally cools itself by about a degree. Taking a hot bath will raise your body temperature and kickstart that cooling process.
- Try herbal teas.
A cup of warm herbal tea can be soothing, and some teas contain herbs that promote relaxation and sleep. Two of my favorites are Nighty Night Extra Valerian Root Tea and Soothing Caramel Bedtime. Chamomile tea. Even better, consult with the incredibly helpful folks at Smile Herb Shop (4908 Berwyn Road), who can assist with choosing teas to suit your unique preferences.
- Use an acupressure mat
Acupressure mats stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and create deep relaxation. Lie on it for about 30 (or more) minutes before bed.
If you continue having problems sleeping and are fighting daytime fatigue, talk to your medical provider to determine if you have an underlying health condition that might be getting in the way. A host of things can affect sleep, including food sensitivities, thyroid problems, menopause and some hormonal conditions, sleep apnea, and chronic pain or mental health issues.
Sleep well, College Park!