How to Sleep Better: A Guide for Insomniacs
Sleep is a vital component of our daily lives.
However, most individuals cannot pinpoint the key reason why it is important and thus, tend to engage in poor sleeping habits and patterns that eventually lead to ill health and general inefficiency. This is because sleep functions as the body’s safeguard that protects both our physical and mental well-being.
Unfortunately, the current harsh economic climate often undermines the quantity and quality of sleep that we get on a daily basis.
This has been attributed to the fact that most of us have to work particularly hard to meet our financial responsibilities and have to put in vast amounts of time at the workplace, and still keep up with our daily chores at home.
As a direct result, recent studies conducted on the impact of inadequate sleep indicate that over 30% of the adult U.S. population suffers from insomnia and 35% of adults don't get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
The Price of Poor Sleep
It is worth noting that lack of adequate amounts of quality sleep tends to affect the way our bodies and brains function while we are awake. While one is asleep, both the body and brain both get some rest to prepare for the next day’s activities.
The quality and quantity of sleep one obtains affects how well you can react, think, learn, and ultimately, interact with others because the act of sleeping works to reduce the hormones and chemicals that are commonly associated with increased stress.
Sleeping naturally works to increase the human growth hormone, improves performance, and ultimately, enhances the brain’s and body’s recovery rate.
It is, therefore, vital that individuals understand the importance of sleep in order to further learn how to optimize their sleep schedule to improve their mental and physical capabilities during the day.
The Science of Optimizing Sleep: Getting Rid of Sleep Debt
Feeling sleepy during the day is a sign that you are either not getting enough sleep (quantity) or not getting good quality sleep.
Simply laying on your bed for a couple of hours with your eyes shut cannot fool your body into believing that it is rested. More often than not, most individuals are actually unaware of the fact that they are sleep deprived.
If you require an annoyingly loud alarm to ensure that you wake up on time, heavily rely on your alarm’s snooze button, feel sluggish throughout the day, or fall asleep soon after you go to bed (typically 5 minutes), chances are that you are suffering from sleep debt.
Sleep debt refers to the difference between the length of time (quantity) of sleep your body requires each day and the actual number of hours of sleep that you get each day. Each time you sacrifice your sleeping time to perform any activity, you inadvertently add to the sleep debt you eventually have to pay in order to function at optimum levels.
Unfortunately, you cannot repay your sleep debt by sleeping in on your weekend days off, because one or two nights of solid sleep is not enough. Although, your body and brain may temporarily gain a boost of energy after your weekend of sleep, this energy will drop off as your work week progresses.
Considering the negative impact that sleep deprivation has on both our mental and physical abilities, it is only logical that we learn a few tricks that will work to help us sleep faster in order to obtain longer sleeping hours. However, longer sleeping hours should not be the only element of sleep you should strive to obtain. The quality of sleep also plays a major role in how we tackle day-to-day stress.
After all, what is the use of a long, low-quality slumber that does not work to help the body and brain rest and recover from the entire day’s activities?
Optimizing Your Sleep Schedule
One of the most destructive misconceptions about sleep involves the amount of sleep time that a person requires to feel rested and refreshed. Although the most recommended length is between 6-8 hours each night, the truth is that you are the only person who can accurately judge how much time you need to spend sleeping in order to keep feeling refreshed, happy, and alert throughout the day.
That noted, the best way to get rid of sleep debt is by optimizing your sleep schedule. This is a 3-phase process which requires dedication and patience to see results.
Phase 1: Preparation
Tips and habits that help you sleep better and longer
During the preparation phase in optimizing your sleep schedule, you will learn the basic techniques that will help you develop pre-bedtime habits that will help you sleep faster and longer.
The Stages of Sleep
According to sleep.org, there are four stages of sleep as well as a fifth one known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep:
“Stage One: Within minutes (sometimes even within seconds!) of nodding off, your brain produces what are called alpha and theta waves and your eye movements slow down. This introduction to sleep is relatively brief, lasting up to seven minutes. Here, you are in light stage sleep, which means that you're somewhat alert and can be easily woken. It’s during this stage of sleep that people often indulge in brief “catnaps.”
Stage Two: During this stage, which is also fairly light, the brain produces sudden increases in brain wave frequency known as sleep spindles. Then brain waves slow down. If you were to schedule a “power nap” you’d want to wake up after this stage of sleep.
Stages Three & Four: This stage is the beginning of deep sleep, as the brain begins producing slower delta waves. You won't experience any eye movement or muscle activity. At this point, it becomes a little harder for you to be awakened, because your body becomes less responsive to outside stimuli. The brain produces even more delta waves and you move into an even deeper, more restorative stage of sleep next. It's most difficult to wake up during this stage. This is when the body repairs muscles and tissues, stimulates growth and development, boosts immune function, and builds up energy for the next day.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep: You generally enter REM sleep about 90 minutes after initially falling asleep, and each REM stage can last up to an hour. An average adult has five to six REM cycles each night. During this final phase of sleep, your brain becomes more active. This is when most dreaming occurs, your eyes jerk quickly in different directions (hence, the name!), heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing becomes fast, irregular, and shallow. REM sleep plays an important role in learning and memory function, since this is when your brain consolidates and processes information from the day before so that it can be stored in your long-term memory.”
According to research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, the aim of exercising is not to wear your body out in order to “crash sleep” afterwards. Instead, taking part in regular exercise, particularly in the afternoon, will greatly improve one’s sleep in the evening because your brain will have less trouble calming down.
It is worth mentioning that exercising just before going to bed has the opposite effect because the exercise stimulates both your brain and body. Thus, if you cannot afford to engage in some afternoon exercises, it is advisable that you find time to do so in the morning.
Reset Your Alarm Tone
Most individuals who are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation heavily rely on incredibly loud alarm tones because they need a quick jolt to get them out of their slumber. Unfortunately, this only temporarily shocks the brain and body into action, and once this initial shock wears off, you will become groggy and tired.
Instead of using an annoying alarm tone, it is best to change your alarm tone to soothing music or sounds.
This will make it easier for you to naturally and gradually wake up because your body and brain will take the necessary time to slowly adjust to the fact that it’s time to wake up.
Avoid Alcohol, Caffeine and Nicotine Before Bed
Although alcohol intake is noted to induce a relaxing feeling and assist in the process of falling asleep, the general consensus among sleep studies is that alcohol consumption before bed eventually wreaks havoc on your overall sleep cycle. As such, you are more likely to have a night full of restless sleep that is characterized by frequent moments of being awake.
Caffeine lengthens your sleep cycle’s 2nd phase, or stage. This is great for naps, as the brain has adequate time to process the day’s events and reorganize itself. However, whilst the 2nd phase of sleep is lengthened, the 3rd and 4th phases are shortened.
This has the negative effect of making you wake up feeling physically tired and sleepy.
Nicotine is also noted to negatively affect one’s sleep cycle because it stimulates the brain’s cells and entirely prevents you from falling asleep.
Phase 2: Create an Evening Ritual
Get Rid of Attention-Grabbing Electronic Devices in the Bedroom
Numerous studies conclude that attention-grabbing devices such as a cell phone, TV set, computer or laptop, work to harm your sleep cycle by negatively affecting the quality of sleep you achieve each night. This is because the light emitted from the device screens confuses the brain and tricks it into believing that it is daytime rather than night-time.
Even if you are able to fall asleep with these devices on, your sleep quality will be compromised because the brain remains highly active and sensitive to your surroundings.
Due to this increased activity, the restorative power that sleep has on the brain and body is lost because you can be easily roused from sleep, and your body tends to move around while you are asleep.
Improve Your Evening Ritual
The value of creating a calming evening ritual before going to bed must not be underestimated, as it is the key controlling factor that affects both sleep quality and quantity.
The best evening rituals that are known to assist in the process of falling and staying asleep throughout the night include taking a relaxing bath and meditating when you get to bed.
The best sleep-oriented meditation technique requires that you actively visualize a dream you would like to have that specific night. This meditation technique is highly effective in eliminating any negative thoughts that may unintentionally keep you awake for long periods of time.
It helps to mitigate the effects of feelings of anxiety produced from negative thoughts and images that you may have experienced during the day. In addition, meditating using this sleep-oriented technique, reduces the likelihood of experiencing nightmares that abruptly interrupt sound sleep.
Phase 3: It’s All About Timing
Timing your sleeping hours is the most recommended method of permanently getting over any sleep debt that you may have accumulated over time. As such, one is advised to ensure that you wake up and fall asleep at the same time, or at least within the same hour, each day.
Moreover, the entire concept of sleeping in on your weekend days off should be eliminated.
Rather than continuing to sleep after your scheduled wake-up time, it is recommended that you wake up at the same time as you do on weekends and perform one or two light activities in the morning hours.
After the activity/activities, you can take a one or two hour nap to get the extra hours of sleep your body craves. This will allow you to pay off some of your sleep debt without compromising the sleep/wake schedule (created in phase 1’s Timing process) that your body needs to slowly get rid of the accumulated effects of sleep deprivation.
Bonus: Use Natural Sleep Remedies
This is a natural hormone which assists in the regulation of one’s sleep/wake cycle. It works by enhancing the quality of sleep you achieve and also assists those suffering from insomnia in the process of falling asleep.
Chamomile extract is noted to have a tranquilizing effect on the body and the brain. It assists in the process of falling, and staying, asleep.
This herb is noted to contain sedative properties that work to reduce the amount of time you need to fall asleep.
L-Tryptophan has been well studied through the years with regards to its positive effect on mood and relaxation. Your body converts L-Tryptophan to serotonin through a complex process, ultimately improving your mood and positive outlook. L-Tryptophan has also been shown to improve memory, feelings of happiness before bed, and reducing stress, allowing you to get a better rest.
As a natural, active component contained in Green Tea, L-Theanine promotes relaxation by reducing one’s stress and anxiety levels to prompt quick sleep at bedtime.
Phase 4: Wake Up Refreshed and Alert
The Benefits of Using Blue Light when Waking Up
Spending a lot of time sleeping does not necessarily mean that you will automatically wake up feeling fully rested and refreshed because this particular aspect of the sleep/wake cycle is determined by the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. Simply explained, when we see light in the morning, a signal is sent down the optic nerve to the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus where the ‘body clock’ is synchronized to early morning light to prompt the body to wake up.
Thus, waking up in a dark room does not trigger your body clock into acknowledging that it’s time to wake up and makes it hard for you to actually get out of bed.
Blue Light in the Morning
Combining a soothing alarm tone with a blue light wake-up lamp has been indicated to have a similar effect as taking a cup of coffee in the morning. This is because blue light triggers the hypothalamus into action and signifies daytime. It functions as a natural alarm that alerts the body that it is time to get out of the sleep state.
Blue light not only improves alertness and your executive functioning, but it also enhances your cognitive ability throughout the day.