We all know how necessary sleep is to human health. A good night’s sleep paves the way for a productive day, while lack thereof results in grogginess, irritability, difficulty maintaining focus, and compensation with energy “quick-fixes”. Consistent sleep deprivation can lead to a host of issues, from increased risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, to a decrease in the body’s ability to adapt to the effects of stress. Yet, it seems that as a nation we often neglect this foundational building block of our well-being. According to a Sleep in America poll, 60% of Americans have trouble sleeping at night or simply aren’t waking up feeling refreshed.
It’s not that we don’t realize sleep is important. We just have so many other priorities. Demanding work schedules are quite common, with Americans working more hours per year than citizens of any other industrialized country. We have homes to maintain, families to care for, and obligations to keep. Our days are packed with stimulation. It’s no wonder our sleep habits are a little all over the place.
Thankfully, there are small changes we can make to our days to help our sleep become more restful at night. None of the following suggestions include prescription medication, so they won’t create dependence.
1) Electronics and Sleep Don’t Mix Well
This is plain old common sense, yet most of us are simply not in the habit of priming our minds for a night’s rest. A 2011 poll found that 95% of Americans use devices like TVs, video games, and laptops in the hour before they get into bed. Spending the last portion of the day staring at electronic devices may seem relaxing if you’re used to this routine, but in truth this way of “winding down” is actually keeping you from getting the best sleep possible.
Why is this the case? TV screens, computers, and cell phones all emit a blue light that interferes with melatonin production in the brain, a vital hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm. This internal system is the clock that tells our bodies when to sleep or wake. And when this body clock is out of whack, it can lead to excessive tiredness during the day, and of course, irregular or unsatisfying sleep at night.
Aside from the light they give off, studies show that the electromagnetic fields created by electronic devices have the ability to alter brain waves and cerebral blood flow, consequently affecting our sleep rhythms. One study examined changes in subjects’ sleep EEG readings after being exposed to EMFs for 30 minutes before bed. Just this short window of exposure was enough to cause noticeable differences in variables such as time spent in REM and slow-wave sleep. There is also evidence that EMFs can suppress melatonin synthesis in the brains of sleeping rats. If you’re one of the many people who sleeps with their cell phone on their bedside table, EMFs are likely having a significant effect on the quality of rest you’re getting.
The simplest way to ensure that this isn’t an issue for you is to turn off your devices when you’re approaching the end of the day, and consider keeping them in a separate room when you sleep. If this isn’t an option for you, a simple solution is using blue light blocking glasses to filter blue light from your computer or mobile device. Another option is to put your phone in airplane mode so that it is no longer sending or receiving wireless transmissions, thus keeping EMF radiation to a minimum. Turning off your home’s WiFi is also a leap in the right direction, and it’s unlikely that you’ll miss it while you’re sleeping.
Technology can sabotage our evening rest in more than just a physiological sense. Choosing to spend time on social media, browsing news websites, or catching up on emails can give our minds a lot to think about, especially if multiple tasks are being done. Before we know it, we wind up lying awake in bed, unable to turn off our minds, distracted by anxious thoughts of who’s said what to whom or tomorrow’s ever-growing to-do list. Though these activities might make us feel more connected to the world or productive, doing them right before attempting to rest your mind is often counterproductive.
Instead, set a conscious intention to make the last hour of your evening about restoring yourself, and soothing yourself with things you know will put your mind at ease. Take a warm aromatherapy bath, read a book, listen to soothing music, stretch… pay attention to what rituals or activities empty your mind of stress versus giving it more to think about.
2) Increase Your Magnesium and Potassium Intake
These are two key minerals for regulating common processes in the body. Magnesium assists in muscle and nerve function and is a natural muscle relaxer. It also has calming mental effects. Magnesium binds with GABA receptor sites – this neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating nervous system stimulation and inhibiting the body’s stress response. Insomnia is a common symptom of magnesium deficiency. In one study, magnesium was shown to be helpful for those with chronic fatigue syndrome. Potassium works alongside magnesium to promote relaxation and helps with staying asleep longer. A 2007 study linked a lack of potassium channels in fruit flies to a reduced presence of slow waves, a type of brainwave present only during deep sleep. Fruit flies and humans share surprisingly similar sleep habits, and potassium channels are found in all mammals, indicating that this discovery likely applies to humans as well.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet of processed foods, meat, flour, and sugar is lacking in foods that provide these two minerals. Direct supplementation is one way to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of both minerals. If you choose this route, make sure to select the right form of magnesium. Magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate are two of the most easily absorbed varieties. For potassium, supplementing with a multivitamin is recommended over a stand-alone form, as excessive amounts of potassium can cause unhealthy side-effects and multivitamins typically contain only a small amount of this mineral. You can also increase your consumption of foods rich in magnesium and potassium. Leafy greens, nuts, legumes, and whole grains supply the former; potatoes, squash, yogurt, and bananas supply the latter.
3) Relax with a Cup of Hot Tea
Not only is the ritual of a warm beverage naturally soothing; there are many herbal teas that have been used for centuries as nature’s sleep-promoters. Chamomile, passionflower, kava kava, lavender, lemon balm, and valerian are all options to consider. The benefits of drinking these types of tea include easing of anxiety and restlessness, mild sedation, stress reduction, and calming of the nervous system. All of these effects are helpful for anyone who has difficulty falling asleep at night. There are numerous “sleep” teas on the market which contain different combinations of the above herbs, if you’d prefer not to make your own combination. Or try one or two on their own and see what works well for you. Just be sure whatever tea you choose is caffeine-free if it isn’t one of the herbal varieties listed here. Enjoy your cup about an hour before bed so that it has time to take effect.
4) Include Daily Exercise, but Not Right Before Bed
Yet another reason to get active – aside from keeping your body in optimal physical condition, providing an endorphin release, and building self-confidence, regular exercise has numerous positive effects on mental health. Regular exercise can help reduce reactivity to psychological stressors, as well as manage depression and anxiety. A 2011 study found that long-term moderate-intensity aerobic exercise improved sleep quality and duration (plus overall mood and quality of life) in people with chronic insomnia. However, it’s important to time your workouts properly. Since anything more than low-intensity activity actually has a stimulating effect on the body, it’s better to exercise at least 3-4 hours before heading to bed. If the only time you have to be active is in the final hours of your day, keep your movement light – gentle yoga, tai chi, or a short walk are all ideal choices.
5) Meal Time Matters
These days, it seems like there is so much conflicting advice concerning meal timing and frequency. Eat three square meals a day, eat 6 mini-meals a day, never skip breakfast if you don’t want your stomach to enter “starvation mode”, try intermittent fasting… the simple and essential act of consuming our food can get a little stressful when rules are involved. Of course, everyone’s body is different and there generally isn’t a “one size fits all” principle when it comes to our diets.
However, one thing that most dietary wisdom can agree on is that eating a large meal before bed is not a good idea. During sleep, the body turns its attention towards detoxification and restoration. Muscles use this time to regenerate and repair themselves as important hormones and proteins are produced. The brain consolidates memories, learning, and emotions from the day, and eliminates harmful wastes from its cells. Because these processes require energy, they are performed during sleep so they won’t have to compete with things like walking, thinking, and digestion. In fact, when we enter sleep, our bodies divert energy from the digestive system, slowing it down to a minimal pace. This makes sense, as we don’t need to take in new energy while resting, and so our bodies are not anticipating a need to digest food while we snooze.
Disrupting this rhythm by eating late at night leads to poorly digested meals, acid reflux, and generally a poorer sleep, particularly if your bedtime meal is a large one. You may even wake up the next morning feeling nauseous or hungrier than usual. Not to mention, your body will not be able to fully focus itself on the important restorative functions that sleep is for. If you are feeling truly hungry before bed, something small and simple makes the best choice. Try having half an apple with peanut butter, a cup of plain yogurt with berries, a glass of warm milk, or a handful of nuts.
If you’re waking up feeling less than refreshed and ready for the day ahead, don’t just write it off as a normal part of life. Our habits and lifestyle choices play a vital role in the quest for healthy sleep. Try these natural and simple changes and see for yourself.