How to improve your sleep hygieneHave a hard time falling asleep? Or wake up too early? You, like most people living in western societies, probably have some sleep debt. That’s right, your body does keep track of how much sleep you get a night, and it  DOES add up! A research study done of staff and students at Stanford University found that 80% of the people in their study were DANGEROUSLY sleep deprived! So, let’s cover the basics first…

What is sleep debt?

Each person requires a different amount of sleep, usually around 8-9 hours. When we do not get all the sleep we need in one night, the amount you missed is called your sleep debt. This can accumulate over time. According to the National Sleep Foundation:

When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to “pay back” if it becomes too big. The resulting sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road.

How much sleep do I need?

The amount of sleep you need varies. Typically the younger you are, the more sleep you need, and the older you are, the less sleep you require. Infants often require up to 16 hours of sleep a day. Teenagers can require up to 9 or 10 hours of sleep a night. Adults usually only need around 8-9, while adults over the age of about 50 may eventually only need about 5-6. Part of this is because when we are younger, our bodies are growing and developing, and our body requires more energy for this to occur. As we age, and especially once women hit menopause, we no longer require ALL stages of sleep, thus we don’t sleep as long. The way to find out how much sleep you specifically require, is to first, ensure you have NO sleep debt, you must be all caught up on your sleep. Then from the time you fall asleep, to the time you wake up without an alarm is the amount of sleep you require a night.

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What if I can’t fall asleep?

It’s important to ensure you have a healthy sleep hygiene. What is that you ask? Well I will tell you! Sleep hygiene is a set of healthy behaviors to facilitate healthy sleeping patterns. You can improve sleep hygiene by…

  • Stop Napping: When you sleep during the day, it messes with your internal body clock. Your body associates certain times of day with sleep, and if you sleep during the day, your body’s association with sleeping at night has been reduced. So even if you feel tired in the afternoon, do whatever you can to hold of sleeping until it is time for bed.
  • Always go to bed at the same time: You must go to sleep, and wake up as close as possible to the same time each day. So if you normally go to bed at 10pm on the week nights, try to go to bed by 11, or midnight at the latest on the weekends. Obviously this cannot always be the case, but as long as you are as close to this as you can be, it will only improve your chances of falling asleep on time.
  • Avoid taking stimulants close to bed time: This includes caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and chocolate. Although alcohol is a depressant, try to avoid drinking alcohol at night before bed, as it interrupts your different sleep patterns at night. You may fall asleep quickly after a night of drinking, but notice that despite getting 10 hours of sleep that night, you still don’t feel completely rested when you wake up? As your body metabolizes the alcohol long after it’s been consumed, it causes arousal. A note to add on caffeine, is many people don’t realize that the half life of caffeine is 5 hours. If you are a woman taking birth control, this makes the process longer and the half life becomes 5-10 hours. So if you drink 1 cup of coffee at noon, by 5 pm, only half of the caffeine you consumed  has decreased. You may not feel as energetic, but it still prevents your body, especially your brain, from entering a completed stage of relaxation. Also, avoid eating before bed! As your body breaks down the food, it turns the calories into energy, and will actually make you more awake!
  • Exercise: With many people being so sedentary, we are significantly  less active compared to our “hunter gatherer” days. Exercise will help use up some of your extra energy, and increase your physical health as well! If you participate in vigorous exercise, this should be done in the morning or early afternoon, afterwards it can actually increase your energy for a little while. Relaxing exercises such as yoga and stretching, can help relax you before bed at night.
  • Vitamin D/Sunlight: Your body needs bright light to reset it’s body clock. Also, you need sunlight to get Vitamin D. Remember, a lack of vitamin D/sunlight is often a large factor in increasing your chance of Seasonal Affective Disorder! If you don’t own a light box, it is essential that you expose yourself to as much bright light as possible. The brightest indoor lights only produce 500 lux of light, while the sun outside on a cloudy day is 1000 lux. When it’s bright an sunny, the sun produces 10,000 lux.
  • Avoid bright lights before bed:  Avoid bright lights close to bed time. When your eyes and brain notice the lights dimming, it imitates the sun setting, and tells our bodies it is soon time for bed. An hour before bed, try to turn off all your lights and just light candles if you can, or plug in night lights. Even the light from a television is enough to keep you awake! So also… DO NOT WATCH TV IN BED! Not only because of the light, but the sound as well.
  • Your bed should ONLY be used for sleeping and having sex. Do not read in bed, do not watch tv in bed, don’t listen to the radio, talk on the phone, etc. Usually it takes about a month to form a habit/association, so within a month of slowly incorporating these healthy sleep hygiene activities, you should notice an increase in your sleep.

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Still having a hard time falling asleep?

Often, racing thoughts will begin when we go to sleep, because our brain is actually not distracted and a moment to do whatever it wants. Often journaling before bed can help. Take 10 minutes, and just write WHATEVER comes to your mind. By writing down your thoughts onto paper, you are giving the thoughts a chance to leave your brain, it’s almost as cathartic as talking it out with someone. It is important that you physically write when you journal, not just type. Writing allows both sides of you brain to process the information and is more helpful.

If at this point you are still having problems, it is important to visit your doctor. You could have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea. Your doctor may require a “sleep study” where you sleep overnight at a lab, and they examine your brain waves, and patterns while you sleep.

 Remember… lack of sleep is considered a form of torture. So don’t torture your body!!! Catch some of those much needed ZzZzZzZ’s!!!!

For more information on sleep, please see the following links…

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact usto learn more or to book an appointment.

How to Improve Sleep Hygiene
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