Welcome back to my mindfulness series on the science of sleep and how to sleep better. If you haven’t yet checked out Part One, you can do so right here and I encourage you to because this article continues that conversation. In Part 1, we talked about the negative impact of lack of consistent sleep and the many systems and functions that control sleep in the body and are affected by sleep problems. In this part, I am going to go over the different benefits we can expect from improving our sleep habits and the ways we can try to achieve this. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, my tips on sleeping and how to stick to a better sleeping schedule.
Benefits of Getting Good Sleep
We know what can happen when we don’t get enough sleep, but what about when we prioritize our sleep and get regular, restful sleep? This kind of sleep can have so many different benefits that it’s difficult to list them all, but here are some of the main ones that we should be aware of:
When we sleep better, our bodies relax and are able to better recover from daily wear and tear which reduces our stress levels. The problem with a lack of sleep and sleeping poorly is that not only does it increase our stress levels, but it also makes it difficult to fall asleep at the end of the day. This unhealthy cycle can be tough to break out of, but the next section of this article, “Tips for Sleeping Better” can help reduce stress and make falling asleep easier in the process. Implementing the tips that particularly resonate with you is a good way to begin moving toward a healthier cycle of stress reduction, less tossing and turning before bed, and getting better sleep.
—Energized & Alert:
Don’t we always feel better after a night of good sleep? One of the most common feelings associated with good sleep is feeling energized and more alert. Those days when we can skip our morning coffee because we wake up feeling energized are something to cherish. Science points to the deep sleep stage as being integral for this kind of restorative sleep and it makes sense as this is when the body is able to enhance its ability to produce ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), the body’s natural energy source.
While we sleep, our brains are hard at work. This may seem counterintuitive because we are not actively in control of our thoughts, but sleep is when the brain specializes in memory production. One of the main functions it performs during sleep is consolidating memories. This consolidation is the process in which memories that have been acquired throughout the day are stored in the memory banks and the brain creates pathways to recall and access them later on. This is especially important for procedural memory, or remembering how to do things.
It turns out there are a variety of ways in which good sleep or lack of sleep can either encourage or prohibit weight loss. Put simply, lack of sleep leads to greater appetite and getting good sleep increases metabolism. By taking control of our sleep, there can be numerous unintended benefits. Whether we’re trying to lose weight or not, having a healthy appetite and metabolism as well as an increased control of our body helps us feel better. These are outcomes we can expect when we sleep better and stay asleep.
Cognitive performance is not something we always think about, but when we feel sluggish, we notice it. Lack of sleep, at a certain level, is shown to impair cognition speed and ability at around the same degree as drunkenness. So when you drive tired, you are essentially driving while being impaired, at the same level as driving drunk! Getting good sleep, on the other hand, improves cognitive abilities in a measurable way and can even undo much of the damage done by lack of sleep.
—Repair and Restore:
Sleep is integral for the body’s natural restoration process. This is the time when the body does most of its reparative work so sleep needs to be a priority when our bodies aren’t feeling well. This benefit is especially important for people who exercise and work out a lot, or for people who are looking to build muscle. The body needs lots of rest time and good sleep in order to repair the wear and tear from exercise and almost every exercise program out there will prioritize rest days and getting good sleep.
Who doesn’t want to be in a good mood? This is nearly impossible without good sleep. Bad sleep leads to bad moods and good sleep leads to good moods, there’s not much more to it than that. How many times have we been asked, “did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” and how many times did you end up wishing that interaction had gone better?
Tips to Sleep Better:
Now that we’re up to speed on some of the key benefits of good sleep, how sleep affects our bodies, the importance of good sleep routines, and the dangers of irregular and unfulfilling sleep, it’s time to explore what is within our power to reclaim our sleeping habits. There are all kinds of activities that not only promote good sleep but also have other health benefits as well. Even if you only add one of these things to your daily self-care regimen, if you sleep better, so much else will improve along with it.
—Over the counter supplements/herbs:
There are a whole host of medically-verified sleep aids that will not interfere with the rest of your system or leave you with any noticeable side effects. While they may not be as strong as prescription strength sleep aids, many of them are naturally-occurring, easier to acquire, non-habit forming, and offer benefits outside of sleep. Some of the most common things taken for improved sleep are melatonin, ginkgo biloba, glycine, valerian root, magnesium, l-theanine, and lavender.
Each of these plants and chemicals have their own pros and cons, but generally speaking, they are considered safe for consumption. As always, it’s important to discuss over-the-counter supplements with your medical physician and also to do your research and figure out which ones may work best for you. It’s also important to discuss with your doctor and keep in mind that over-reliance on sleep aids may lead to a dependency causing you to have difficulty falling asleep without them. A solution might be to use them only at times you anticipate having difficulty sleeping well rather than on a daily basis.
—More light exposure during the day and less blue light exposure at night:
Perhaps you’ve read that avoiding blue light from screens at least an hour before bed is helpful, but did you know that increasing your exposure to natural light during the day is important too? Studies have shown that people who are exposed to light during their 9-5 work day fall asleep easier, engage in deeper sleep, and are less likely to become depressed. It can be difficult to give up screens before bed, but try switching from screens to some of your screenless routines right before bed. Try replacing scrolling through social media before bed with meditation, yoga, reading, drawing, knitting, or whatever screenless activities that you enjoy most. You’ll be doing yourself a big favor.
—No caffeine after 3-4 pm:
This can be a tough one for some and for others; it may not affect them at all. I’ve had friends who could drink strong coffee after dinner and fall asleep fine and I’ve had others who couldn’t touch even tea after lunchtime. But studies have shown the sweet spot for stopping caffeine use during the day to be around 3-4 pm, which makes sense for many. Over-caffeination can feel awful, especially when we don’t give our bodies any breaks from high caffeine use. Caffeine blocks a receptor in the brain that tells the body when it should feel tired, so the further you can keep your caffeine use from bedtime, the better your chances are to fall asleep.
—No daytime naps longer than 30 minutes:
Now here’s one that I’m sure many of us are unaware of. I, myself, have enjoyed a good nap on occasion and I can say this tip shocked me a bit. Thirty minutes hardly even seems like a nap, but I think I understand why this is such a critical piece of advice. When we deprive ourselves of good sleep, our bodies have a sort-of “catch up” system to replenish us. “Catch up” is in quotations because it is an often-used phrase from people who push their sleep schedules to the breaking point. Catching up on sleep is not actually proven to work and it is generally agreed-upon that conforming to a more regular sleep schedule is healthier for both body and mind.
But the way the body naturally “catches up” on sleep, or more accurately, responds to sleep deprivation, is through micro naps where the eyes close momentarily and allow some rest to occur. When we nap for longer than 30 minutes, we signal our body to go through all the sleep phases, which makes it harder to go through that whole process again when it’s actually time to go to sleep for the night. In order to be on top of this, it may be beneficial to set a timer for 30 or less minutes when you’re getting ready for a nap. It’s important to consider how a nap may take away from your night of sleep and impact your mood the next day.
—Consistent bed/wake times:
Going back to what we know about the Circadian rhythm, we know that our bodies like consistent sleep and wake times. The more consistent we can be about it, the better our bodies will adjust to whatever sleep routine we have. This means adjusting your sleep schedule to prioritize getting the 7-9 hours you need every night, even the weekends. It can be tempting to sleep in when you don’t have to wake up for work, but by setting the same alarm, you are giving your body a chance to adjust to your sleep schedule and get the full benefits of sleep you can. Recently, I began using the “Health” app on my iPhone to set a regular sleep schedule and am finding that it’s helpful. My phone automatically goes in “Do Not Disturb” mode at the same time every night, and I have it set to be in “winding down mode” for 30 min prior to bedtime.
—Limiting Alcohol Use:
I was originally going to put limiting eating before bed here as well, but research is inconclusive and there seems to be evidence that supports both going to bed hungry and going to bed full may have benefits and trade-offs. The same, however, cannot be said for alcohol use, which may help you feel more tired, but actually leads to worse quality sleep. By limiting overall alcohol use, especially close to bedtime, your body can get deeper, more restorative sleep.
My last tip is one that you may have heard before. Starting a regular exercise and exertive program is one of the most important things you can do for your self-care, wellness, and overall health. The benefits of it are too many to list here, but one I will list is that it often leads to better sleep. Not only does exercising make you feel more tired and ready for sleep at the end of your day, but it also is shown to improve the quality of that sleep and it gives your body something to repair while you sleep. If you are struggling with this, check out my list of activities you can do with a young one that will help you stay active.
I’m sure many of you were already aware of some of the benefits and tips mentioned, but there might be some surprising things on the list that I think could be helpful to everyone reading. I’ve had my fair share of rough patches when it comes to sleep and I know how unfun it can be. It can feel like nothing goes right for you when you don’t sleep. I want to reiterate here that if you try these things and they don’t seem to be working for you, don’t be afraid to contact your doctor if your issues continue. There are so many reasons why sleep may be difficult and a doctor will help you get to the bottom of it. Let me know in the comments if any of these were new or helpful for you. I can’t wait to hear how your sleep has improved.