Sleep is one of those things that we all know we should be getting more of, but we often feel like we have to sacrifice in order to get everything else done – like work, school, having a life, and catching up on all 5 seasons of Empire.
Our culture is also driving us to adopt a “hustle hard” mentality that values working 80 hour weeks over taking care of our health and spending time with our families. It seems like everyone is taking up a side hustle in the effort to have more spending cash, and – while we think it’s great to be entrepreneurial and take charge of your financial situation – we don’t think you have to sacrifice your health to do it.
Sleep influences everything from how we perform at work & school, to how much we crave sugary foods, how our body responds to food and exercise, and how many pimples crop up on our face. A lot of our personal and professional goals can get affected by chronic sleep deprivation. For example, you’ve been working hard to get a raise on your next performance review, but your boss comments on how you seem to miss a lot of small details and make silly mistakes – or maybe on how you are always 5 to 15 minutes late in the morning. Both of these problems could be attributed to going to sleep too late and not getting enough hours in.
We want to make sure you are able to show up as your best self in every area of your life, and feel good doing it – so we put together five must-haves for better sleep. Check it out:
- Exercise frequently
Exercise is another one of those things we all know we should be doing. A good workout has the benefit of normalizing our internal clock, balancing our hormones, and actually promoting relaxation and sleep by toning down our nervous system. Deep, restful sleep is what occurs when our bodies are calibrated correctly.
If you’ve struggled to maintain an exercise habit, I recommend doing a simple and short exercise every day to build the habit. Try starting with a daily 10-20 minute walk in the sun during the day, or consider doing a quick 15 minute high intensity interval training (HIIT). A client of mine challenged herself to do a workout – whether it was a 5 minute HIIT, yoga, a full-on gym sesh, or a short walk – for 100 days. I’m happy to say she is still maintaining her exercise habit 6 months later. Exercise does not have to be this grueling activity that feels bad for an hour. Exercise is anything you find fun, that gets you moving your body, and ultimately brings you closer to your personal goals.
However, you might need to leave intense workouts for the daytime – since an evening gym sesh can keep some people up at night.
- Get enough sunlight
We all have had the experience of waking up full of energy in the summer, when the sun is bright early in the morning and every one spends most of the day outside – walking through the mall, going on bike rides, and hanging out with friends. We know how powerful sunlight is when it comes to keeping us awake and energized, but it’s also really important for sleep. The sun tells our body when it is daytime, and also when it’s getting close to nighttime. This goes a long way towards getting our body ready for sleep.
Sunlight is also the first thing people think of when talking about Vitamin D. Everyone has heard by now that not getting enough Vitamin D can have a host of negative effects on our body. Recent research also shows a link between low Vitamin D levels and poor sleep quality and efficiency – defined as the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep long enough. So, it’s really important to get out in the sun during the day in order to get some zzz’s in later.
A quick walk in the sun, as short as 15 minutes, is enough to get the body clock fine-tuned for better sleep at night. A super easy way for busy people to do this is either first thing in the morning, or during a lunch break. It’s best if done in the morning, but fit it in however you can.
- Blackout your bedroom 1 hour before bed
So you might wonder, “I’m SO tired. Why is it so hard to fall/stay asleep? Shouldn’t this be easier ?”
And you’d be right. The thing is, our brain relies on the dark to know when it is night time and get us ready for sleep. And yet, we have a ton of artificial light in the night time. We have lamps on while we watch netflix on the light boxes we call TVs. Maybe we are up doing some work on our laptops, or doing some reading on our Kindle. And we are all probably checking instagram every couple of minutes (OK, you got me there).
As the sun sets and the sky gets darker, our bodies begin to produce a sleep hormone called melatonin. The amounts produced increase as it gets darker, and really only get to an optimal level when the sky (and your bedroom) get completely dark.
This is why making an effort to darken your room, and turn off all (or most) of the lights at least 1 hour before bed is really important. A good place to start is to make sure your windows have dark shades and heavy curtains so as to minimize the amount of light that gets in from the outside.
Then try to minimize the amount of screen time you are getting. If you like to read, the hour before bed might be a great time to do it instead of watching shows on your tv or laptop. The less light that goes directly into your eyes, the better. If you have to use any of your devices before bed then making sure that “night mode” is turned on, on your phone or tablet, is important. You can also download f.lux on your laptop which will change the color of your screen to a warmer orange color as the night goes on. Warm yellow/orange lights are like lighting candles or a fireplace, this was pretty normal before the invention of the light bulb and has a different effect on our sleep.
At the end of the day, complete darkness for at least 15-30 minutes before bed is really important for getting the best sleep we can.
- Keep a regular schedule
Ever experience jetlag? That’s a very clear example of how your body being off schedule can affect you. Like I mentioned above, our bodies have an internal rhythm that is influenced by a variety of factors and we feel our best when we work to preserve and align ourselves with this rhythm.
Your best bet is to try to wake up around the same time every day, even on the weekends. If you sleep in (we all have to sometimes), consider only sleeping in an extra hour one or two days a week. The best way to catch up on lost sleep is to go to bed earlier the next night.
Napping is a personal choice. Some people love naps, others not so much. If you are a napper, keep those naps to around 30 minutes max, as any longer can affect your sleep that night. If you wake up groggy after a nap, you slept for too long. Also, avoid taking a nap after 4pm – try going for a walk instead.
If you are consistent with your schedule then your body will know when to release the hormones to start slowing you down for bed, and it’ll also release the hormones that will wake you up with energy in the morning.
- If you drink caffeine, do it before 2pm
It can be tempting to have an extra cup of coffee or an energy drink in the afternoon, especially if we know we are working late or have errands to run. However, any form of caffeine drunk after 2pm can stay in our system until the night and affect the quality of our sleep.
Keep in mind hidden forms of caffeine including soda, pre-workout supplements, energy bars, hot chocolate, coffee-flavored products (like ice cream/yogurt), Vitamin Water and similar brands, and even decaf coffee can be significant sources of caffeine that add up throughout the day.
- Wind down and calm your mind
For many of us, some level of anxiety or stress can keep us laying in bed with racing thoughts – even when all of the lights are off and all we want to do is sleep. Funny enough, sometimes it seems like we get our worst sleep when we need it MOST. The night before a job interview, a big presentation at work, or before final exams (remember those? We don’t want to either). Other times though, it’s something not quite as life changing – like unfinished errands lingering on a to-do list. Following a regular practice that helps you de-stress and remove these stressors is vital to keeping your mental health in check and being able to fall asleep.
Some ideas are:
- Do a brain dump. Schedule your tasks for the next day in a planner. Getting your thoughts onto paper is key
- Start a journal diary just to get your frustrations out
- Meditate for 10 minutes before bed. The HeadSpace app has a free 10-day trial you can try
- Write down a few things you are truly grateful for in your life. I really like the Five-Minute Journal for this exercise
- Try taking supportive herbals & nutrients
While we work on the major lifestyle changes listed above, a supplement can provide some support and take us a step closer to getting restful sleep. These should never be your main method of getting restful sleep, since they won’t reap the same benefits as the lifestyle changes. Below are some of the resources I like to use as “supplementary” options:
Magnesium is a mineral that is commonly deficient in modern american diets. Magnesium deficiency directly contributes to symptoms of low energy, muscle spasms, migraine headaches, and makes it harder to fall asleep. There are many ways to get this: tablets, sprays, epsom salt baths, but my preferred supplement is Natural Calm – a powdered magnesium that can be added to drinks.
Chamomile, Lavender, and Lemon Balm teas are great additions to a nighttime routine. All three herbs help to lower anxiety, promote calmness, and help us wind down for bed. I even love to sip on a chamomile tea in the afternoon, when I’m feeling a bit wound up.
- Ashwaghanda (& other stress-lowering adaptogenic herbs)
The hard to pronounce herb is known to help with lowering stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels – all those things that we don’t want to be dealing with while staring at the ceiling at 2am. This may be especially useful for those who can’t fall and stay asleep due to anxiety and racing thoughts, as it will lower these feelings.
My favorite way to take this right now is with Four Sigmatic’s Adaptogenic Blend which includes other adaptogenic herbs that lower stress, increase our sense of well being, and improve sleep.
Staying safe with supplements:
It’s important to buy quality ingredients from reputable companies if you choose to purchase supplements. The supplement industry is mostly unregulated, so it’s on us to make key decisions about what we put into our bodies. Supplements with an NSF certification that state they have been made in a Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) facility is a good start. Look for NSF and cGMP at the back of product packaging.
For more info on the research on specific supplements, check out Examine.com’s unbiased evidence-based analysis. Examine.com links for the supplements discussed: Magnesium, Ashwaghanda, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Lavender.
As always, be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new supplement, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or take medications.