Most Americans do not sleep enough and are chronically sleep-deprived. We connect our increasing awake hours to being productive and "not being lazy". Sleep to many is almost considered a luxury. There are many hardcore expressions people say like "we can sleep when we die". The reality is that sleep is one of the key ingredients of being healthy. Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep is connected to numerous chronic diseases including dementia.
Life has become so fast-paced and cluttered with information, obligations, and distractions that it is no wonder we are sleep deprived. Most people are connected to a smartphone at all waking hours and that connects them to a stream of constant information and interruptions that they may not even welcome or feel that they have chosen.
Let's look at the deleterious effects of not getting enough sleep, and then why this is the case. Not getting enough sleep puts you at higher risk for both heart disease and cancer. It also weakens your immune system, which can result in you being more susceptible to getting sick, and getting diseases such as cancer. It reduces your alertness which can translate to accidents and resultant injury. Not getting enough sleep actually prevents your brain from being able to make new memories - without sleep, the memory component of the brain actually shuts down and therefore new experiences cannot be committed to memory. Lack of sleep, further, can result in the development of a toxic protein called beta-amyloid which is associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Sleep deprivation also affects fertility and weight. There is a close connection to lack of sleep and obesity even if a person is eating well and exercising.
So - how can you improve the quality of sleep as well as increase the number of hours you sleep? Below are 5 ways to improve sleep!
1. LIMIT SCREEN TIME TWO HOURS BEFORE YOU GO TO BED.
The blue light emitted from our devices seriously hampers with our ability to go to sleep and stay asleep and leaves us feeling groggy in the morning. It messes with our circadian rhythm, basically our internal clock, that tells us when its time to sleep and when its time to wake up. It also upsets the regulation of our sleep hormone - melatonin. If you can, avoid screen time at least two hours before going to bed. If you must use your device, there are several ways to lessen the effects on your sleep cycle. There are special adhesive screens you can stick on your smartphone that block harmful blue light. They are called: blue light blocking screens. Another alternative is blue light blocking glasses that you can wear. There are also some apps that promise to block blue light as well. You'll have to decide for yourself which suits your personal lifestyle the best. Or go for all three if you're seriously committed.
2. INCREASE BRIGHT LIGHT EXPOSURE DURING THE DAY
There are many negative side effects of working in an office environment. One that most people don’t consider is that most offices do not have a lot of natural light, if any at all. Human beings are meant to be outside, not sitting at a desk in a windowless room. Not getting enough sunlight throws off your body’s natural time-keeping clock known as your “circadian rhythm”. It makes sense that our bodies use sunlight to determine when we should wake up and when we should start preparing for sleep - but without access to the right kind of light, your brain, body and hormones get confused and this natural rhythm is thrown out of whack. Long story short, if you aren’t getting enough natural sunlight or bright light, it will effect the quality and duration of your sleep in a negative way.
In people with insomnia, daytime bright light exposure reduced the time it took to fall asleep by 83%. That is a huge difference! Another study found that in older adults it took only two hours of bright light exposure during the day to increase the amount of sleep by two hours and sleep efficiency by 80% . Anything helps so try walking to work or even partially there and be sure to go outside during your lunch break to absorb the benefits of the sun (and I’m not talking about baking in a bikini here). If it really isn’t possible to get natural sunlight at least invest in an artificial bright-light device or bulbs and have them installed in your office.
3. STOP EATING FOOD 2-3 HOURS BEFORE GOING TO BED
Who doesn't love snacking at night right before bed, eating popcorn while watching your favorite show? Unfortunately, eating before bed also compromises your sleep. If you fall asleep with a full belly, your body can't truly rest because it has to deal with all that food you just gave it to process. Also I know from personal experience that if I eat right before bed, especially heavy foods with a high sodium content, I wake up bloated and puffy the next morning. If I resist, I tend to wake up with clear bright eyes, and no dark circles. It instantly makes for a better morning. Also as a side note, if you are going to eat sodium before bed, never use refined iodized salt. It's literally poison. Pink Himalayan salt is processed completely differently and is actually immensely important for your health.
4. SOOTHE YOUR MIND
In our hyperactive world of stress and worries, it can be very difficult to fall asleep even when we are tired because our minds won't stop yapping and nagging us. If you haven't tried meditating, I highly suggest you do so, regardless of sleep. It is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself. I personally have a difficult time sometimes meditating and quieting my mind but I have found ways to make the process much simpler and yet just as effective. I like to use two kinds of meditation techniques. The first is guided meditation that works with your phone. I use an app called: Calm. It is truly amazing. If you haven't heard of it, make sure to download it. It's so worth it. It helps you guide your breathing and clear your mind. Another way I found extremely beneficial is an app called BW Studio, and it uses an audio technology called binaural beats and isochronic tones. It uses frequencies to gently guide your brain into different brain states. For example if you're in deep sleep, your brain exhibits delta waves. So it's basically reverse engineering your brain into whatever state of consciousness you desire. You can also use this app for enhanced concentration or focus etc. If you'd like to know more about Brainwaves, this website is interesting: https://brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-are-brainwaves With this app, you can use nature sounds such as a flowing creek or ocean sounds or crickets etc. or choose from different soothing music. There are many apps like this available. Just type in binaural beats or isochronic tones into the App store search button. In the end, its about progress, not perfection.
5. EXERCISE REGULARLY
It’s no surpise that exercise has been scientifically proven to be one of the best ways to improve your sleep and health. It makes sense that if your body is tired, your mind will follow helping you transition into sleep much faster. One study in older adults determined that exercise was more effective than medications in many cases, nearly cutting the amount of time it took to fall asleep in half and providing 41 more minutes of sleep at night. Furthermore, exercise reduced total night wakefulness by 30%, anxiety by 15% and increased total sleep time by 18%. Try to get your sweat on earlier in the day as there is an inital stimulatory effect after working out, which can increase alertness and “awake” hormones.
With more and more people complaining about having trouble falling asleep as well as their quality of sleep - it’s more important than ever to research ways to get better sleep. We have to do whatever we can to counteract the effects of modern day life - constant screen time, lack of natural light, addiction to caffeine etc.
According to government statistics, the average person in the US spends $10,739 on healthcare a year or $3.5 trillion as a nation. When looking at those numbers, one would assume that we would start with the most basic, preventative healthcare measures first - that cost us nothing - before reaching deep into our own pockets.
The fact is, our society is engaged in an active war against the number one disease prevention mechanism at our disposal. Sleep.
When we sleep, our bodies begin the healing and rebuilding process. Basically we break ourselves during the day and heal ourselves at night. When we don't get enough snooze time, our nerves our frayed, our mood tanks, our confidence melts away. For men, testosterone levels also drop significantly, and for all of us, the fat and stress hormone, cortisol, increases. With elevated cortisol levels, our hunger also increases, seriously jeopardizing our fitness and health goals.
It is generally agreed upon by scientists that the average person requires about 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep for optimal performance.
So, ask yourself - am I getting enough sleep? Chances are, like so many of us, you are not and hopefully this blog post has inspired you to go to bed ;)
Until next time,
Dr. Alexes Hazen