Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.”
–Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen, Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago, expert sleep researcher
We all underestimate the importance of sleep at times. When it seems as though there is enough time in the day to complete our papers, projects, studies, internships, clubs and other obligations, we often cut back on the amount of sleep we get as a solution to our time crunch. However, considering the fact that we spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping, it may be important to reconsider how much (or how little) we prioritize a good night’s sleep.
Sleep impacts our memory, focus, concentration, stress, mood, anxiety, energy and overall performance. Most people need between 7-9 hours of sleep nightly, yet many of us do not prioritize getting that much sleep on a regular basis. Furthermore, some people may try to get 7-9 hours of sleep, but struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or feel rested upon waking.
If you struggle with getting a good night’s sleep, consider these helpful sleep tips:
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time: Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a “circadian clock” in our brain, and the body’s need to balance both sleep and wake time. Try to go to bed and get up at relatively consistent times, even on the weekends. However, if you have consistent sleep problems, then try getting up half an hour earlier in the morning than your usual time; it may help you get to sleep that night.
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine: A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety. Avoid arousing activities immediately before bedtime such as paying bills, engaging in competitive games or studying – as these activities can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Instead, transition from study time to bed time with a 15-30 minute relaxing routine. This can include taking a warm shower or bath, aromatherapy, or enjoying some light reading. Relaxation exercises – such as guided imagery, mindful breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation – are another option.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool: Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep – cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions. Also make your bedroom reflective of the value you place on sleep. Check your room for noise or other distractions, including a bed partner’s sleep disruptions such as snoring, light, and a dry or hot environment. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise,” humidifiers, fans and other devices.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows: Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. Have comfortable pillows, foam pads and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep but also free of allergens that might affect you and objects that might cause you to slip or fall if you have to get up during the night.
- Use your bed only for sleep, not for studying or working: It is best to take work and study materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep to strengthen a positive association between bed and sleep. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine. For example, if looking at a bedroom clock makes you anxious about how much time you have before you must get up, move the clock out of sight. Don’t try to fall asleep. Trying to fall asleep can be activating. If you are unable to sleep after 20 minutes go to another room and engage in a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy again. Do not engage in activities that cause you anxiety and prevent you from sleeping.
- Write out your worries in a personal journal: Many students tend to use their bedtime as a time to worry about upcoming exams or problem-solve certain things in their lives. This worrying may seem natural as you think about your schedule for the next day or week. Worrying and ruminating in bed, however, keeps the mind active and leads to significant difficulty in falling asleep. Because of this, many students find it helpful to keep a journal at their bedside. If you find yourself worrying about something, simply write down the worry in your journal, and allow yourself to let go of the worry and tend to it at a future time. It may be helpful to schedule in a time to go over your journal worries every day, well before bedtime.
- Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime: Eating or drinking too much may make you less comfortable when settling down for bed. It is best to avoid a heavy meal too close to bedtime. Also, spicy foods may cause heartburn, which leads to difficulty falling asleep and discomfort during the night. Try to restrict fluids close to bedtime to prevent nighttime awakenings to go to the bathroom, though some people find milk or herbal, non-caffeinated teas to be soothing and a helpful part of a bedtime routine.
- Exercise regularly: It is best to complete your workout at least a few hours before bedtime. In general, exercising regularly makes it easier to fall asleep and contributes to sounder sleep. However, exercising sporadically or right before going to bed will make falling asleep more difficult. In addition to making us more alert, our body temperature rises during exercise, and takes as much as 6 hours to begin to drop. A cooler body temperature is associated with sleep onset… Finish your exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime. Late afternoon exercise is the perfect way to help you fall asleep at night.
- Avoid caffeine (e.g. coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate), nicotine, and alcohol close to bedtime: Caffeine products, such as coffee, tea, colas and chocolate, remain in the body on average from 3 to 5 hours, but they can affect some people up to 12 hours later. Even if you do not think caffeine affects you, it may be disrupting and changing the quality of your sleep. Avoiding caffeine within 6-8 hours of going to bed can help improve sleep quality. Nicotine is also a stimulant. Smoking can cause difficulty falling asleep, problems waking in the morning, and may also cause nightmares. Additionally, although many people think of alcohol as a sedative, it actually disrupts sleep, causing nighttime awakenings. Consuming alcohol leads to a night of less restful sleep.
- Avoid the Internet, social networking and other activities on electronic devices immediately before bedtime: Although these may seem like pleasurable activities before bedtime, electronics (whether they are computers, laptops, tablets or cell phones) actually keep the mind alert because of the blue lights in these devices. As a result, they are not conducive to falling asleep and keeping with a regular bed time. Plan out time in your schedule where you can take part in Internet or electronics well before your established bed time. Practice a relaxing pre-bedtime ritual between going on your electronic device and going to bed.
National Sleep Foundation: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/
Sleep Education: http://www.sleepeducation.com/