Reading books on electronic devices before bedtime disrupts the body’s natural sleep rhythms, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, 12 people read a book on an electronic device for 4 hours before bed, in a dimly lit room, for 5 consecutive nights. On another 5 nights, they read a real printed book on the same schedule. When using an electronic device, they were less drowsy, took longer to fall asleep, and were less alert in the morning. According to the researchers, use of electronic devices suppressed melatonin levels, making it more difficult to get a good night’s rest.
STRESS: When you’re stressed, your flight-or-fight response is active during the night, and your sleep quality is going to be shallow. It’s natural: If you have kids, you are programmed to be able to respond to your environment during the night to make sure you’re not getting eaten by a predator. Parents have this issue when their fight-or-flight response system is overly activated by worrying about their kid, and that worry actually makes their sleep quality worse.
Exercise has long been associated with higher quality sleep. While the research has mainly been done on those who don’t have insomnia, studies are suggesting that staying committed to a regular exercise routine can indeed improve the quality and duration of your sleep if you do. A study published in October 2015 in the Journal of Sleep Research showed that after six months of exercising 150 minutes a week, participants reported significantly reduced insomnia symptoms. They also had significantly reduced depression and anxiety scores.
The exception to this rule is new parents who are sleep deprived over a long period of time while also not getting high-quality rest (studies show parents lose about 350 hours of sleep during their baby’s first year). In this case, any sleep you get will become more effective; you’ll be able to fall asleep more quickly and more soundly, and any amount of sleep, from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, will improve your functioning. In fact, your sleep schedule may change to one that is more productive for your current lifestyle, such as segmented sleep or polyphasic sleep as discussed below.
Get out of bed. When you lie awake in bed, you send yourself the wrong message. "You're basically training your body not to sleep in bed, but to lie there and not sleep," Walia says. "And your mind can get conditioned to that." Olson puts it another way: "The longer we lie there and get frustrated in that environment, the more we come to anticipate it next time we're there," he says. "We come to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well."
The best way to find out if you are getting enough sleep is to note the time when you go to bed and when you wake up. If you don’t have trouble falling asleep, you can assume it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for you to fall asleep. Add those 20 minutes to the time you went to bed, and then subtract from the time you wake up. Is it somewhere within the recommended range of 7-9 hours?
A very common cause of difficulty sleeping relates to stress and the intrusion of stimulating substances and activities. You may have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test or presentation. In periods of emotional stress, such as after the death of a loved one, you may also have trouble sleeping. This is called acute insomnia. It usually passes when these stressors resolve. Similarly, stimulants such as caffeine and even nicotine can disrupt your sleep.
Sleep is not just a block of time when you are not awake. Thanks to sleep studies done over the past several decades, it is now known that sleep has distinctive stages that cycle throughout the night. Your brain stays active throughout sleep, but different things happen during each stage. For example, certain stages are needed to help you feel rested and energetic the next day, and other stages help you learn and make memories. A number of vital tasks carried out during sleep help maintain good health and enable people to function at their best. On the other hand, not getting enough sleep can be dangerous for both your mental and physical health.*
Olson also advises that those who turn to over-the-counter sleep aids do so intermittently, to help avoid building a habit, and to check with their doctors that the medicine doesn't interfere with any of their conditions or medications. If you wind up on a Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription sleep aid, Walia points out that it should be for the short term.
Sleep stability means pinning your bedtime to the same time every night, even on weekends, and waking up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. The key is to settle into a groove or a cycle that your body understands and responds to. Once you do this, it’s really quite amazing. You’ll sleep better, feel better, have more energy, and worry less.
Why is working out seemingly so beneficial? The mechanisms aren’t entirely known, but National Sleep Foundation experts say that it could have to do with exercise’s ability promote feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Staying active might also help to keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in sync—particularly if you do it outside (more on that below).
During the late '60s and early '70s, sleep studies suggested that the neurotransmitter serotonin may play a role in sleep induction. Later on, research in animals showed that destruction of parts of the brain that housed nerve cells containing serotonin could produce total insomnia. Partial damage to these areas of the brain caused variable decreases in sleep. The percentage of destruction of these particular nerve cells correlated with the amount of slow-wave sleep.
Goel, N., Kim, H., & Lao, R. P. (2016, October 27). An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiology International, 22(5), 889–904. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Namni_Goel/publication/7469424_An_Olfactory_Stimulus_Modifies_Nighttime_Sleep_in_Young_Men_and_Women/links/5811f6b408ae9b32b0a34d4b.pdf
Activated charcoal: Toxins from kryptonite foods like refined flours and factory-farmed meat cause inflammation in your brain, messing with your sleep. Cleaning up your diet is the first step to flushing out toxins (find out more with this Bulletproof Diet Roadmap). An activated charcoal supplement speeds up the process, removing toxins from the gut before they reach your brain. Learn more about the benefits of activated charcoal and dosage guidelines here.
A very helpful tool to track your sleep time and patterns is a sleep diary. Used in sleep research and clinical settings, a sleep diary is a handy reference to help people become familiar with their own natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness. The information that you will record in the sleep diary is simple and straightforward. It includes the time you go to bed, the time you wake up, your total hours of sleep, and whether you had any nighttime awakenings (and if so, how long you were awake) and any daytime naps. In addition, noting how you feel upon awakening (refreshed or tired), and how you feel at different times of the day will enable you to become more aware of your patterns, and help you determine if you are getting adequate sleep. Just keeping track of your sleep in this way may help improve your situation. If you need more help to improve your sleep, refer to Adopt Good Sleep Habits and Address Your Sleep Issues.
The first task to sleep better at night is to improve your sleep hygiene, which refers to following the guidelines for better sleep. These steps may initially seem straightforward, but because they involve modifying your behaviors in relation to your sleep, they can be challenging. If you have mastered these changes, you may be compelled to look at other options.
Valerian is thought to affect levels of one of the calming neurotransmitters in the body, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also relieves muscle spasms and is thought to help alleviate menstrual period pain. Valerian is typically taken an hour before bed. A standard dose is 450 mg. If taken during the day, valerian may result in drowsiness—it is often taken in two to three 300 mg doses with meals.
Now to the more technical details: People who are stressed or anxious are actually chronically under-breathing because stressed people breathe shortly and shallowly, and often even unconsciously hold their breath. By extending your inhale to a count of four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, allowing the oxygen to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath for seven seconds, and then emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs by exhaling steadily for eight seconds. The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild sedative-like effect. It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air.