Social or recreational drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol may have a larger impact on your sleep than you realize. Caffeine, which can stay in your system as long as 14 hours, increases the number of times you awaken at night and decreases the total amount of sleep time. This may subsequently affect daytime anxiety and performance. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine, with a difference being that at low doses, nicotine tends to act as a sedative, while at high doses it causes arousals during sleep.
When you’re desperate to get some rest, it’s tempting to head for the medicine cabinet for relief. And you may get it in the moment. But if you regularly have trouble sleeping, that’s a red flag that something’s wrong. It could be something as simple as too much caffeine or viewing electronic screens late at night. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying medical or psychological problem. But whatever it is, it won’t be cured with sleeping pills. At best, sleeping pills are a temporary band aid. At worst, they’re an addictive crutch that can make insomnia worse in the long run.
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.
Sleep needs and patterns of sleep and wakefulness are not the same for everyone. The first step in determining your need for sleep is through self-evaluation. Ask yourself: "How tired do I feel during the daytime? When do I feel most alert? When does fatigue set in?" Even moments of sleepiness that you may think of as routine, for instance, falling asleep on the subway on the way to work, or during a lecture, are likely a sign that you are not getting enough sleep.
Everyone needs sleep, but its biological purpose remains a mystery. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
You may be doing all the right things—respecting your sleep needs and patterns, setting aside an ample amount of time to sleep, keeping a sleep diary—but still experiencing daytime sleepiness, fatigue, or insomnia. If that's the case, you should consider consulting a sleep specialist who can help you set up a better sleep environment, provide support for making behavioral changes that may be interfering with sleep, or possibly diagnose a sleep disorder. You have a right to feel well rested—and there are many resources available to help you get the sleep you need.
“Sleep is not an on-and-off switch,” says the sleep expert and clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, the author of The Power of When. “Your body needs time to unwind and ready itself for shut-eye.” That’s why Dr. Breus recommends practicing a three-part routine called the “Power-Down Hour.” During the first 20 minutes, complete any tasks that absolutely must get done before bedtime. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and get dressed for bed during the next 20 minutes. For the last 20 minutes, lie in bed quietly and meditate. Focus on the rhythm of your breathing and shoo away any negative thoughts during this time.
Yoga relaxes your body and mind, making it perfectly primed for sleep. Rachel Salas, MD, associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, suggests simple poses that allow you to focus on your breathing and releasing the tension of the day. Try sitting cross-legged and bending all the way forward, reaching your arms out straight in front of you with your head facing the ground. (Or ease into slumber with these 9 relaxing stretches you can do right in bed.)
Anyway, basically your biggest zeitgeber is sunlight, and that’s the environmental cue that controls energy levels as well. But then also timing of meals, exercise, and having a consistent bedtime are all zeitgebers that impact your circadian rhythm. A bigger part of the problem is that we’re indoors so much now, so we don’t get that natural occurring sunlight when you wake up in the morning. That’s one of the best things that you can do to entrench your circadian rhythm.
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.
Use a blue light filter on your device. The blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets can be a powerful sleep disruptor. It suppresses your body’s production of melatonin and throws your circadian rhythm off, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Luckily, many smartphones these days have a “night shift” feature that adjusts the screen from cool (blue) to warm (yellow) light, which is less likely to keep you up past your bedtime. Likewise, there are apps you can run on your laptop or tablet that reduce blue light. Some popular ones are f.lux and Twilight.