I realized last summer that my sleep habits were really not doing me any favors. Part of this was caused by my not making healthy choices about diet, sleep or exercise – but part of it was also the environment and habits I had created around bedtime and the bedroom. I made some changes that have started to shift me into a healthier sleep routine. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from where I was last summer.
I went through a three month phase last summer where I would wake up WIDE awake between 1:30 – 3:00 AM on a near nightly basis, deeply concerned about some random (and usually miniscule) task – like whether or not I turned on the dishwasher, took out the garbage, had picked out an outfit for the next day, or something related to work. It would take me at least an hour to wind back down and fall back asleep, but sometimes that I meant I was falling back asleep around 5:00 AM, with only one hour before I would be getting up anyway.
I was constantly tired at work, found myself consuming significantly more caffeine, and my skin and health took a toll from lack of sleep. I learned through our work wellness program that there’s actually a concept called sleep debt and the related concept of sleep deficit. You might just assume that if you don’t get enough quality sleep one night (sleep debt), you can fully recharge your system with extra sleep the following night. It actually takes your body more than one day to recover from a off-kilter schedule. The facts are that a large percentage of Americans consistently do not get the sleep they need and rather than repaying their sleep debt with bit of sleeping in here and there – they are consistently running on less than a healthy amount of sleep (sleep deficit).
Sleep deprivation has some obvious surface level effects, like some I named above – such as irritability, dependence on caffeine, cognitive lag at work or school. It also has serious below the surface effects on your health, like altering your metabolism, putting yourself and others in danger while driving, and even put you at risk of heart health issues like hypertension or an irregular heartbeat.
How do you begin to address an issue that faces so many Americans? I’d suggest you start small. Some changes I made in the last year:
- Get your cell phone out of your bedroom. I said the same thing you’re saying now (“but it’s my alarm clock!”). Get an actual alarm clock, or use a wearable (my Fitbit wakes me up) to wake you up. Having the cellphone out of the room (all electronics, really) is recommended by multiple medical sources as a way to create a sleep sanctuary. I charge my phone in a separate room which helps discourage me checking it in the middle of the night.
- Darken your bedroom as much as possible. We invested in blackout curtains that keep our room signficantly darker in the summer months. The particular brand we got (linked above) was inexpensive, but it is not black out quality unless you have your blinds closed as well.
- Surround yourself with things that calm you. I purchased an essential oil diffuser from Target and several essential oil blends, namely Relax and Sleep. I don’t use them every night, but I love the scent it leaves in the room while we’re sleeping.
- Engage in a calming activity before bed. I keep a stack of books on my dresser that I unwind with before bed. On a good night, I try to read for 30-45 minutes before I fall asleep. I’m a fan of physical books versus e-readers as I find that the actual pages cause less strain on my eyes and lull me to sleep.
- Brush your teeth right after dinner. I have to continuously remind myself of this one. My logic is, if eating before bed keeps you stimulated, brush your teeth after dinner so you won’t snack. I’m honestly far too lazy to brush my teeth twice, so if I brush my teeth after dinner, it virtually rules out dessert.
- If you like tea, try a tea blend that calms you down. I live for my cup of herbal tea before bed and when I wake up when it’s chilly out. My favorite tea to unwind with is probably Traditional Medicinals Chamomile with Lavender or Sleepytime Tea.
- Form a sustainable night time routine. This doesn’t necessarily work for everyone’s schedule, but I have consistent habits I try to engage in every night – like washing my face, putting on my moisturizer and eye cream, reading my book, enjoying my tea. It becomes something I look forward to.
- Reserve bedtime practices for bed time. This one is a bit harder to explain, but try to reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex. Don’t work from home in the bedroom, don’t play video games in the bedroom. Make it a space where your brain is in the mindset of sleep when you are in it. I even take this so far as to buy traditional pajamas that I only wear to bed. I still have my lounge clothes that I’ll wear around the house, but I only wear my pajamas at bedtime. It helps reinforce in my brain that it’s time for sleep and nothing else.
- Give yourself more than seven hours in bed… so that you spend at least seven sleeping! If the recommended amount of sleep for an adult is seven hours, give yourself eight hours in bed – in hopes that you’ll spend seven sleeping. Maybe your wind-down habit is reading a book, maybe it’s crossword puzzles, coloring books or a magazine. I try to be in bed by 9:00 PM each work night in hopes that I get seven hours of sleep by the time I get up at 5:00 or 6:00 AM.
- Don’t have drastically different sleep habits on the weekend. This one has gotten easier and more realistic as I’ve grown up as “going out” now means we’re still home by 10:00 PM, haha. Waking up at the same time and going to bed at a similar time on the weekend helps build consistency. I don’t have the rush of getting to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but we’ve now created a new routine of exercising first thing on Saturday mornings and cooking breakfast together on Sunday mornings.