One of the most important things we can do for overall health and wellness is: sleep. Healthy sleep patterns are essential for optimum energy, immunity, cognitive ability, and physical strength and resilience. Good sleep helps to slow the aging process and reduce risk of illness and disease (everything from the common cold to heart disease).
While you’re asleep, your body works to repair tissues (including those involved in muscle growth and healing injuries), regulate hormone levels, and form new pathways in your brain for learning and memory. Sleep is essential for growth and development, which is why babies and children (and, to some degree, teenagers) need so much more of it than adults.
Given the incredible invisible work the body does during sleep, lack of sleep can quite noticeably weaken the immune system, increase stress hormone levels, and increase risk of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke (among other bad things). Understandably, sleep deficiency often results in cognitive and emotional un-wellness, such as irritability, inability to concentrate, trouble making decisions and solving problems, and mood swings or trouble controlling emotions.
When it comes to sleep, both quantity (hours) and quality (sleep cycles) matter.
Humans have four distinct stages of sleep: 1, 2, 3, and REM (rapid eye movement). We pass through this cycle four or five times a night, typically in a 1, 2, 3, 2, REM pattern. The whole cycle takes a total of about 90 minutes, at which point it starts over.
Each stage of the cycle is important to the process. Stage 1 is the lightest phase, a transition zone between fully conscious and sleeping (you’re easily awakened during this stage, and will swear that you never fell asleep—but you did). In stage 2, brain waves slow and body temperature drops to prepare for deeper sleep. Stage 3, deep sleep, is characterized by very slow brain waves (so slow that if you wake during this stage—which is hard to do—you’ll feel groggy and disoriented). This stage is when most tissue growth/repair and hormone secretion occurs. About 75% of sleep time is spent in stages 1-3.
During the final stage, REM sleep, you experience most of the night’s dreaming, the result of increased brain activity as your brain interprets and organizes information and memories. It’s called REM because your eyes move randomly and rapidly, watching what you’re dreaming (but total muscle relaxation–paralysis, really–keeps you from acting out your dream physically).
Although the physiological function of REM sleep is not completely understood, it’s known to be vital for learning, creativity, and longevity. REM is something the body can’t go without–if you’re deprived of it one night, the next time you sleep you’ll enter into REM more quickly, and stay in it longer until you’re “caught up.” Animals deprived of REM sleep live drastically shorter lives.
A healthy sleep cycle looks like the graph to the right. Most deep sleep occurs earlier in the night, and most REM sleep happens later in the night (although the 90-minute interval remains consistent).
However, sleep disturbances or an irregular sleep schedule can result in a redistribution of sleep stages, which doesn’t have the same restorative benefits, because your sleep pattern gets skewed to more REM or more non-REM than a healthy cycle.
Sleep stages are governed by our circadian rhythm, which regulates body temperature and hormonal secretion relative to waking and sleeping hours. Our best sleep works within this circadian rhythm, based on daylight and darkness, which is why many sleep experts suggest a bedtime window of roughly 8 p.m. to midnight in order to get a proper balance of REM and non-REM sleep. (Where a person’s ideal bedtime falls in this window is based on genetics.)
How to sleep well
Proper sleep patterns are critical in maintaining all systems of health, yet almost two-thirds of Americans are not getting enough restful shut-eye. Are you one of them?
Here are some tips and tricks for more restful and restorative sleep:
Get *enough* sleep
People kind of hate to hear this one because it’s hard–we live lives with schedules and pressures that don’t support healthful sleeping habits. But it’s still mega-important.
Most adults feel and function best with 7-9 hours per night. (Although you’re likely to need more if you’re strength training, fighting an illness, or recovering from an injury.)
You also want to ensure you’re getting enough of each stage of sleep. You can use an app like Sleep Cycle or Sleepbot (or a fitness tracker like Fitbit) to monitor and track the stages of your sleep. This can help you tune into the quality of sleep you’re getting, what type of sleep you may be missing, and give clues to what you can do to improve it.
If you happen to be a person who needs to be somewhere at a particular time in the morning (most of us), part of ensuring you get enough sleep is counting backward from your wake-up time, setting an appropriate bedtime, and then respecting that bedtime.
It’s hard to go from fully functioning to sleeping when the clock strikes bedtime, so plan to have a nightly routine that helps you wind down and prepare for sleep. Plan to start this activity at least half an hour before lights-out—if needed, set a reminder on your phone to alert you when it’s “pre-bedtime.” Some good wind-down options: read in bed, do a gentle yoga or stretching sesh, practice meditation to quiet the mind, follow a calming skincare or beauty routine (100 strokes of hair brushing anyone?), or write in a journal to reflect on the day.
Limit exposure to blue light before bed
Our bodies’ circadian rhythms are affected by light, and exposure to “blue” light (such as a computer screen) after dark has been shown to disrupt the circadian rhythm, and can make it hard to fall asleep. (That’s why you’re supposed to forgo screen time for an hour or two before bed.)
If you still use a laptop before bed (and especially if you use it after you get into bed), try f.lux, a free software program that gives your computer screen a warm glow after dark. Set your timezone and f.lux will automatically adjust the hue and brightness of your screen to match the time of day (blue during the day, orange at night).
If you usually read on a Kindle before bed, you can read your book through Kindle Cloud Reader, Amazon’s browser-based e-reader, which you can use f.lux on.
Wake up smart
When and how you wake up is also an important part of your sleep quality. Waking up during the lightest phase of your sleep cycle will leave you feeling the most refreshed. You can use the free website sleepyti.me to quickly estimate the best bedtime based on the time you need to wake up in the morning. For a more precise approach, use a sleep-tracking app (like Sleep Cycle or Sleepbot) to monitor your sleep cycles and wake you in your lightest phase.
Because human circadian rhythms are affected by light, another strategy for waking up refreshed is using an alarm clock that simulates the sunrise to ease you awake. A warm-glow light will turn on about thirty minutes before your set alarm and gradually brighten to simulate a sunrise. Exposure to this light should help bring you into a lighter sleep stage, which makes it easier to wake up when the alarm goes off. These alarm clocks typically have relaxing alarm sounds, like chirping birds–and the alarm starts quieter and gets louder, which is less jarring. This model or this model are good options.
Be physically active
Daily physical activity of some sort, besides being directly beneficial for your overall health, is one of the best things you can do to improve your sleep quality. Several studies have found that regular exercise significantly improves the sleep of people with chronic insomnia. It’s thought that moderate exercise helps regulate body temperature and stress hormones, and strengthens the body’s natural circadian rhythms, helping you to feel more alert during the day and more sleepy at night.
The benefits of being outside are so extensive they’re worth another entire article. But for now, know that you should aim to get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day. Not only is this exposure essential for synthesizing Vitamin D (critical for a variety of biological functions), but it also boosts serotonin levels, which in turn helps to improve melatonin levels at night. (Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the body at the onset of darkness, and aids in producing feelings of sleepiness.)
Reduce mental stress
Easier said than done, right? But both acute and chronic mental stress can disrupt healthful sleep patterns. Taking steps in your life to reduce sources of stress and improve your mind/body coping mechanisms can help improve sleep quality (and make you less stressed too–double whammy!).
Try starting a meditation practice to improve relaxation (it’s physically impossible for the body to be stressed and relaxed at the same time), as well as to strengthen your ability to use mindfulness to steer yourself away from stressful thoughts. Also try keeping a gratitude journal to focus on the positive in your life, a practice shown to help decrease stress hormones and ease physical symptoms of stress.
Avoid sleep-disrupting foods/drinks
It’s common knowledge that, for best sleep, you shouldn’t consume caffeine after about 3 p.m. (earlier, if you’re sensitive). It’s less well known that sugars and carbohydrates can also lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. This is because they cause blood sugar to spike and crash, leading your brain to fire “Eat!!” signals, which aren’t compatible with the “Sleep now and don’t eat for many hours” signals you’re looking for before bed. If you crave a midnight snack, opt for a high-protein/high-fat option, like a handful of nuts, an avocado, or plain yogurt with a little honey.
Many people have trouble sleeping (especially staying asleep) after drinking alcohol. This is because alcohol suppresses REM sleep early in the night, which rebounds later in the night, and makes you more susceptible to waking up. So, be mindful of when and how much you consume, and drink plenty of water after (but just long enough before bed that you won’t be waking up to go to the bathroom!).
Create a good sleep environment
Pay attention to your sleep environment (fancy name for bedroom) to make sure it’s conducive to good sleep. Avoid putting electronics with bright lights (alarm clocks, internet modems with flashing lights) in the bedroom, or cover them up while you’re sleeping. If you’re bothered by outside light from streetlamps, invest in an eye mask or blackout curtains.
People sleep best in cool conditions, so try to keep the room cool (ideally under 65 degrees). Get a fan if that’s challenging. And, the fan can double as white noise–sleeping with white noise (via a fan or sound machine) will greatly reduce the amount of external influence in waking you up during night. This is especially helpful if you sleep with a partner who goes to bed or wakes up at a different time than you.
This one is so simple it’s often overlooked: make sure your bed is comfortable and cozy! Invest in a comfortable mattress (or mattress pad), a sturdy bed frame, and have a good pillow situation. Nice sheets (organic cotton is preferable) are also important for creating a soft and cozy bed. Target has some nice/affordable organic cotton sheets.
Turn your phone on silent when you’re sleeping! If you’re convinced you need to be able to hear it in the case of an emergency call, you can select certain numbers in your iPhone that are still allowed through when your phone is silenced (go to Settings > Do Not Disturb)–just let those people know to call 2 times in a row if they need to reach you at night.
Sometimes, even if you’ve followed all of the steps above, you still have trouble falling or staying asleep. If so, try these natural remedies:
- Magnesium spray: These days, many people are deficient in magnesium, an essential mineral needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including normal neurological function. Most dietary magnesium comes from dark leafy vegetables, which people don’t tend to eat enough of as it is, and which also rely on soil health for their nutrient content–and magnesium is much less prevalent in soils today than it used to be. Many people find that using a topical magnesium spray before bed helps them sleep and relieves symptoms of anxiety.
- Cold therapy: If you can’t sleep, run cold water in the bathtub and stick your feet and wrists under the faucet as long as you can. The theory is that exposure to cold helps to lower body temperature and stimulate the production of melatonin. There’s also a theory that the cold helps to take the “excess energy” out of the body before sleep.
- Tart cherry juice: Tart cherry juice is shown to increase melatonin levels, promoting restful sleep. It’s also anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants, which helps promote optimum health in other ways (and it’s all connected, it’s all connected). Take a tablespoon to one ounce of tart cherry juice before bed.
- Nuts: Eat a handful of nuts (almonds are a good one) with your tart cherry juice. The magnesium and tryptophan in nuts can help you feel drowsy.
- Meditate: Meditation helps calm your mind and breathing, both of which will help you sleep. And, as extra security just in case you still don’t end up falling asleep after all, meditative thought patterns help the brain relax and rejuvenate, the next best thing to sleeping.
- Nap: If all else fails and you have a horrible night of sleep, get a nap in if you can. If you’ve been REM-deprived, you should slip quickly into a restorative REM sleep and should wake up feeling better. Just make sure you allow yourself to sleep for 60-90 minutes for best effect, and don’t nap too close to bedtime (the best time for naps is early to mid afternoon).