The fancy digital, pedometer-bracelet thingy around my wrist tells me I slept six hours and 25 minutes with four interruptions. As I struggle to awake, my body can tell you, that isn’t nearly enough.
An estimated 70 million Americans are sleep-deprived, according to the National Sleep Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many nights, I am among them.
Aside from the health risks associated with inadequate sleep, such as depression, memory and attention issues, mood disorders, and the higher risk of physical illness, researchers at the University of Oxford now believe a lack of sleep or poor sleep quality may also contribute to brain shrinkage. That thought alone might keep you up at night.
Sleep is essential to repair and restore the brain, says lead researcher Claire Sexton. If the repair process is interrupted by a sleepless night, brain function also can be affected. In her study, participants who experienced poor sleep also showed brain shrinkage in the three lobes of the brain linked to decision-making, movement, emotions, thoughts, memory and learning, according to the study published in the journal Neurology.
It doesn’t take a study to remind us that sleep is essential, but for many getting a good night’s sleep begins long before bedtime.
Parents of young children talk often and even obsess about how to get their kids to sleep. When my daughter was a toddler, we put her on a sleep schedule.
Every night beginning an hour or so before bed, we followed the same routine, a ritual of sorts, to help her wind down and get primed for sleep. We turned off the television, dressed her in her pajamas, brushed her teeth, snuggled in the rocking chair, read books, and finally, after she was tucked in with lights out, we sang some little songs. By the time we left her room, she was, most nights, ready to rest.
A sleep schedule or consistent sleep-priming routine also can help adults get better sleep. Here are five things to include in your routine:
- Turn off all devices. Starting two hours before bed, shut down the smartphones, computers, televisions sets and other electronics that emit blue light waves. This light throws off our natural rhythms, making it harder to sleep.
- Eat early and wisely. If you are an evening snacker, nibble on a few crackers and a slice of cheese, or another small protein/carb combo at least two hours before bed. Also lay off caffeine and alcohol in the evening hours.
- Turn down the lights. When darkness falls, turn off (or at least dim) the lights in the house. Our bodies are sensitive to the natural day and night light patterns called circadian rhythms. When the sun rises, the light helps us wake up and become alert and our bodies secrete cortisol. When darkness falls, our bodies are infused with sleep-inducing melatonin. But here’s the rub: artificial lighting throws off those biological rhythms, suppresses the release of melatonin, and makes it hard to sleep. Keeping things dark at night and exposing yourself to natural light during the day will help.
- Release the niggling negative thoughts. After you’ve created a sleep-promoting environment, choose a relaxing activity such as meditation, a hot bath, deep breathing exercises, journal writing or something else that allows you to release the day’s stress. Sometimes, I practice mindfulness while brushing my teeth and washing my face as a way to release bad feelings and promote calm.No matter which you choose, do use this time to quietly observe, without judgment, your thoughts and concerns and then release them. This will keep you from ruminating into the early hours.
- Go to bed. Finally, after you’ve gone through your sleep routine, head to bed, turn off the light and lie down. Even if you don’t feel like sleep, it’s important that you develop the habit by lying down in bed and getting up at the same time, every single day. It may take a few days, but soon your body will catch on that it’s time to sleep when you lie down in bed.
In this hectic, heavily-booked culture we live in, a sleep schedule may seem like a cumbersome way to get rest. But anything that will help you sleep better will also improve your physical health, daytime productivity, mental resilience and even your relationships. Sleep could just be the simplest way to boost overall health and happiness.