Sleep is an important part of the Healthy Habits System™.
That may surprise you if you think (like I used to), that sleep seems to be such a time-suck since a major goal of the system is to increase the amount of time available to spend on important things. If you’re like me, you’ve expressed frustration for the need to commit so much time – about 1/3 of your entire life! – to a seemingly unproductive activity. You’ve also tried to cheat by cutting into sleep time to get more done (hello, grad school!), if you’re like me. And you’ve said things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and, “no rest for the weary,” and, “always be hustlin’!”
Problem is – science is saying that we will have much less hustle now, and will likely be dead a lot sooner, if we don’t sleep.
Science is also saying that less time in bed could be why we’re struggling with our weight.
Whoa, what?! (If you want someone’s attention, hit ‘em in the waistline.)
But seriously, your waistline is impacted by sleep deprivation, which disrupts your hormones, diminishes metabolic throughput, and throws your energy balance off-kilter. All things that add to the muffin top. Those same impacts increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, endocrine malfunction, cognitive decline, and immune deficiency.
Yeah, it is serious, and not just a vanity issue.
In decades’ past, Americans reported that they slept, on average, up to two hours per night more than we do now. Of course, the reasons we aren’t sleeping as much as we used to are varied and complex. But researchers differentiate between actual sleep disorders and “behavioral sleep restriction,” or choosing to slash your horizontal time.
At Pretty Good Planners, we believe that Habits Lead, and Results Follow. You can habitually sleep-deprive yourself into a vicious health-cycle that results in more sleep deprivation. Alternatively, you can establish healthy habits that encourage consistently adequate restorative sleep, resulting in vibrant health.
So instead of continuing to focus on how bad sleep deprivation is for you (I could write a complete article just on that) I want to turn now to creating 6 healthy bedtime rituals to encourage restorative sleep, which will help you reclaim your health, and yeah – whittle your waist.
1. Catch some rays to catch some zzz’s.
Sleep is promoted by melatonin production in the brain, which is triggered when the sun goes down and less light enters the retinas. But it starts long before that. In fact, studies indicate that melatonin production is optimized by sunlight exposure during the day, which reinforces your diurnal circadian rhythm. The best time for exposure is between 6:30 and 8:30 am, which makes the case for early-morning workouts even stronger.
There are some indications that sunlight promotes healthy melatonin cycles due to its link to vitamin D production. Sunlight hits your skin, and cholesterol in the skin is converted to the vitamin D hormone. With lower serum levels of vitamin D come various health challenges, including bone density loss, depression and anxiety disorders, and – you guessed it – fat storage.
The challenging thing about vitamin D.
According to functional medicine nutritionist Angela Pifer, optimal vitamin D levels are 40-50 ng/DL, but that only happens if you get ample sunlight on a daily basis. Residents of northern regions only get the chance for adequate sun exposure 2.5 months out of the year. They and the rest of us are working more indoors than ever before, limiting our sun exposure even more. So unless you’re a farmer or a surfer, chances are you aren’t getting enough sun on the regular to have optimal vitamin D running around in your blood. While you are considered deficient with vitamin D levels at or below 20 ng/dL, you may want to consider supplementing with vitamin D. But do it strategically.
As mentioned, vitamin D functions in the body as a hormone. Hormone production and absorption are optimal at night. Because it’s fat-soluble, take your vitamin D with fat, preferably in a liquid emulsion. According to Pifer, optimal vitamin D serum levels are 45-65 ng/dL, and it may take supplementing with 2000-4000 IU for six months to achieve that if you are deficient.
2. Exercise regularly, but not too late in the day.
Exercise increases circulation and your internal body temperature, as well as endorphin and cortisol secretion, all of which result in added energy. Further, your metabolism will be in overdrive for a couple of hours after a vigorous workout. So even if you feel physically exhausted from an intense workout, the chemical environment of your body and brain are more conducive to a party than to pillow time. Yes, those things all make challenging exercise a definite benefit that you should be availing yourself to regularly. Just make sure it’s earlier in the day – or at least 3-4 hours before you heed your bed’s call.
According to research cited in Shawn Stevenson’s book, Sleep Smarter, exercise has a 3 Little Bears effect on your sleep. Due to reasons cited above, late night exercise impedes your rest (Papa Bear), a mid-day workout offers no benefit or impact (Mama Bear), but early morning exercise actually benefits you with deeper sleep (Baby Bear), making it just right.
3. Change your nightcap.
In 2005, approximately 10 million Americans complained to their doctor about sleep disturbances. In the same year, 10% of American adults reported that they consumed alcohol daily. While alcohol has historically been considered a sedative, and used as a “nightcap” by many, the recently-learned complexity of the human sleep cycle reacts in equally complex ways to alcohol. While a drink may help you relax and fall off to sleep after a particularly intense day, its continued use as a sleep aid is problematic; in as little as three days, alcohol’s ability to promote sleep is diminished. Additionally, while it allows you to nod off more easily, alcohol exercises its effects on your brain in two waves – the first of which ends with an actual stimulating effect. In other words, alcohol prevents you from entering the important, deeper non-REM stages during which your body and brain conduct repairs and detoxification from activity of the day.
Alcohol has been linked to sleep disorders and frequent insomnia in such a way that researchers recommend that a full evaluation of a patient’s use should be conducted any time they are seen for insomnia.
This point got my attention. I have a sort of complicated, on-again-off-again relationship with good sleep, that goes back almost two decades.
My first dance with insomnia
occurred when my second child was about three months old. I would go weeks with a cumulative sleep total of 6-8 hours. Fortunately this torrid affair with insomnia was relatively short-lived, and I was able to reconcile with sleep with the use of antidepressant therapy and occasional use of a sleep aid. Sleep and I got more serious again when I introduced regular exercise and balanced nutrition, which thankfully took the place of the meds.
But it was still rocky, and sleep and I had several rough patches over the years, during which I discovered a foodie’s love for red wine. When sleep neglected to come to my bed, Cabernet paid a visit and coaxed sleep back to my covers. While insomnia never moved back in, Cabernet had taken its place; whatever the case, sleep and I were still on the rocks and I had gone to another for comfort.
It was obvious to me that good habits that foster consistent restorative sleep needed to be an equal facet of the Healthy Habits System™. All the research pointing to sleep deprivation as a metabolic bad guy made that crystal clear. Also clear was the need for me to ditch my sometimes-lover: the nightcap.
If you have trouble falling off to sleep (as I tend to), instead of popping a cork, boil a kettle. Chamomile tea, particularly in a Sleepy-Time blend, is equally effective in promoting sleepiness, without the impacts of alcohol on the deep, restorative non-REM sleep. In order to encourage 7-9 hours of uninterrupted horizontal time, shift the glass of wine to an early dinner, and cozy up with a cup of tea an hour before bed.
4. Turn down lights before you turn down the sheets.
Melatonin secretion is directly linked to the light-dark cycle. As soon as your brain detects less light entering through your retinas, a cascade triggering melatonin production and release is initiated. However, the invention of the electric lightbulb, followed by the television and personal computer, managed to trick millennia of neurodevelopment and evolution into thinking it was still daytime when it, in fact, was not.
Many researchers link recent declines in reported sleep durations to our tendency to keep late nights watching television, or working late on computers or other screened devices. Additionally, artificial light from any source can dampen the release of melatonin that promotes good sleep at a normal hour.
How do you combat that? I’m not suggesting we move back to log cabins and kerosene lamps. Time marches on, and hello, I run a blog here. I <3 the Internet!
But there are some hacks that can help you get ahold of your runaway bedtime while remaining in touch with this century. One of which is something I’ve practiced for over a decade:
Turn the lights down a few hours before you go to bed. Even if you’re still working or studying or relaxing with television, lowering the ambient light in the room will encourage sleepiness in time to get in the all-important stage 3 non-REM sleep in which the restorative work occurs metabolically.
About those screens. Most screened devices – including your television – emit blue-spectrum light, which has been shown to affect the retina the same as sunlight. Thus, if you regularly feel tired but wired at night, pay attention to your late-night screen time; it may be that your web searches and Jimmy Kimmel Live are tricking your brain into thinking it’s afternoon.
Another hack for recent-iteration iPhone users: turn on your Night Shift setting.
This nifty feature, found in the Settings menu under “Display & Brightness,” will turn down the blue-spectrum light, replacing it with warm light which is more conducive to sleep. Sorry – no such hack for your tv. *shrug*
To best prepare for restorative sleep, turn off screened devices an hour before you go to bed. Not only does this habit allow a nice, relaxing melatonin bath for your neurons, it soothes your psyche by lessening distractions and interrupters.
5. Don’t just fall into bed – get ready for bed!
Turning down lights and setting a screen curfew sound a bit like the beginning of a bedtime routine, don’t they? That’s deliberate. After all, this is the Healthy HABITS System™ after all.
Hearing the phrase, “Get ready for bed,” probably evokes memories of childhood. According to health coach and author Shawn Stevenson, a bedtime routine helps prepare children and adults alike for restorative sleep. It cues you mentally and psychologically to begin anticipating shut-eye. Yet once we grow up and move out, and no longer have a parent-figure to remind us to “get ready for bed,” we move away from bedtime rituals and toward working in bed on laptops and until we collapse into fitful sleep, with visions of board meetings and deadlines dancing in our heads.
Create a bedtime ritual to prepare yourself for good sleep. Incorporate the lighting tips discussed previously. Wash your face and change into loose-fitting lounge wear or pajamas. Make a to-do list of tasks you anticipate the following morning. Doing so will get what you need to do out of your head and onto paper, so you don’t have to dwell on it; this is especially helpful if you find yourself struggling with shutting off your brain adequately for sleep onset. Writing your task list down frees your mind to relax, because you know even subconsciously that you won’t forget anything. While you’re at it, feel free to write a nightly affirmation, or journal about the day that just passed.
Have in-real-life (IRL) conversations with your partner and/or children. If you live alone, use the time to read (a real PAPER book) or meditate. The only thing you should bring to bed with you (aside from your bedmate) is a paper book. No computers, no digital notepads, no cell phones. Believe me, you’ll sleep better for it.
6. Create the ideal sleep environment.
Along with not working in bed, there are other steps you can take to encourage ideal sleep by creating the ideal environment for sleep. Researchers have compiled a list of environmental factors that contribute to consistent restorative sleep. They are
The temperature range for ideal sleep is on the chilly side, but not too cold. Set your thermostat for an overnight temperature between 62 and 68 degrees F. Obviously, if you share your home with others, you should find a comfortable temperature for everyone – hence, the range. Temperature and pressure combine for good restorative sleep; the pressure is provided by blankets, which you’ll only kick off if you’re too hot. If you find that you are cold, even with blankets, at the top end of the range, wear socks to bed.
Ideally, remove all light from your sleeping space, especially light in the blue spectrum. If you need a clock, buy one with a red display. If you live near outdoor street lights, buy blackout drapes. Think hibernation, caves, bears… yes, you want your room that dark. Light entering even closed eyes can cause disruption in melatonin and thus sleep disturbance. Before you turn to a sleep mask for the solution, note this finding: Researchers have observed that street lights emitting even narrow rays into your room while sleeping can raise the external temperature of any skin it touches enough to disturb sleep.
This refers mainly to media. If you find a silent room to be distractingly deafening, use a white noise machine or a fan. Don’t rely on music while you sleep. Remove televisions, computers, and other media from your sleeping space. Create a sanctuary for yourself in your bedroom, in which the only permitted activities are sleep and sex; anything else in this space during this time will cue your brain to remain alert.
Electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) are thought by some to contribute to sleep disturbances. Removing other electric media from your sleeping space, as discussed in the last point, will help limit your exposure to EMFs. If you use your cell phone as an alarm clock, leave it across the room from you instead of on your nightstand, where it emits potentially disruptive EMFs inches from your head. *I have to note that this tip is somewhat controversial, but it’s included here to leave no stone unturned. If applying the other tips produces a significant positive effect, you can skip this one in the interest of modern convenience; but if there’s still room for improvement, come here. Even if your devices don’t emit enough EMFs to impact your sleep, they do provide a distraction, tempting you to continue scrolling instead of snoozing. That’s enough reason to leave them out of the bedroom.*
We as humans tend to think our diet contributes to just about every negative symptom we experience. Well, at least I do – I’m a nutritionist, after all. But in the case of behavioral sleep restriction, behavior should be addressed first.
However, there are genuine physical sleep disorders. If these 6 behavioral tips don’t work, we’ll look to 4 aspects of your diet that could potentially and positively influence physical factors in a future post.