Seems like a topic without much controversy, right? I mean, we all know how to sleep…or do we?
Many of us in western societies have more dysfunction in this arena than you might first assume. We’ve become immune to seeing the effects of too little (or too low quality) sleep. Things like afternoon stupor (and subsequent hunt for sugar and/or caffeine), a daily fight with the alarm clock, the felt ‘need’ for caffeine before calling yourself ready to take on the day; and even some less obvious things like digestive troubles, increased troubled eating patterns, attention deficit behaviors (in all ages), and worsening symptoms of long term diseases like Type II Diabetes. All of these can be caused, or worsened, by not getting enough high quality sleep.
There’s an important distinction to make right off the bat, redefining what we call sleep as specifically high quality sleep. It may not be enough to lay in bed for 8 hours a night, if you’re not getting into the deeper sleep cycles, you’re likely not going to see the positive effects.
While there isn’t a consensus on all of the above, or below for that matter, what most sleep experts DO agree on is that most Americans could benefit from more sleep. They also agree on a handful of things we can all do to help facilitate this increase in high quality sleep. Controlling your sleep environment, distractions in the bedroom, and pre-bed screen time are 3 things you can try right now if you feel like you’re barely getting through the work day.
1) Sleep environment
This category includes light levels and temperature in the bedroom. You want your sleeping environment to be as dark as you can make it. If this means something as simple as installing a door sweep to block light coming in from the hall, do it. Consider blackout curtains if you live in a region with long days in the summer. If you don’t want to make that much of an investment until you know the effects, try tacking an extra blanket up for a few days first.
Turn your alarm clock away from your face so the light isn’t hitting you all night. Yes, even this small a light source can have an impact. Along the same lines, plug your phone in to charge…in another room. This eliminates several factors from the little blinking light to the temptation to check email one more time before bed.
As for temperature, most people sleep their best with the ambient temperature somewhere around 60. I realize that this may not be feasible for everyone. For example, I live in Seattle where nothing is air conditioned. To further confound things, my room doesn’t have a cross breeze, just one single window. Last night it was 79 in my room. I combated this as best I could using fans, including putting one in front of the window, raised up on a chair so it could pull in more of the cooling night air. In winter this is of course much easier, just set the thermostat a bit lower.
I already mentioned keeping your cell phone away from your bed. Another distraction that is increasingly common is a TV. Watch TV in the living room. Or better, cut the cable and don’t watch network TV at all (this eliminates many additional distractions that are for another post). Laptops seem to enjoy migrating into bedrooms as well. Don’t let yours convince you that it’s OK to sit up in bed until all hours working on that draft memo, or checking email one last time. They can be tricky, so watch out.
Personally, I recommend even doing your pre-bed reading somewhere else. Save the bed for sleeping (and one other activity that is also best saved for another post).
3) Pre-bed screen time
This one causes a lot of people a lot of grief. Sleep experts have actually come to one of those rare consensuses on this one. Shut off all screens 1-2 hours before bedtime. this includes TV, computer, tablet, and phone. The sole exception is if you have an e-reader that uses e-ink, these don’t give off the blue light that disrupts sleep cycles, so they’re OK. I have a personal affinity for paper books, but that’s me.
If some amount of screen time is unavoidable, for whatever reason, consider investing in a pair of blue-blockers. These are glasses with orange lenses that cut the blue end of the light spectrum, helping your body get ready for sleep naturally and not faking it into thinking it’s still daylight. I know iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) have a new setting called Night Shift that does this for you.
These are 3 relatively simple areas of life that if adjusted appropriately can have a positive impact on your sleep cycles, and by extension the rest of your daily existence. I encourage everyone to try some of the suggestions above, give them at least a week before making adjustments or declaring it ineffective.
In the final two pieces of this series I’m going to look at routines and self-experimenting, both of which overlap with topics like sleep, so stay tuned. And in the meantime, here’s to better sleep!