Sleep is just as important to both mental and physical health as diet and exercise. Insufficient sleep can lead to negative effects on your hormones and brain functions, as well as weight gain and increased risk of disease. Good sleep, on the other hand, leads to better mental health, less anxiety, and increased physical performance. Here are five ways to get a better night’s sleep and, consequently, have better days.
1. REGULATE YOUR LIGHT EXPOSURE
Light affects your body and brain, telling them when to stay awake and when it’s time to sleep. Getting lots of natural sunlight or bright artificial light throughout the day maintains your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural sleep cycle regulator. Likewise, reducing so-called “blue light” exposure in the evening is helpful. This means turning off the TV or other electronic devices, as well as dimming any bright light sources, two hours or so before you go to bed. Of course many people enjoy falling asleep to their favorite shows, but your sleep cycle may suffer for it. You can also download apps to block blue light on your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
2. AVOID CAFFEINE OR ALCOHOL LATE IN THE DAY
Waking up with coffee or other caffeinated beverages is non-negotiable for many people, and that’s not a problem. Caffeine has many benefits in the right quantities and at the right times, including enhanced energy, focus, and physical performance. The problem is that caffeine can stay at an elevated level in your blood for six to eight hours, so the later in the day you consume it, the more likely it is to leave your nervous system stimulated and your body unable to naturally relax at bedtime.
Alcohol has a somewhat opposite effect, and most people don’t begin consuming it before the later part of the day, traditionally the proverbial five o’clock that is always happening somewhere. If you keep the party going too late, though, you may fall asleep quickly and easily, but the sleep will not be truly restful. You may find yourself up again two to four hours later, dehydrated and unable to get back to sleep easily. This is because alcohol also affects your circadian rhythms, and can cause or exacerbate sleep apnea, snoring, and other sleep disruptions. So if you’re going to have a nightcap, do it as long as possible before bed. In fact, it’s best to stop drinking fluids of any kind an hour or two before bedtime to decrease chances of waking in the night to use the bathroom.
3. SUPPLEMENTS CAN HELP
The key hormone that regulates sleep functions is melatonin, which naturally occurs in the body. Melatonin can also be supplemented with prescription or over-the-counter products, depending on where you live. Other supplements that can induce relaxation include ginkgo biloba, glycine, valerian root, lavender, and cannabidiol (or CBD), a legal, non-psychoactive derivative of the cannabis plant.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where the more controversial derivative of cannabis, THC, is legal, that can help with insomnia and other sleep disorders. However, because of THC's intoxicating affects, it does tend to act similarly to alcohol, being that it wears off and can actually disrupt good restorative sleep. CBD, on the other hand, has been shown to reduce anxiety and soothe pain, as well as improve REM functions, all of which lead to better, deeper sleep.
4. REGULAR EXERCISE
Some form of daily exercise is key to many aspects of both mental and physical health, including good sleep. Regular exercise during the day can cut the time it takes to get to sleep in half, and allows you to sleep longer and deeper. However, make sure you perform your daily exercise during the day and not too close to bedtime. In addition to increasing your heart rate, exercise increases alertness and stimulates hormones like epinephrine and adrenaline, all of which are the opposite of conducive to sleep.
5. WHITE NOISE
If you are a light sleeper, you probably already know that some sort of consistent noise is a must. Various random noises from neighbors, barking dogs, traffic, and any number of other sources can interrupt your slumber and make it harder to get back to sleep, even if the original noise doesn’t persist. White noise not only drowns these sounds out, it also provides a constant, steady shushing sound that soothes the mind and allows you to get to sleep faster and more effectively.
There are other “color” noises, too, such as pink noise, which has a higher bass frequency. Ambient sounds like rainstorms and rolling waves might be more your cup of tea, as there are many different sounds that can relax the body and mind. Various types of white and pink noise, as well as long loops of ambient noise, can be found for download or streaming online, and there are also physical noise machines for this purpose.