Even though coffee shops are everywhere, caffeine is still a drug. As a stimulant it perks us up by having a stimulating effect on our nervous system. While caffeine is very good at keeping us awake for some people it can cause side-effects, even panic attacks. We know that coffee and tea contain caffeine but we should be aware that many other products contain caffeine too: cocoa, chocolate bars, sodas and some medicine.
Caffeine can last many hours (even up to 12 hours) in our body and it’s recommended not to have any caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime. Some experts recommend that when people suffer with insomnia (or related disorder) they would stop drinking coffee altogether or leave it for mornings only. Please note that some people who are used to drinking lots of caffeine products on daily basis experience headaches for the first few days detoxing coffee. It’s worth thinking and testing whether you can live without caffeine and how its absence affects you. When doing this, do give enough time to see the positive results.
Nicotine is also a stimulant drug and has similar effects to sleep as caffeine. Although many people say that they find smoking relaxing, the overall effect of nicotine is stimulation on our nervous system. This means that nicotine makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. If quitting feels too hard try not to smoke in the evenings.
Alcohol is a depressant drug. Depressant drugs normally help us sleep but several recent studies indicate that even small amounts (2-3 small wine glasses) of alcohol in the evening can actually have a disruptive effect on sleep. It can trick us as it helps us too fall asleep at the beginning of the night (we can regard it also as a hypnotic drug). That said, as alcohol gets absorbed into our body, it puts us into a lighter form of sleep (hence the non-refreshed feelings in the morning) and it wakes us up when it leaves our bodies. It also creates dehydration waking up in the middle of the night to drink and then we need to go to toilet more often than usual. A general rule of thumb is to avoid alcohol up to 6 hours before bedtime. Unfortunately, the majority of alcohol consumption takes place in the evenings leading to disruptive sleep.
For sensitive sleepers, alcohol is especially unwise as it can encourage dependency. It also can catalyse fears, worries and even night terrors. Radically cutting down use of alcohol has many positive effects on both body and mind and the good news is that positive results can be experienced very quickly. Many sleep experts agree that for persistent sleep problems it is advised to avoid alcohol altogether until the sleep problems have been sorted out.
There is also a connection between the sleep-related breathing disorder (obstructive sleep apnea) and alcohol consumption. Alcohol impairs breathing in sleeping by relaxing the throat muscles. It also affects the brain’s breathing centre by masking the effect of low oxygen levels. Even people who normally don’t snore do so if they have been drinking. Snorers without apnea can exhibit apnea symptoms if they have been drinking. Hangover symptoms are frequently partially due to breathing-disordered sleep.
Hunger can keep us awake. For this reason a light snack a little before bedtime can be helpful. On the other hand, eating too heavily or spicy food and then going to bed too full can cause wakefulness. When we are full our bodies are busy digesting the food thus disturbing the sleep. It’s also wise to avoid snacking if you wake up in the night as our bodies easily adapt to new (unhelpful) habits and soon the body starts waking us up – to eat. A glass of water at the side of the bed is a good idea. Sometimes a few sips help to take the edge off thirst without causing extra efforts in the night. Also, dehydration causes poor sleep.
Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, wants to throw out the USDA guidelines entirely and replace them with a science-based Healthy Eating Pyramid. A new study of 100,000 people shows that switching to Willett’s dietary scheme–which emphasizes whole-grain foods, plant oils, and plenty of exercise–cuts the risk of cardiovascular disease in men by 39 per cent and in women by 28 per cent. This kind of diet seems to be best for sensitive sleepers as well as this diet promotes overall harmony and well-being, good sleep being a consequence of feeling better in general.
At the base, we put regular physical activity and weight control. The next layer up emphasizes whole-grain, high-fibre healthy carbohydrates and healthy fats such as liquid vegetable oils and foods made from avocados and nuts. Walter also encourages eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Nuts and legumes are good sources of protein for vegetarians, but adding in fish and moderate amounts of poultry and eggs can also be perfectly healthy.
Supper/dinner is the main meal of the day. We should get most of our calories in the evening and some sugar (note daily amount of sugar should never exceed 90 grams of which 50 can be refined sugar) can actually ease falling asleep and should hence be used in the evening rather than in the morning/during the day. Eating in the evening doesn’t cause weight problem if breakfast and lunch are light and the total calorie intake is within recommendation. Supper/dinner should never be too heavy or spicy as this can cause restless sleep whereas a carbohydrate rich dinner can actually support sleep.
Poor sleep exposes us to weight gain and bad fat. Our bodies scream for some extra energy when we are fatigued. Energy levels immediately rise when we succeed to lose some weight. We also know that fasting diminishes REM-sleep and increases vital deep sleep. The right timing helps with sleep. It’s recommended to have dinner around 1800-2000. When we eat supper already around 1700 it’s good to eat light snack later in the evening. Remember, our body system loves clear rhythms, and healthy (not obsessive) routines help with sleep.
Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin and melatonin which all advance sleep, relax nervous system and balance brain activity. We can find tryptophan in several foods such as turkey, chicken, milk, eggs, nuts, granary, brown rice, lens, sesame seed, sunflower seed and especially in almond. Calcium and B6-vitamin help to absorb tryptophan. When evening snacks consist of tryptophan-rich food, slow carbohydrates and protein our body systems calm down and we start to feel drowsy – naturally! Food plays a crucial part of our mental and physical happiness and good feelings. Paying extra attention to what we eat, when we eat (every 3 hours) and how we eat (mindful eating) pays us back with a more positive mood, better energy levels during daytime and better sleep during night time.
Regular exercise promotes good health and sleep. It improves the duration and quality of sleep. Regular sleep also increases energy levels during the day. We also know that regular exercise is linked with good sleep and non-existing exercise is linked with poor sleep. Brains like exercise as so many different parts collaborate when we exercise to learn new skills. Exercise also shortens REM-sleep when we sleep most of the dreams. When we are tired it’s especially hard to get going. Yet even 30-minute-walks in the daylight (five times per week) are a great start! It’s important to feel good, forcing doesn’t do the trick. Start gently – do not overdo it. It’s not completely known how exercise impacts sleep. It’s believed that as muscles get tired it leads to hormone and body temperature changes that are linked to psychological relaxation. Exercise increases brain and body temperature and as exercise ends the temperature returns (to lower levels). This temperature falling supports falling asleep.
It can’t be highlighted enough that the joy and positive feelings stemming from exercise directly affects our sleep, this can also help with anxiety and stress and build up self-confidence. All these things together support good sleep. Avoiding vigorous exercise in the evening (prefer mornings and daytime), yet restorative night yoga can be done right before going to bed.
Last but not least, overdoing exercise is harmful as well. It’s important to keep rest days and stretch enough. Moderation and regularity are the magic words.
An ideal sleep environment is dark, cool and silent with high quality bed and pillow. Sleep environment can however vary as our lifestyle dictates. For example, a business/holiday trip, a prolonged flight, or a camping expedition may radically change the typical sleep environment.
Not everyone sees ideal sleep environment in a similar way. This may lead to relationship problems between bed partners, requiring that we attempt to find common ground. There are a handful of common variables that should be acknowledged:
Noise: It is easiest to sleep in a quiet place. Whether it is a vestige of surviving in the wilderness or for something else, we tend to respond to external stimuli while asleep. In other words, if we hear a noise, we will wake up. This is advantageous if a lion is trying to eat us while we sleep in a cave, but when the neighbour’s kids are playing too loud, it is less desirable.
Noise levels at 40-70 decibels can keep us awake. That means that a dripping tap can steal your sleep, as well as the next door neighbour’s blaring stereo. But the absence/presence of a familiar noise can have as great an impact on our sleep as out-of-the-ordinary noises. Studies show that noise from a city (traffic, people and sirens) can actually become soothing to city sleepers.
When we hear noise, we may not become fully conscious, but we certainly will come out of the deeper stages of sleep. If we are trying to sleep in a noisy environment, our ability to enjoy restful deep sleep will be compromised especially if we are sensitive to noise (our tolerances vary dramatically). It is therefore best to try to keep things as quiet as possible using, for example, ear plugs. That said long-term ear plug use might lead to ‘vacuum requirement’ meaning that it’s hard if not impossible to sleep without total silence. Some tolerance for normal life noise level is convenient.
Temperature: Most people prefer to sleep in a slightly cool environment (~18-20C) and in most cases, temperatures above 24C and below 12C degrees will disrupt sleep. This said even sleep researchers fail to agree on the ideal temperature for sleep. The point at which sleep is interrupted due to temperature or climate conditions varies from person to person and can be affected by bed clothes and bedding materials. In general, most sleep scientists believe that a slightly cool room contributes to good sleep. That’s because it mimics what occurs inside the body when the body’s internal temperature drops during the night to its lowest level. Research suggests that a hot sleeping environment leads to more wake time and lighter sleep at night, while awakenings multiply. Yet it’s important to feel warm in the bed even though the room would be slightly cool. Everyone must test and find the ideal temperature themselves.
Lighting: Much of our sleep patterns is regulated by light and darkness. Our body’s natural circadian rhythm tends to want to follow the natural dark-light cycle. Therefore, even if you are working nights, you should probably try to keep it dark when you are trying to sleep. There’s also recent evidence that we should avoid blue light in the evening and night time as it effects our sleep so leave your blue-screen gadgets in the kitchen.
Light – strong light, like bright outdoor light (which is brighter than indoor light even on cloudy days) – is the most powerful regulator of our biological clock. The biological clock influences us when we feel sleepy and when we feel alert. As a result, finding the balance of light and darkness exposure is important. It’s very important to us to expose ourselves to enough bright light during the day. We should find time for sunlight, or purchase a light box or light visor to supplement your exposure to bright light. At bedtime, think dark: a dark bedroom contributes to better sleep. Try light blocking curtains, shades or blinds. If you find yourself waking earlier than you’d like, try increasing your exposure to bright light in the evening. It may delay sleep onset but as little as one to two hours of evening bright light exposure may help you sleep longer in the morning. Also, make sure to avoid light if you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Minimize light by using a low illumination night light.
Bedding/Mattress: There are a variety of options in how people choose to sleep, and there is no one right way. Variations may relate to personal preference, cultural practices, financial situations, and many other factors. One thing to consider may be the size and firmness of your mattress. You may prefer only a sheet or mounds of blankets or a thick comforter. Regardless of your options, make sure that your comfort is kept a priority.
Tossing and turning on a lumpy 20-year-old mattress that doesn’t provide support for our back or neck can impede us from getting the sleep you need and make us very sleepy (and stiff) the next day. Mattress experts say that too often consumers believe that ultra-firm mattresses are good for them, but research on patients with back pain found this was not true and a more comforting mattress may lead to better sleep and less back pain.
Space is critical factor. When sharing a bed with a partner, make sure it is large enough to give both of you room to move around. Replace an old mattress with a new one, and choose a pillow and mattress that fits you best and will be comfortable throughout the whole night. Replacing a pillow every two years is recommended. Consumer Reports recently found that consumers who spent 15 minutes or more testing each mattress at the store were more likely to be happy with their purchase.
Other stuff: Bed partners with sleep disorders can negatively impact your sleep. Snoring is most common disturbance. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll, 67% of respondents reported that their partner snores, 27% said their intimate relationship was affected because they were too sleepy, and 38% said they have had problems in their relationship due to their partner’s sleep disorder.
TVs, computers, pads and smartphones do not belong to bedroom. Doing work, watching TV and using the computer, both close to bedtime and especially in the bedroom, hinders quality sleep. Not only will they prevent you from falling asleep, but they may become disruptive at inopportune times and wake you back up. Bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex. The bedroom space should be a relaxing place and not a source of stress or stimulation.
We can do so many things to induce good sleep lifestyle. Small changes introduced step by step will eventually pile up and if every ‘tiny’ change counts 1% improvement, one day it will make our sleep 10/12/15/25% better. On regular basis this is a lot.