When it comes to sleep, the most important thing to ask yourself is: Do I wake up feeling well rested? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. A national health study found that 37% of adults aged 20-39, and 40.3% of adults 40-59 reported getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night1. These stats only reflect quantity of sleep, but quality of sleep is just as important feeling well rested. In today’s article I’m going to share my strategies for making sure you’re getting a deep, restful sleep.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is more than just “recharging the battery”. Sleep provides time for your body to get certain tasks done that can’t be completed while we’re awake.
- Memory and cognition: The way our cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) flows changes when we sleep. It allows toxic byproducts to filter out of the CSF and fresh CSF to filter in. Think of it like taking out the trash for the brain. This is hypothesized to be important for Alzheimer’s prevention. Sleep also allows us to consolidate memories and process information for better long-term memory and sharper cognition.
- Muscle and tissue repair: We’re constantly rebuilding and repairing our bodies, even if we don’t feel injured. Our bodies release growth hormone while we sleep, which stimulates muscle growth, collagen formation, tissue repair, and protein synthesis. This is also why we call it “beauty sleep”, because our skin regenerates and collagen is formed while we sleep.
- Hormone release: The most important sleep hormone is called melatonin. Melatonin allows us to have a deep, restful sleep. It is also a major anti-oxidant and anti-cancer hormone. Research shows that shift workers who have less melatonin in their bodies are more likely to develop breast cancer2. Melatonin also opposes the stress hormone, cortisol. This keeps us out of fight-or-flight and puts us into a state of rest-and-digest, which is important for reducing blood pressure and re-routing blood flow to major organs while we sleep.
How much sleep do I need?
The National Institute of Health recommends children of school age should have 10 hours, teens need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-9 hours of sleep.
I recommend being honest with yourself about how many hours you really need per night to feel good the next day. If you feel best at 8.5 hours, you need to prioritize getting 8.5 hours of sleep per night. Set your bedtime based on when you need to wake up the next day and stick to it!
How do I improve my sleep quality?
Sleep quality is the biggest issue most people face. We can break this down into three questions:
1. Do you fall asleep within 15 minutes or less? If not, here are some tips:
- No caffeine after 2:00pm.
- The bed is only used for sleep and sex. Any other activity should be done outside the bed.
- Go to bed at the same time each night. Your body likes being in a routine.
- Start your bedtime routine 30-60 minutes before bed. This means turning off all electronics and screens, and putting your cell phone on airplane mode.
- Develop a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens. Do something calming like getting ready for bed, packing your lunch, reading a book, spending time with your partner, or light stretching.
- Write a list about what’s on your mind to help reduce racing thoughts.
- Deep breathing and meditation changes our brain wavelengths to a pre-sleep state. Even simple, slow breathing is effective.
2. Do you wake up during the night and have difficulty falling back to sleep? If not, here are some tips:
- Do not have sugary snacks before bed. Try to avoid eating 2 hours before bed, or focus on protein if you need a bedtime snack, such as nuts or hummus.
- Nicotine addiction can cause waking at night. Consider quitting smoking.
- Consider seeing a pelvic floor physiotherapist if you’re waking at night frequently to urinate. There may be a structural or pelvic floor issue that should be addressed.
- Your melatonin levels may be low. Sleep in a pitch black room, or wear a sleep mask, and turn off electronics 30-60 minutes before bed to increase melatonin production.
3. Do you feel tired, even if you get enough hours of sleep? If not, here are some tips:
- See question one, and do all those things! Especially turning off electronics.
- Sleep in a pitch-black room, or use a sleep mask. Melatonin is what allows us to have a deep, restful sleep but it is only released in complete darkness.
- Reduce bedroom clutter to allow your sub-conscious to relax.
- You may be suffering from other insomnia-related conditions like sleep apnea, heart disease, or restless leg syndrome. Fatigue may also be caused by low iron, low B12, or an adrenal or thyroid condition. A sleep study and lab work might be helpful for diagnosing and addressing these issues.
1 Schoenborn CA, Adams PF. Health behaviors of adults: United States, 2005–2007. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat. 2010;10(245).
2 Shernhammer, ES et al. Rotating night shifts and risk of breast cancer in women participating in the nurses’ health study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2001;93:1563-8.