Having trouble falling asleep or is it perhaps staying asleep? Well you are not alone.
Statistics estimate that nearly 2/3rds of North American adults complain about occasional sleeplessness. About 40% of people wake up on and off throughout the night, where as 25% of people wake up too early or have a hard time falling asleep.
With these types of statistics, it is no surprise that we have a population addicted to stimulants like coffee and sugar, lacking in optimal health and living out a much lower quality of life than is possible.
So while most of us know how important sleep is, many of us just can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep until an appropriate time, for that sleep to be of optimal quality for our health.
Thus in part 4 of our Sleep Aware Series, we will examine the top 10 things that can hurt our sleep and then go through 20 tips of how to help get the best quality of sleep possible.
What Can Hurt Sleep?
The number one reason that so many of us have trouble falling asleep and then staying asleep for quality sleep, is stress. No surprise there I am sure.
As I mentioned to you in “Part 3 – How Much Sleep Do We Need“, our lifestyles today are overwhelmed with various types of stress. Whether it be from lack of time, job concerns, family issues, too many obligations or unhealthy eating, the list can go on and on. We have gotten away from nature and natural living. We have taken on too much and have dug ourselves into holes we cannot get out of. Our life balance is shattered and our mind is overworked. Under these kinds of conditions, the last thing your brain is going to be able to do, is shut down and allow you to rest.
When we are stressed our body biochemistry is out of balance and this can lead to anything from mild to severe insomnia. Thus we need to develop ways of detaching ourselves from our daily duties and transition into a calmer state in order to be able to sleep and have quality sleep. I will discuss this in the “What can help sleep?” section below
2. Going to sleep right after watching television
Watching television induces low alpha waves in the human brain. Alpha represents the brain in a state of non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves are slower, and higher in amplitude.
When we go to bed, our brainwaves will descend from beta, to alpha, to theta and finally, when we fall asleep, to delta. Hence, at first glance it can appear that watching television would actually put people to sleep faster. And while this is true for some, for others it brings about an opposite effect.
The difference rests in what we are watching and how involved we get. Most television shows today are very stimulating rather than calming. Late night news or prime time shows frequently have disturbing and/or violent material. Even non-violent programming can have commercials which are jarring and louder than the actual program. Processing this type of material is a stimulating activity for the brain and hence not only stimulates our brain waves, but can also disturb us emotionally, to the point of evoking a stressful biochemical response. Hence I always recommend that people choose what they watch wisely, no matter what time of the day it is.
Another point to consider is that the light coming from the television or even a computer screen can interfere with the body’s clock and disrupt the release of melatonin which needs darkness to get activated and which then in turn activates sleep.
3. Intense physical activity in the evening
While it is great to take a nice walk in the evening hours, heavy physical activity in the evening can heavily disrupt our sleep.
When we exercise we change our biochemistry within the body to release a lot of endorphins, adrenaline and even cortisol the stress hormone, as the higher intensity an exercise is, the more of a stressor it is to the body. Also, our heart rate and breathing rate increase heavily.
All of these changes leave us and our body in a very alert and active state, and until parts of our nervous system bring these things all back to balance, we most likely will not be able to fall asleep and even may wake up frequently throughout the night.
4. Eating heavy meals after 7pm
When we eat, our digestive system works heavily, especially in the first 4 hours to get that food broken down properly. Thus when we eat large or heavy meals, especially in animal fat and protein, which are the hardest to break down, we create a lot of unnecessary work for the digestive system.
During the digestive process, again various hormones need to be released, some of which will interfere with our falling asleep response. Late-night eating, never mind middle of the night eating, forces your body to use its energy on digestion resulting in improper digestion of food and poor quality of sleep. It can create bloating, cramps and other digestive disturbances during the night, which will easily wake and even keep one up.
So while the custom in North America is to have a big dinner, we would all greatly benefit, not just for sleep but for proper weight regulation and other health reasons to make breakfast and lunch the biggest meals of the day and have a lighter meal in the evening. Heavy meals in the evening actually lead to the easiest weight gain and weight problems or obesity also hinder high quality sleep.
5. Over-active mind
This area is not necessarily related to stress. Some of us may lead very low-stress lives, but we tend to over think things or have incessant thought patterns.
This keeps our brains at the highest beta waves, which in no way will permit sleep to set in, unless we calm down, break up our thoughts and let our brain go into more relaxed and meditative states.
6. Sugar, Coffee, Nicotine and other stimulants
Well no surprise here when it comes to such items. Many people do not realize that sugar, specifically refined sugar, has an effect on our brain like many stimulating and addictive drugs. Hence we should never be eating foods high in refined sugars in the evening or at night.
The same thing goes for coffee. After all, that is the number one reason most people use it – to stay alert and awake. So while for some it may not be a big deal to have a cup or two throughout the day, if you are a coffee drinker and having a hard time falling asleep at night, you may need to cut back having coffee no later than noon. Yes, I know this sounds awfully early, but studies have shown that depending on your caffeine sensitivity, caffeine as late as midday can prevent some people from falling asleep 9 or 10 hours later.
Finally it is common for smokers to have many sleep problems that range in various intensities. And when it comes to the toxic effects of cigarettes on so much more than your sleep, I recommend nothing else but to seriously consider quiting.
7. Alcohol and other depressants
With alcohol being a depressant, many would think that it would actually help people sleep and in fact this is quite correct, and many people do feel drowsy and less alert after drinking.
However, while it can help you fall asleep, in many cases it actually fragments your sleep as the night goes on. This results in disrupted and poor quality sleep that leaves many feeling worse in the morning than they did at night. Some people experience an increase in blood pressure, heart palpitations, excessive thirst, irregularities in body temperature that can all have a profound effect on falling and staying asleep after drinking low to moderate levels of alcohol. Heavy drinking almost always renders a person unconscious and not to the point that we wake up feeling fresh and rested in the morning either.
8. Uncomfortable bedding or clothes
One of the simplest things to make sure to check if you are having trouble falling or staying asleep is how comfortable you are in your sleep attire.
Some people choose clothes that are too tight, too loose, too thick or too thin to sleep in for their comfort level. The type of material you choose may also play a role in sleep quality. High quality cotton is best for both bedding and sheets.
The same thing goes for your sheets, mattress and pillows. Make sure that you are comfortable in your bed, as that is usually the first and easiest thing that can keep us tossing and turning all night.
9. Temperature and light problems in room
For best quality of sleep, first and foremost your room cannot be too bright. Remember that melatonin is very sensitive to light and thus check to make sure that you have sufficient window coverings to shield any street or other light sources.
Secondly a room that is too hot or too cold will surely make us uncomfortable. Both temperature extremes can make it hard to stay asleep throughout the night, as they can change our body biochemistry and set off a chain reaction of events that lead us away from a healthy balance.
10. Poor Health
This is perhaps the most unfortunate thing that can disrupt sleep as it can take the longest to fix or be the hardest to change. Anything from infections, aches, pains, fluctuating hormone levels or excessive weight can put a huge damper on getting good quality of sleep.
However, you should not feel hopeless if you land in this category for having sleep problems, because with the right approach whether through diet or other natural or alternative therapy healing systems, almost anything can be overcome today.
What Helps Sleep – 20 Tips
The following are tips for people who suffer from being able to sleep or have sleep disturbances. Try any one or combinations of the following items to help you achieve high quality sleep.
Embrace a Healthy Diet
Avoid high fat, high meat, or highly processed food and focus on natural, wholesome and nutrient dense foods.
Avoid refined sugar, coffee, caffeine tea or cigarettes in the evening or perhaps even as early as midday.
Practice High to Low Meal Patterns
Our day should start with our heaviest meals and decrease as the day goes. Not only good for sleep quality, but also for healthy weight management, metabolism and energy levels.
Participate in Regular Exercise
Exercise promotes healthy circulation (which enhances sleep), decreases stress, promotes healthy weight maintenance and an overall positive well-being, among other things. Best if done early in the day or in the afternoon, not in the evening.
A hot bath, shower or sauna can increase and enhance proper circulation, decrease stress and anxiety and influence a calm and relaxed state.
Deal with Stress Effectively
Trying things like the Emotional Freedom Technique, honest and open communication, living in a more mindful and conscious state, as well as focusing more on the present rather than past or future can all help alleviate stress.
Deep, conscious breathing at regular intervals throughout the day can greatly decrease stress and increase oxygen stores for better mind and body health, which lead to better sleep.
This can be formal or informal meditation, and done anytime of the day.
Can be done as both self-massage or having someone massage you. Can be done on on any body part, but is best on back, neck, shoulders, feet or hands. Improves proper circulation and enhances a state of relaxation.
Seek Alternative Healing Therapies
Many aches, pains and other health problems can be effectively alleviated through therapies such as reiki, reflexology, acupuncture, etc.
Have an Appropriately Dark Room
Make sure that your bedroom windows are properly sealed. If that is not possible, consider a dark, soft cotton, eye mask.
Have a Proper Bedroom Temperature
If you have warm covers, it is generally better for good sleep to be in a slightly cooler temperature, rather than warmer. In the winter consider a humidifier, if the air gets too dry. In the summer implore an air conditioning system or a fan to keep cool.
Get Fresh Air Daily
Daily exposure to fresh outdoor air and sunlight enhances optimal health and thus promotes great sleep. Doing physical activities, especially outdoors is extra beneficial for excellent sleep quality.
Try listening to light, positive, nature, instrumental music or other relaxing music before falling asleep.
Read a book from a pleasant genre, poetry, inspirational material or other similar item. Be sure to avoid tabloids or news magazines as they can invoke an opposite effect.
Have a Cup of Herbal Tea
Caffeine-free, herbal teas, like chamomile can be both soothing, warming and calming and thus can be enjoyed in the evening with perhaps a good book. Avoid drinking a large cup directly before going to sleep, as the need to go to the bathroom can disrupt your sleep.
Avoid watching Television or Playing Video Games 1 Hour Before Bed
It is best not to keep any electronics in the bed room or use them at least 1 hour prior to trying to fall asleep, especially ones that are high in drama and violence.
Keep A Regular Sleep Routine
Our body loves routine, hence establishing a regular sleep routine on both weekdays and weekends greatly enhances proper sleep as it regulates sleep hormone levels.
Especially in the evening hours, alcohol can cause many unpleasant effects which can dampen good sleep.
While a lot of people fear that taking a nap will actually disrupt night sleep, the truth is that a 30 – 45 minute nap, between 1pm – 4pm, can actually enhance good quality night sleep.
In conclusion, for healthy and high quality sleep, we first have to be able to fall asleep calmly and in a relatively easy way, and then stay asleep for an appropriate amount of time. Any problems falling asleep or staying asleep can disturb our sleep cycles and take away from the amazing healing and regenerative effects of sleep on our body and health.
Hence, if you have trouble sleeping, it is best to pin point some of the areas that could be the culprits from our top 10 things that hurt sleep list above, and then experiment with some of the tips that help sleep. In some cases in order to establish a regular routine, we first have to force our bodies to fall asleep, and so for those who seem to feel like “nothing is working”, I will cover natural sleeping aids in part 5 – our last part of the Sleep Aware Series.
Till then, sleep well!