There is nothing more important to your health than getting a good night’s sleep. I know when I get less than what my body needs, my entire day is completely thrown off. I mean, how can I properly concentrate on my deadlines when I can barely keep my eyes open? Lack of sleep every night can really sabotage your performance, drive and ability to function. Not to mention your health. It shouldn’t be mind boggling to think of sleep as equal to a healthy diet when it comes to overall health, even if the relationship between sleep and wellness is just now being found out.
Obesity and sleep deprivation appear to go hand-in-hand, along with several related conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. I would’ve never guessed weight gain was impacted by the amount of shut-eye you need, but the link is there. The good news is you can reverse sleep-related health conditions by changing your sleep habits. Changing your habits though, means you need to understand what's causing you to lose sleep in the first place.
Once you figure out what’s robbing you of those precious zzz's, it’ll be easier to devise a plan to get the optimal rest you need to function at your best.
REASON #1 SLEEPING IN
This one is definitely a drag. I’m sure the majority of us hit our alarms at 5:30 a.m. every morning and mutter something about how we can’t wait for Saturday so we can sleep in. Maybe you even stay up late Friday night painting the town. It’s become a tradition, week in and week out. Little do we realize how badly this throws off our internal clocks. Essentially, sleeping in on Saturday morning sets off a chain reaction of inappropriate sleeping conditions for the rest of the weekend.
We stay up late on Saturday night, knowing we can sleep in again on Sunday morning. So what happens on Sunday? Our sleeping habits have now been reprogrammed. We stay up later Sunday night and then feel like garbage Monday morning when 5:30 rolls around again. To fix this, I know what has worked for me is keeping to a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Even if you decide to stay up late Friday night, wake up at your usual time on Saturday morning. Try taking a quick 30-minute nap in the early afternoon to make up for it.
REASON #2: INCONSISTENT NOISE
I personally cannot sleep without a fan blowing somewhere in the room. I need that white noise to lure me to slumber. I’m not sure where that need came from, other than growing up in the deep south where there were fans on all the time. I guess it stuck with me. All I know is if I stay at someone’s house and there’s no fan, I cannot sleep. Period. If you’re sleeping somewhere where sleeping conditions are less than ideal, a fan or white noise machine might do the trick, even if you generally prefer silence, suggests Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Turning on a fan in the room or in the hallway outside the door can do a lot to cut down on the noise around you (like traffic or noisy neighbors) or is a perfect solution if you need noise to fall asleep. "This will act as white noise, both blocking out disruptive sounds and providing just enough noise for those who can't stand total silence," says Roth.
REASON #3: ALLERGIES
According to Alan Goldsobel, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in San Jose, CA, your bed probably has a pest problem. As many as 10 million dust mites could be sharing your sleep space, leaving behind a nasty residue known to trigger allergies. If you are prone to allergies, especially at night, this may be the cause. Luckily, there are ways to reduce this disgusting problem.
You can purchase what’s called AllerRest bedding, which has been approved by the American Lung Association because it blocks mites from sharing your precious sleep space. Other countermeasures include cleaning regularly by dusting and vacuuming, as well as opening a window, one of the most effective ways to cut down on mites.
REASON #4: FOOD INTAKE (OR LACK THEREOF)
This one can go both ways. If you have a habit of eating a large meal before hitting the sack, which most of us are probably guilty of at times, the food digesting in your gut can keep you awake. This is especially true for high-protein foods, as they require more time and energy to digest. Fatty and spicy foods, along with anything else that disagrees with you, can cause gas, heartburn and discomfort, which are all things to avoid if you hope to fall asleep peacefully. And of course, do I need to mention caffeine? It’s a major stimulant that can make sleep difficult. Try not to consume any caffeine in the afternoon. Keep in mind that some foods, like dark chocolate, contain caffeine too.
Try not to consume any caffeine in the afternoon. Keep in mind that some foods, like dark chocolate, contain caffeine too. On the flip side, there are probably times when you can’t sleep because of hunger pangs keeping you awake. I struggle with this personally, as I eat dinner earlier than most people, but I find that eating something simple, like a small wedge of cheese or a hardboiled egg late in the evening holds me over to the next day.
REASON #5: YOUR BEDROOM SHOULD NOT BE A WORKROOM
Stress can be caused by even the smallest of situations. Do you use your bedroom as an office? Is it a big ‘ole pile of papers and clutter? It’s said a cluttered room is a sign of a cluttered mind and an overworked mind keeps running, keeping you awake. The reality is, using your workspace as a sleep space does not work. What you associate at one time of the day with stress will inevitably prevent your bedroom from being a restful place if you don’t separate your sleep space from your workspace.
According to the American Psychological Association, stressors are the top cause of short-term sleep and frequent waking. This means if you physically bring stress into your bedroom with you, you’re going to struggle to get the sleep you need. Once you remove all that stress, you’ll begin to associate your room with sleep and intimacy.
REASON #6: SLEEPING WITH YOUR PET
Yes, I know. You probably love Mr. Muffins more than you love most people. Our pets are like family to us. But they can also lead to difficulty sleeping. A small survey conducted by the Mayo Clinic has found that more than half of all animal owners claim their pets have, at one time or another, disrupted their sleep. If they must be in the same room with you, consider a crate, pillow or other bed for them to sleep in.
REASON #7: A PARTNER'S SNORING
Did you know a person’s snore can be as loud as a blender going full blast? That’s as much as 90 decibels. It’s safe to say you’re not sleeping peacefully when a partner is sawing logs in bed next to you. If their snoring is a regular thing, it’s recommended they see a doctor to rule out a serious condition, such as sleep apnea. If it’s only snoring, though, there are ways to combat it. First, ask your partner to sleep on their side instead of their back.
If that doesn’t work, consider purchasing a Sona pillow. The Sona pillow was designed by a Harvard neurologist and has been approved by the FDA to tilt the head a certain way that has been proven to reduce and even eliminate snoring in most cases.
REASON #8 LIGHT DISTRACTIONS
Like most people, I keep my smartphone next to the bed at night. Also, like most people, I’m guilty of doing a bit of surfing when the lights are out; engaging in a conversation, reading on my Amazon app or playing a game. I do it a lot less now after studying the effects light has on the brain, though. Any light at all, whether from your phone or from other sources, like a television, street lamps or even your clock, can keep you awake.
"Even a small amount of brightness can be strong enough to enter your retina when your eyes are closed," says Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., author of The Woman's Book of Sleep: A Complete Resource Guide. Any light at all tells your brain its daytime. Darkness signals that it’s nighttime, and as such, prepares you for sleep. Do everything you can to block out light, such as turning the clock away from your face, hanging blackout shades and refraining from browsing just before bed.
It’s not enough to turn out the lights while you’re trying to sleep; the blue light from televisions and cell phones can disrupt your sleep patterns even when you turn them off when you go to bed. Blue light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin for long periods of time. Ideally, you should avoid all blue light-emitting screens for two to three hours before bed.
REASON #9: OVERTHINKING
Life can be difficult. With work, kids, bills and other stressors in our lives, often we’re left without enough time in the day to deal with everything we need to. These issues can spill over into nighttime and rob us of quality sleep. We’ve all laid in bed brooding over tomorrow’s troubles. What may help refocus your thoughts is a strategy called “stimulus control.” A well-studied idea, it suggests that getting up and walking to another part of the house before returning to bed will stop negative thinking and allow you to fall asleep.
It sounds simple, but it’s proven to work, as it helps you to overcome negative associations associated with your sleep routine. If you still can’t seem to shut down your mind when it’s time for bed, try doing some meditation before turning out the light. It takes practice, but with time you will learn to shut out the chatter.
REASON #10: LATE-NIGHT EXERCISE
Getting daily exercise is key for optimal health and longevity. The only problem is when exercise costs you sleep. Due to busy schedules, many people leave their exercise until late at night. While that might appear to be a sound strategy, the impact that that exercise has on your body may be robbing you of zzz's. When you exercise, your body heats up, blood gets pumping, and your metabolism roars into gear…at a time when you should be relaxing for the evening. Instead, try to exercise first thing in the morning or early in the afternoon.
You may find you sleep even better after allowing your body the chance to cool down and relax before settling in for the night. Sleep is a wonderful and precious thing, and it is essential for a healthy mind and a healthy body. If you find yourself feeling groggy in the morning or waking up throughout the night, it’s important to pinpoint why and correct the issue immediately. Keep a sleep journal to track your sleeping habits to help you and your doctor diagnose any condition or illness that may be causing your insomnia.
Be sure to keep track of the food and beverages you take in before bed, what sorts of evening activities you engage in and any changes to your sleep space, as well as making notes on your actual sleep (how much, how many times up in the night, dreams, how you felt in the morning, etc.).
Anthony J. McGirr is an author/blogger who currently resides in Davison, Michigan.