Your sleep habits can save your life.
This sounds like a dramatic statement, but it’s true. According to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 60% of adult drivers in the U.S. (about 168 million people) have driven while feeling drowsy in the last year. A third of adult drivers admit to falling asleep behind the wheel — resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries.
If you drive, and you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re putting your life and the lives of others at risk. You might as well drink a few cocktails and get in the car. Several studies show sleepiness impairs driving skill just as much as being drunk. Drowsy driving impacts coordination, judgement, and reaction time.
Sleep deprivation even played a role in some of the worst disasters in recent history: the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.
Poor sleep habits also have a profound impact on your physical health and emotional well-being. An ongoing sleep deficiency raises your risk for some serious chronic health problems.
A wide range of studies reveal a link between insufficient sleep and conditions such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity. Sleep disorders contribute to depression and anxiety, impact your sex life, lower testosterone in men, and double your risk of death from all causes. About 90% of people with insomnia have some other health condition.
Improving your sleep habits is one of the most beneficial endeavors you can pursue, as good sleep is the foundation for a healthy, happy life. If you aren’t sleeping well, it’s past time to take control of this problem and turn it around.
Here are 10 steps to improve your sleep habits to get a better night’s sleep:
1. Stay on schedule
Try to go to bed and wake up in the morning at the same time every day — even on weekends. Sticking to a sleep schedule reinforces your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle and actually improves your sleep at night.
According to Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, the best time to go to bed is somewhere between 8:00 pm and midnight, which gives your brain and body the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM sleep needed to function optimally. Most adults need between seven and a half to nine hours of sleep at night.
2. Monitor food/drink intake
Being too full or too hungry at bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Allow about at least an hour between your last bite and the time you go to bed. Since your metabolism slows at night, you don’t want to be stuffed, as the meal won’t be as easily digested as in your waking hours.
But going to bed hungry can also disrupt your ability to sleep or fall asleep. If you feel hungry at bedtime, have a light snack like yogurt with berries or a small handful of almonds.
Also limit the amount you drink right before bed, as you don’t want middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom. Caffeine and alcohol both will disrupt your sleep. Alcohol might make you fall sleep more quickly, but it disrupts REM sleep which is the restorative sleep stage when you dream.
Alcohol consumption also suppresses breathing and can lead to sleep apnea. The more you drink, the stronger the disruptions. Read more about caffeine intake and the effects on sleep below.
3. Have a bedtime ritual
When you follow the same habits and patterns at night before bed, it gives your brain and body a reminder it’s time for sleep. Just be sure those rituals are conducive to sleep. Listening to loud music, watching TV, or surfing the net aren’t the best bedtime rituals.
Taking a warm bath or shower, dimming the lights, reading, making love, and listening to relaxing music can all lead to falling asleep more easily.
4. Prepare the environment
A cool, dark room is ideal for a good night’s sleep. If noise bothers you or you’re sensitive to the sounds of your house at night, use a sound machine that creates white noise or peaceful sounds like rain falling. Consider wearing sleep shades to block out all light, as darkness promotes the production of the hormone melatonin which controls your sleep/wake cycles.
Be sure you have a comfortable, supportive mattress and a pillow that keeps your neck and spine aligned properly. If you have a bed partner, make sure your bed is big enough to accommodate both of you so you don’t disrupt each other. If possible, don’t allow pets or children to sleep in the bed with you.
5. Limit daytime sleep
If you’re having trouble with your sleep, you’ll be tempted to take naps during the day. However, a long nap will interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.
Small catnaps of up to 30 minutes can be restorative during the day, but anything longer will clear away the neurotransmitters that cause sleepiness. If you take a brief nap, take it in the early afternoon, allowing ten hours or so before you go to bed.
6. Manage daily caffeine intake
A moderate amount of caffeine does help stimulate alertness and energy — but your caffeine consumption must be timed so it doesn’t disrupt sleep.
Researchers at Michigan’s Henry Ford Hospital’s Sleep Disorders & Research Center and Wayne State College of Medicine found that caffeine consumed six hours or less before bedtime resulted in significantly diminished sleep quality and quantity. If you drink caffeine during the day, try to cut off your caffeine intake by 2:00 pm.
If you’re a smoker, here’s another good reason to quit: nicotine is a stimulant and can disrupt your sleep just as caffeine does. Try not to smoke right before you go to bed.
Getting some form of physical activity daily has been proven to promote better sleep, both in quantity and quality. Studies have shown when patients with insomnia add moderate exercise to their daily routines, they experience less anxiety and sleep better at night. Exercise may stimulate longer periods of slow-wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep.
Although it may take a few weeks of exercise for the positive sleep benefits to appear, it’s clear exercise is an important habit to develop for a good night’s sleep. Try to exercise in the morning or afternoon rather than in the evening, as exercising close to bedtime can interfere with your body’s urge to sleep.
8. Avoid the clock
If you do awaken at night, avoid the urge to look at the clock. When you check the time, you create stress and worry about the amount of sleep you’re getting and how much time you have left to sleep. Turn the clock toward the wall or face down so you won’t be tempted to check the time.
9. Prepare for aches and pains
If you have pain or a headache before bed, or you anticipate you might feel pain once you’re in the bed, prepare in advance to deal with it. This might mean taking pain medication before you sleep or keeping it beside your bed with a glass of water.
If you get back or neck aches while you sleep, arrange your pillows in a comfortable position before you fall asleep. Sometimes putting a pillow between your knees can help align your hips and reduce pressure on your lower back.
10. Practice meditation
In order to be able to sleep, we have to be able to relax and let go of the day’s stress and tension. Training in relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation have proven effective in helping people fall asleep. Diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery all can help you relax your body and mind to aid falling asleep.
According to a report published in Science Daily, “Results indicate that patients saw improvements in subjective sleep quality and sleep diary parameters while practicing meditation. Sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality and depression improved in patients who used meditation.”
Practicing these sleep habits regularly will improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. However, you must make a commitment to creating better sleep habits in order to reap the benefits.
Don’t allow poor sleep to rob you of optimal physical and mental health and happiness in your day-to-day life. Poor sleep is a fixable problem in your control.
Have you suffered with poor sleep habits in the past? What have you done to improve your sleep? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
photo credit: TempusVolat