The inability to get adequate sleep is a serious concern for the average person. Insufficient sleep not only makes you look like a character from The Walking Dead, but can have some serious health consequences.

HOW LACK OF SLEEP AFFECTS YOUR HEALTH

It has become a kind of badge of honor to proclaim how we are functioning on minimal amounts of sleep. If you realize the damage it can do, you might not be as inclined to stay up watching a Duck Dynasty marathon late at night.

If you like to Eat.Sleep.Rave.Repeat you should be aware that lack of sleep is seen as a stress to the body. Your body is unaware if you are under some sort of environmental or famine-related stress, or it is just that you have been up all night “killing it” at the club. In either case, your body feels something is not right and the hormone cortisol can be released.

Cortisol, along with other stress hormones, can cause a substantial negative impact on the body over time, along with diseases such as:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • ADHD
  • stroke
  • increased heart rate
  • hypertension
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • digestive disorders
  • weight gain and obesity
  • depression

This list just scratches the surface. The truth is that stress is a very real thing and lack of sleep can be a big cause of it. In order to make sure we get adequate sleep, and to combat insomnia, here are 7 tips to get you on the right track to restful sleep.

1. Avoid alcohol and caffeine late at night

Alcohol has the potential to put people to sleep, but a deep sleep might be out of the question. The REM stage of sleep occurs during this deep sleep and alcohol can affect our ability to reach it. Not getting into this restorative section of sleep can happen due to alcohol.

You may fall asleep, but the second half of your sleep cycle–where real rest and recovery happens–will be compromised due to alcohol and caffeine consumed too close to bedtime.

2. Get into a regular routine

Your body likes balance and regularity. This is called homeostasis, or stability, and we respond and function better from it. This pertains to sleep as well as the body needs to recognize a consistent pattern to help itself unwind and, essentially, accept sleep.

Going to bed at the same time every day can create that regular habit. Consistency reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle and allows for better sleep throughout the night. Creating a wind-down routine will get your body into that consistent mode. It might be a hot bath at the same time each night, reading before bed, or writing a “to do” list for the next day to get your thoughts under control. The important part is to create a routine and stick with it.

3. Don’t exercise close to bed time

It has always been thought that exercise before bed could lead to disrupted sleep, but newer research into the issue is shedding light that it may not be the issue it was thought to be. It is probably not the best idea to run sprints just before hitting the hay, as it can take the body a while to wind down after high intensity exercise, however lighter exercise can contribute to quality sleep.

If exercise is within 3 hours of when you go to bed, you will be all right. A lower temperature is what helps you sleep and exercise increases body temperature. Well-trained athletes are able to return to a lower resting heart rate and body temperature quicker than the average person. If you are new to exercising, keep some time between exercise and bed by a few hours. The main thing is to listen to your body and see how you feel. This is where keeping a sleep journal is helpful; you can keep track of things like exercise in relation to when you go to bed to keep an eye on how it might be affecting your sleep.

4. Avoid TV and blue light at night

You might be reading this right now in bed on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. This is something you really want to be looking to cut out, as all of our electronic devices emit blue light which can have a negative effect on our melatonin levels and, ultimately, our sleep. Melatonin helps control our sleep and ability to stay asleep; unnatural, artificial blue light significantly suppresses it in our body.

This can be difficult as we live in an artificially-lit world. However, greatly reducing our exposure 2-3 hours before bed will allow your natural melatonin levels to work efficiently and allow proper sleep. If you must use your laptop late, there are great programs (such as f.lux) that can reduce the blue light of your electronics. This will give it a more natural light effect.

5. Practice relaxation techniques

Relaxation and breathing techniques allow your body to focus on allowing itself to sleep.

Breathing technique:

  1. Slowly relax your body while in bed.
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose over 8-10 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  4. Slowly let the air out over at least 4 seconds.
  5. Continue as long as you like, or until you fall asleep.
  6. If feeling dizzy, slow down and take your time.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This is also known as the Jacobson method where you tense groups of muscles all over the body one by one, and then consciously relax them.

Toe Tensing: This one might seem a bit strange, but the idea is to draw tension away from the rest of your body.

  1. Lie on your back and close your eyes.
  2. Pull back your toes towards your face. Slowly count to 10.
  3. Relax your toes.
  4. Count to 10 slowly.
  5. Repeat the cycle 10 times.

6. Avoid eating a lot before bed

Several books could be devoted to this topic, so I will keep it simple. Going to bed after eating too much can make you feel bloated, and digestive upsets can keep you awake. Your body goes into overdrive when it has to burn off a large amount of food.

Hunger pangs can also keep you up. A light snack might take care of that and promote restful sleep. Stick to things like proteins, nuts and seeds, or celery and carrots sticks with some almond butter. Teas such as chamomile and green tea can help have a calming affect on the body as well.

7. Don’t fight sleep

Have you been lying in bed with your eyes clenched, trying to force yourself to sleep? Or trying to tell yourself if I fall asleep RIGHT NOW I will still get X number of hours of sleep?

If you find yourself still awake after 20 minutes, you could be better off getting up and engaging in something that is mildly distracting. The chairman of the National Sleep Foundation, Russell Rosenberg, say worrying about how long you have been awake sets you up for disaster when it comes to drifting off to dreamland. The harder you try, the less likely you will fall asleep.

This can be a good time to find a chair and read, listen to some quiet music, or try some more of those relaxation techniques. The point is to try to distract yourself and allow the wind down effect to take place again.

If you find yourself with sleep issues, you are not alone. Over one half of Americans experience insomnia at least a few nights each week.

Fortunately, these simple steps can help you get back on the right track to la la land.

Now, if you will excuse me, I will be winding down with a cup of chamomile tea and a nice book. Wait, I meant a plate of ribs and watching Die Hard

Featured photo credit: Sleeping Lion Cub/William Warby via flic.kr

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