Getting more and better sleep is probably the single thing most Americans need to do to immediately shift their health and wellbeing. It is at least in the top three of small changes that can create big shifts in how you feel. Sleep is the time that the body, mind and spirit rejuvenate. Your cells are repairing, regenerating and processing from all the day’s activities and use. Your brain is storing memories. There are thousands of things going on while you are sleeping that keep you healthy, sharp, energized, and strong.
If you don’t sleep, or have poor sleep, you create an internal environment that dampens the healing and rejuvenating capabilities of your body. You also put yourself in a state of stress which causes cortisol levels to get and stay high. Many other hormones are tied to cortisol in one way or another and are therefore affected by continuous high cortisol levels, potentially causing adrenal fatigue or other issues. I could go on and on about the down side of not getting good sleep, but you’ve likely experienced many of them at some point if not now.
So what can you do about it if you consistently are waking up tired, feel lethargic, lack energy or are even in pain? What exactly works for you may be different if you just can’t get to sleep, can’t stay asleep, or can’t seem to sleep comfortably. I wrote extensively about sleep and creating healthy sleep habits in my book, Wellness on a Shoestring. Here are a few questions and tips for starters.
Are you getting enough sleep?
Most people aren’t getting enough sleep. Your body really does keep track of how much sleep it needs and how much it is getting. That’s why if you only get three hours one night you can sleep in the next night and feel fully refreshed. The problem comes when you really need eight hours of sleep and you consistently only get five. If you do that all week and try to make up for it on the weekend you just can’t do it. You’d have to sleep your normal eight hours plus another fifteen to make up for the short sleeps during the week. That’s not realistic. First, get clear about how many hours you do need each night. On average, adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night to be fully rested. You may need a little more or a little less. Experiment and see what you really need. Second, make it a priority to get your sleep. Let’s say you have an early meeting that requires you to be at the office at 7:00am, which means you have to get up at 5:00am; and you know you need seven hours of sleep. That means you have to be in bed nodding off by 10:00pm the night before. You can only live with a sleep deficit for so long before it wreaks havoc on your body.
What did you eat before bed?
Skip that late night snack. One of the top reasons people have for not being able to get to sleep is indigestion. If you’ve just eaten and you lay down to sleep gravity is working against you and could cause indigestion. You’re also causing your body to do a lot of work to digest all the food you just ate when it had other items on its to-do list for the night. One of the reasons people often can’t stay asleep is a drop in blood sugar in the middle of the night. When you eat later in the evening or take that alcoholic nightcap you’re raising your blood sugar. When it drops the body will wake you up. Try not to eat within three hours of bedtime. That includes paying attention to what you’re drinking; stick to water or decaf tea in the evening.
What’s your sleeping position?
As a chiropractor I see clients with hip, low back, knee, neck and shoulder pain all the time. Frequently the root cause for the subluxation is poor sleep posture. Stomach sleeping is the worst position. It forces an unhealthy twist and bend to the neck which can impact all sorts of nerves, and it gives no support to the lower back. The best positions are 1) on your back with a pillow that supports your neck at a neutral angle, and a pillow under your knees, or 2) on your side with a pillow under your head that supports the neck without it tipping down towards the bed; also a pillow between the knees for hip and knee support, and your arms to your side in almost a prayerful position (sometimes a pillow between your arms is helpful.
With whom are you sleeping?
I mean this in several ways. I do literally mean who is sharing your bed. If you’re sharing a room with someone whose sleeping habits disturb your sleep (i.e. temperature preferences, snoring, etc.) then you may need to discuss it with them and make changes. If you have pets that share your bed and that’s disruptive then you may need to train them to stay down. However, by this question I also want you to consider what is in your head when you go to bed. Did you just watch the news or a rerun of Criminal Minds, either of which can leave you with sad, negative, gruesome or scary thoughts? Did you have a stressful or frustrating day? Are you running through a to-do list in your mind and feeling behind as you’re trying to fall asleep? All of this is causing a flurry of activity in your mind and can keep you from falling asleep, and also keep you from being able to truly rest. I encourage you to disconnect from electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Create a routine that puts you in wind down mode. Get any thoughts about the day or notes for tomorrow out of your head and on paper. Maybe that’s a to-do list you prep each night for the next day. Maybe it is journaling. Make the last thing you do before bed be gratitude. Whether it is prayer or keeping a gratitude journal, end your day by giving thanks.
Sleep is not a luxury. It is a necessity to the wellbeing of your mind, body and spirit. Change some habits, shake it up and get a good night’s rest, consistently. Sweet dreams.
This article originally appeared on Dr. Michelle Robin.