By Dr. Mercola
Sleep is supposed to be a time for your body to recharge, a respite from the demands of the workaday world. Yet, according to the documentary Sleepless in America, 40 percent of Americans are sleep deprived, with many getting less than five hours of sleep per night.
For many, sleep isn't a respite at all but rather has turned into a source of great frustration and stress. If you've ever struggled with insomnia, you know the anxiety that can occur when the clock starts approaching bedtime.
Will you be able to fall asleep? Will you lie in bed, awake, for hours, only to fall asleep shortly before your alarm clock goes off? Though it may seem hopeless, let me assure you that sound sleep can be yours.
Oftentimes it only takes some simple tweaks to your bedtime routine and, ironically, to your habits during the day to make sound sleep a reality.
Lack of Sleep Can Leave You Functionally Drunk
Before I delve into how to improve your sleep, let's go over why it's so important to do so. You probably already know that sleep is important — and that you feel lousy after a night with barely any shuteye.
However, you may be surprised by the results of a recent University of Michigan study, which found even six hours of sleep a night is too little and may leave you functionally impaired, similar to being drunk. University of Michigan mathematician and study author Olivia Walch said:1
"It doesn't take that many days of not getting enough sleep before you're functionally drunk … Researchers have figured out that being overly tired can have that effect.
And what's terrifying at the same time is that people think they're performing tasks way better than they are. Your performance drops off but your perception of your performance doesn't."
Smartphone App Reveals Insights Into How the World Sleeps
In 2014, Walch and colleagues released a free app that recommends optimal lighting schedules for adjusting to new time zones (i.e., helping to reduce the effects of jet lag).
The app, called Entrain, asks users to input their sleep times, home time zone and typical lighting schedule, and it can also record hourly light and sleep schedules.
The researchers used data collected from the app to reveal trends in how people sleep around the world.2 Average sleep duration ranged from seven hours and 24 minutes for residents of Singapore to eight hours and 12 minutes for residents of the Netherlands.
This might not seem like a large discrepancy, but even 30 minutes of extra sleep can make a big difference in your health and ability to function. Other interesting facts revealed by the study included:3
- Middle-aged men got the least sleep and often slept less than seven to eight hours a night.
- Women tended to schedule more time for sleep and slept about 30 minutes more per night than men. Women tended to go to bed earlier and wake up later.
- People who spent time in the sunlight each day tended to go to sleep earlier and got more sleep than those who spend most of their day indoors.
Trends were also noted by age, which suggests your biological clock may influence your internal clock. In particular, the researchers noted that people's schedules dictated their bedtime but their internal clock governed their wake time.
Therefore, the best way to get more sleep is to go to bed earlier. Study co-author Daniel Forger, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan explained:
"Across the board, it appears that society governs bedtime and one's internal clock governs wake time, and a later bedtime is linked to a loss of sleep …
At the same time, we found a strong wake-time effect from users' biological clocks — not just their alarm clocks. These findings help to quantify the tug-of-war between solar and social timekeeping."
1 in 3 U.S. Adults Don't Get Enough Sleep
In February 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in three U.S. adults don't get enough sleep.4
In this case, "enough" sleep was defined as seven or more hours per night, but many adults may need closer to eight hours per night (and thus lack of sleep may affect even more than one in three adults).
What are the health risks of this reported sleep deprivation? Research has found that when participants cut their sleep from 7.5 to 6.5 hours a night, there were increases in activity in genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk, and stress.5
Poor or insufficient sleep was even found to be the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.6 Interrupted or impaired sleep can also:
- Increase your risk of heart disease and cancer
- Harm your brain by halting new neuron production. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in your hippocampus
- Contribute to a pre-diabetic, insulin-resistant state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can lead to weight gain
- Contribute to premature aging by interfering with your growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep (and during certain types of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training)
- Increase your risk of dying from any cause
16 Chronological Daily Tips to Improve Your Sleep
If your sleep could use some improvements, try these 16 tips compiled by Reader's Digest.7 What makes them unique is that you do them starting in the morning and continue throughout the day and night.
By the time it's bedtime, you'll be ready to hit the hay. Here's the chronological list, starting with when you wake up and continuing until bedtime.
1. Open Your Shades
Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning stops production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and signals to your body that it's time to wake up. Outdoor sunlight is best, so you might even want to take a quick walk outside.
2. Make Your Bed
This is a psychological trick aimed at making your bedroom less cluttered — and therefore easier to relax in — come bedtime. You can also quickly put away any junk cluttering your nightstand and dresser.
Exercise leads to better sleep at night. Many people schedule their full workouts for morning, which makes it easier to also exercise while fasting (an added benefit). If you don't have time for a full workout, at least do some quick stretching or bodyweight exercises.
4. Take a Walk Outdoors After Lunch
Not only will this increase in physical activity help you sleep later, but taking your walk outdoors gives you more exposure to bright sunlight. Light intensity is measured in lux units, and on any given day, the outdoor lux units will be around 100,000 at noon.
Indoors, the typical average is somewhere between 100 to 2,000 lux units — about two orders of magnitude less.
The brightness of the light matters, because your pineal gland produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night.
If you are in relative darkness all day long, it can't appreciate the difference and will not optimize your melatonin production. This, in turn, can have some rather significant ramifications for your health and sleep.
I take a one-hour walk every day in the bright sunlight on the beach, so along with boosting my vitamin D, I also anchor my circadian rhythm at the same time and I rarely ever have trouble sleeping.
5. Cut Off Your Caffeine
If you're a coffee drinker, take your last caffeinated sip in the early afternoon (this applies to caffeinated soda, too). The caffeine can linger in your body for hours, blocking a brain chemical called adenosine that would otherwise help you to fall asleep.
6. Consider a Nap
According to Rubin Naiman, Ph. D. a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and a leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams, we're biologically programmed to nap during the daytime, typically in the middle of the afternoon.
The key is to avoid napping for too long, as this may disrupt your circadian rhythms, which would hurt your sleep instead of help it. The ideal nap time for adults appears to be around 20 minutes (any longer and you'll enter the deeper stages of sleep and may feel groggy when you wake up).
7. Exercise in the Early Evening (If You Haven't Already)
The importance of exercise for sleep cannot be overstated, so if you didn't fit in your workout in the morning, be sure to do so later. There is some debate over how close is too close to bedtime to exercise. For some people, exercising too close to bedtime may keep you awake, but for others even late-night exercise seems to help (not hinder) sleep.
One poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 83 percent of people said they slept better when they exercised (even late at night) than when they did not, so even if it's late, you may still want to exercise.8 Let your body be your guide.
8. Take 15 Minutes to Unwind
If you're stressed, it's harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Taking 15 minutes (at least) each day to relax may help your sleep significantly. You may try listening to music, journaling, meditation, chatting with a neighbor or the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). Do whatever works best for you.
9. Eat a Light Dinner and Stop Eating Three Hours Before Bed
If you eat a heavy meal too close to bedtime, your body will have to devote energy to digesting your food when it should be recharging during sleep. As part of Peak Fasting, I also recommend that you stop eating three hours before bed and don't have your first meal until 13 to 18 hours later.
10. At Sundown, Dim Your Lights (or Use Amber-Colored Glasses)
In the evening (around 8 p.m.), you'll want to dim your lights and turn off electronic devices. Normally, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., and these devices emit light that may stifle that process. After sundown, shift to a low-wattage bulb with yellow, orange or red light if you need illumination.
A salt lamp illuminated by a 5-watt bulb is an ideal solution that will not interfere with your melatonin production. If using a computer or smartphone, install blue light-blocking software like f.lux, which automatically alters the color temperature of your screen as the day goes on, pulling out the blue wavelengths as it gets late.
The easiest solution, which I recently started using myself, however, is to simply use amber-colored glasses that block blue light. I found an Uvex model (S1933X) on Amazon that costs less than $10 and works like a charm to eliminate virtually all blue light. This way you don't have to worry about installing programs on all your devices or buying special light bulbs for evening use.
Once you have your glasses on, it doesn't matter what light sources you have on in your house.
11. Turn Down the Volume
In the evening hours, you'll also want to keep noise to a minimum. Noise louder than a normal conversation may stimulate your nervous system and keep you awake. You may want to use a fan or other form of white noise to drown out noise disturbances while you sleep. The exception is listening to soft, soothing music, such as classical, which may actually help you to sleep.9
12. Take a Warm Bath About 1.5 Hours Before Bed
Thermoregulation — your body's heat distribution system — is strongly linked to sleep cycles. When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
This is also why taking a warm bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime may help you sleep; it increases your core body temperature, and when it abruptly drops when you get out of the bath, it signals your body that you are ready for sleep.
13. Adjust Your Bedroom Temperature
While there's no set consensus as to what temperature will help you sleep the best, in most cases any temperature above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees F will interfere with your sleep.10 Some experts suggest 65 degrees F is ideal for sleep.
14. Sip a Cup of Chamomile Tea
Chamomile has sedative effects that may help with sleep, which is why chamomile tea is often sipped before bed. One study found that people with insomnia who took a chamomile supplement had improvements in daytime functioning and potential benefits on sleep measures as well.11 You may want to try sipping a cup prior to bedtime to see if it helps you sleep.
15. Get Ready for Bed
A nightly ritual of washing your face, brushing your teeth and getting into your pajamas signals to your mind and body that it's time for bed. Try to stick with the same hygiene ritual, at the same time, each night.
16. Sleep in Complete Darkness
Once you're ready to climb into bed, make sure your bedroom is pitch black. The slightest bit of light in your bedroom can disrupt your body's clock and your pineal gland's melatonin production. You may want to cover your windows with drapes or blackout shades to achieve this and, if this isn't possible, wear an eye mask.
Taking these steps daily should help most people to improve their sleep. If you need more help, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. You'll likely find that small adjustments to your daily routine and sleeping area can go a long way to helping you achieve regular restful sleep.