I had read somewhere, ‘sleep is a strange beast’. I would take the liberty of modifying this sentence – ‘sleep is not strange but an elusive beast’. This perhaps better fits the bill when most of us today struggle to sleep better and complete our daily recommended dosage of sleep. Poor sleep is a common affliction among adults. As per research, one out of four persons in US don’t get enough sleep while 16 million UK adults have sleepless nights. A good night’s sleep is vital to our mood, energy, mental alertness, physical awareness and maintaining optimum weight levels. But even though we all love our precious sleep, it still remains a relatively neglected health issue, mostly undiagnosed.
Understanding the Sleep-Wake Cycle
In order to sleep better, understanding the sleep wake cycle can be really helpful. Our body has its own inner clock which runs in a rhythmic manner. These rhythms known as the circadian rhythm or the internal body clock which regulates our urge to sleep and wake up every single day.
The circadian rhythm is determined by a specific area of the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Melatonin hormone, which is responsible for our sleep responds to natural light in the environment and sends signal to the SCN. Melatonin secretion increases during the night and decreases during day. This is the reason why we feel more alert and energetic during the day and sleepy during night.
Your Circadian Rhythm
Every person is born with his particular circadian rhythm. You will notice there are some people who wake up early and sleep early while some are just nocturnal beings. There are also some people who have a strong urge to take an afternoon siesta post lunch. These individual variations in sleep patterns are part of your circadian rhythm.
The uniformity in circadian rhythm remains the same, meaning all humans are biologically inclined to wake up during the day and sleep at night but timings of our waking and sleeping hours may differ from person to person.
It’s fairly easy to figure out your circadian rhythm if you pay close attention. Your body has a particular time when it feels sleepy and when it feels energised. If you observe closely you shall see some people have a tendency to yawn right after having dinner or lunch. This is their body giving a signal to take some rest. Also observe how you feel fresh and charged after having breakfast. Unless your circadian rhythm is disrupted by external factors you should have a healthy sleep cycle.
Light Exposure and Sleep
Since light is crucial for maintaining our sleep and wake cycle. To sleep better, it is useful if we know how to control exposure to light.
Wake up in natural light: When you wake up in natural light it sends a signal to the brain that it is daytime thus making your body fully awake. During mornings, try to let in as much natural light as possible into your house; it is good for your health just like exercising during mornings.
Avoid harsh light during late evenings: Using strong lights during late evening hours is not at all recommended since it interferes with your sleep cycle. Strong lights can affect melatonin secretion. At night just before you have dinner use soft lights to relax your body and mood. In this way, you are actually preparing your body to sleep better at night.
Recommended Sleep Time for Humans
As per the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) US sleep requirements vary among different age groups. The list below indicates your ideal sleep time recommended by NSF
- NEWBORNS: 14-17 HOURS
- INFANTS: 12-15 HOURS
- TODDLERS: 11-14 HOURS
- PRESCHOOLERS: 10-13 HOURS
- SCHOOL CHILDREN: 9-11 HOURS
- TEENAGERS: 8-10 HOURS
- YOUNG ADULTS/ ADULTS: 7-9 HOURS
- OLDER ADULTS: 7-8 HOURS
Reasons for Poor Sleep Quality
Jetlag: Frequent flying or long distance air travel results in jetlag that messes with your internal body clock. The symptoms of jetlag are more visible when flying involves travelling across different times-zones. However, jetlag is a temporary sleep disorder and when your body adjusts to the new environment you can sleep better.
Environment: Our external environment is also responsible for our sleep cycle. Like people in Nordic countries suffer from sleep disorders during the midnight sun phenomenon. Similarly, when we visit a new place our bodies take time to adapt. Sleep cycle might also be disrupted if you live amidst too much noise.
Food: Intake of certain food items containing too much spice during dinner or evening hours may cause acid reflux and heartburn which affects your sleep quality.
Mental and Physical condition: Our physical and mental well-being has a direct effect on our sleep and vice versa. When you are unwell or injured or in any other physical agony, it affects your sleep, similarly conditions such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (AHDH), depression, stress can lead to chronic sleep problems and insomnia.
Medications: The side effects of some medications may cause lethargy and drowsiness and lengthen the sleep duration of an individual. This is especially true for cough syrups which induce a feeling of sleepiness.
Working in shifts: Working in shifts can completely throw off your body’s circadian rhythm. The effects of working in night shifts can have a drastic effect on your sleep routine. Since the entire body clock changes for those who work in night shifts the effects of this may be long-term, even if that person later changes to a normal day job.
As a former media professional I have the experience of working in night shifts and it had ruined not only my sleep pattern but also my health. Later, even when I changed the job it took me a very long time to adjust my sleep clock.
Sleep Better with these Tips
Here are some sleeping tips which will help you to sleep better. Most of these pertain to making some small changes to your lifestyle.
Know your sleep cycle: Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule will help you to figure out your sleep cycle and sleep better. Set a fixed time to sleep and wake up. As I mentioned earlier each of us have our own internal sleep cycle and if we pay close attention to our bodies it is easy to figure out. For example; it took me a long time to figure out that I am not at all a morning person and I function best if I wake up between 7 AM – 7.30 AM and sleep around 11 PM – 11.30 PM. However, if I wake up an hour early or sleep an hour late it messes up my daily schedule. Since last year I have been more or less consistent with my sleep schedule and it has improved my overall health.
Don’t compromise on sleep time: This is really important if you are trying to bring your sleep on track. Deviating from your sleep schedule because you have to watch a late night TV show will be detrimental to any progress you have made. Prioritise your sleep for better health.
Limit usage of electronic devices: The light emanating from your TV, laptop and mobile device confuses the brain into thinking it’s not bedtime yet. Unless absolutely necessary, keep aside all electronic gadgets atleast 1 hour before bedtime.
Have dinner 2 hours prior to bedtime: Having a heavy meal at dinner can slow down the digestion process and cause acidity. It is best to have a light dinner at least 2 hours before sleeping. When the food gets properly digested you sleep better.
Relax with light music or sleeping lights: Just before sleeping read a light book or listen to some soothing music it will help you to sleep better.
Keep your room dark: Ideally it’s always better to sleep without any lights in a room. If the room is completely dark, you will fall asleep quickly. However, if you cannot sleep like this, install the mildest of dimmed lights that don’t emit too much ray. Get a sleeping mask to block out any light
Limit afternoon naptime: Research says afternoon naps should be limited to 15 – 20 minutes. If your afternoon siesta is of longer duration you may face difficulty in sleeping at night.
Focus on relaxation: Those who suffer from sleep related issues should focus on relaxing their bodies rather than sleeping. You may practice savasana, a powerful relaxation technique in yoga focused on relaxing one body part at a time which ultimately helps you to sleep better. You can also try the ‘4-7-8 breathing technique’which apparently is a sleeping hack that helps you to sleep better.
Bathe in lukewarm water before sleeping: This always works for me. Bathing with lukewarm water before bedtime relaxes all muscles helps you to unwind and sleep better.
Don’t ignore therapy: If you are constantly worried about things and brainstorming at night chances are you either have an overactive mind or you are extremely stressed. In any scenario, please consult a physician; otherwise you are at a risk of suffering from bigger health issues.
Sleep is such an important body function; it gives your body rest as well as the time to repair any muscle wear and tear. If you suffer from poor sleep, don’t ignore it. Usually poor sleep is an indicator of an underlying health issue. Sleep is precious therefore, focus on sleeping well. Hope you found this write-up useful. If yes do let me know your feedback in the comment section below.