Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Sleep helps regulate our circadian rhythm - a dynamic flow of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters that alternate activity levels between day and night. During sleep, we heal and grow as our body processes what we eat, think, and do each day. During the day, we supply our body with the signals it needs to function and accomplish tasks, but this can be impaired if we haven’t yet processed the day(s) before. With inadequate sleep, your body tries to catch up with day to day functioning, and your healing and growth gets left behind.
Sleep hygiene refers to various aspects of daily habits relating to a good quality nights’ sleep. The quality of your sleep can be reflected in different patterns of insomnia, such as:
difficulty falling asleep
waking through the night
But sleep dysfunction (which may not look like one of the above) can also present as:
feeling unrefreshed in the morning
low energy levels throughout the day
reduced cognitive function
mood changes and higher stress
downstream effects on hormones, stress, digestion, and metabolic functioning
These are my top tips for improving your sleep to feel great!
1. Regular Sleep timing - Establish a regular bed time and wake time, and routines to go along with them. Your body will naturally adjust to and benefit from sleeping at a consistent time. We get the best quality sleep between the hours of 9pm and 6am - aim for the bulk of your sleep to happen during these hours. Try to avoid weekend late nights and long sleep-ins as this will disrupt your routine. Also don’t go to bed wide awake OR completely exhausted - these reflect your cortisol levels which can impact sleep quality if too high or too low. Aim for a time when your body is naturally ready to sleep but before you crash.
2. Sleep rituals - Doing things to remind your body that it is almost bedtime will help improve sleep onset. This can include relaxing stretches, yin yoga, meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, reading a book, taking a warm bath, or drinking herbal (non-caffeinated) tea. Avoid doing anything stimulating. Check out apps like insight timer, Calm, or Headspace for guided meditations. Journalling can also be great for getting your thoughts or next-day tasks out on paper so you're not thinking (or dreaming) about them while trying to sleep.
3. Exercise early in the day - Studies show the best time to exercise is in the mornings, to get your blood flowing and increase morning cortisol for thinking clearly through the day. As a general rule, avoid moderate-to-intense exercise after 5pm, including cardio, HIIT, or weight training. Walking, gentle yoga, and stretching are good any time of day. This will help your body recognize when it's ‘go’ time and when it's ‘rest’ time. PS. 'exercise' doesn't have to be structured or for a set amount of time - do something that gets your blood flowing, lungs filling, and muscles activating.
4. Light exposure - Screens, street lights, night lights, all the lights affect your brains ability to recognize when it’s night time. This impacts the production of our master sleep hormone, melatonin, and the circadian rhythm. Avoid evening light exposure by reducing screen time from computer, tv, phone, tablet, etc. after 8-9pm and/or wear blue-light blocking glasses. You can get them from most companies that sell eye glasses these days, or even on Amazon! At night time, wear an eye mask or get blackout curtains to reduce indirect light exposure from street lights, night lights, etc. Each morning, natural sunlight exposure - walk outside, work near a bright window, or try a SAD/happy lamp; a minimum of 30 minutes each morning can improve mood and energy through the day!
5. Eat well - It seems obvious to avoid sugary foods before bed, but you may not realize that other carbohydrates like bread, pasta, cereals, and even milk contain sugars. This can be stimulating as the body breaks them down and increases your blood sugar and insulin to spike. This can cause reactive hypoglycemia - a quick drop in blood sugar - within a few hours after you have gone to sleep and can stimulate a waking response often associated with feelings of anxiousness. Ultimately, it's best to avoid having late dinners, aiming for at least 3 hours before bedtime, and make sure it’s rich in veggies, protein, and healthy fats to provide your mind and body with the building blocks for healing. If in need of a snack before bedtime, make sure it's also high in protein and healthy fat.
There are many factors that can both lead to and be a result of poor sleep. My best advice is to speak with your naturopathic doctor about how your sleep may be affecting you, and possible sleep aide options. Natural health products like botanical and nutraceutical supplements can help assist the body in regulating sleep onset, depth, duration, and circadian rhythm, but may not be right for everyone.