“Sleep is the Best Meditation.” - Dalai Lama
Do you feel tired when you wake up in the morning? Do you having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep? Do you regularly use caffeine, nicotine or other stimulants to help you boost your energy levels throughout the day? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you're not getting good sleep.
This blogpost will address some of the barriers to getting good sleep. Not all the recommendations will be relevant to everyone, but most recommendations will apply to most people. A lot of the material will seem like common sense, but unfortunately, many people don't act on their common sense. You will get almost zero benefit from simply reading this post. The benefits will come when you implement the recommendations.
Please be sure to read my previous post in this series, “Health & Wellness Series Part 1: Assessing Your Health” as I'm presenting the material in a logical sequence/progression. You should master/implement the concepts/recommendations from Part 1 before moving onto Part 2.
Importance of Sleep
The first and most important component of health is adequate and restful sleep. Most people require between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. By require, I mean to function at their optimal level. Obviously we can forgo sleep and function on 3 hours per night for a a few days or a week. But sooner or later, depriving your body of sleep will catch up to you in a bad way. Here's a list of just some adverse effects of long-term sleep deprivation:
- decreased cognitive function
- decreased tissue healing and regeneration
- impairment of immune system function
- increased risk for certain types of cancers
- increased risk for infections (bacterial and viral)
- increased risk for accidents
(Note: I do not cite my sources for a reason. I expect my readers to look up and investigate my claims for themselves. Even if there is a citation, I expect people to independently confirm the information being presented. In this age of the internet/information, there is no excuse for you being misled or putting your faith in some self-proclaimed internet guru. LOOK IT UP!)
Reasons for Poor Sleep
There are basically 5 domains that can negatively influence your sleep. I'm listing these from easiest to most difficult to fix:
- Poor sleeping environment
- Poor sleep preparation
- Poor daily habits
- Physiological problems
- Psychological problems
Poor Sleeping Environment
What is a poor sleeping environment? Imagine a room that is brightly lit and full of people constantly walking around and making noise. The room is so hot that you're sweating or so cold that you're shivering. You're constantly turning in your bed because it feels like a pile of bricks. This is an example of a poor sleeping environment. Luckily, this can be very easily fixed.
- Make your room as dark as possible. Invest in black-out curtains. Cover any static or blinking lights from routers, phones, computers, alarm clocks, etc. You literally should not be able to see your own hands in the dark. If some of these solutions aren't options for you, invest in a comfortable sleeping mask that does a good job of blocking out external light.
- Make your room as quiet as possible. You don't want something to interrupt your sleep or prevent you from going to sleep. Turn off anything that has the potential to vibrate, beep or alarm while you're asleep. I personally have very sensitive hearing, so I almost always sleep wearing earplugs.
- Control the climate of your sleeping environment. It's difficult to sleep when your body is too hot or cold. Find a temperature that works for you. It'll probably be somewhere between 60-80º Fahrenheit.
- Limit movement in your sleeping environment. If you have pets or children (or a significant other), lock them out so they don't walk on your head or lick your face in the middle of the night. Do your best to create a static space while you're sleeping.
- Invest in a comfortable mattress or futon or whatever it is you choose to sleep on. Since you will be spending about a third of your life sleeping, you might as well spend a little money to make sure you are comfortable.
- Find a comfortable position. The best position to sleep in is the one that is most comfortable for you. Don't buy the weird hype of sleeping on your back on a concrete surface or some other derivative.
Poor Sleep Preparation
Most of us need to prepare our bodies for sleep since we use artificial light and stare at screens all evening long. Light is the main biological driver for regulating our circadian rhythm and it's common to disrupt your regular sleep/wake cycle by exposing yourself to artificial light. It's best to allocate 1-2 hours of preparation time before you lay down in bed. This can include the following:
- Turn down bright lights and turn off all screens (TV, phones, computer monitors, etc.)
- Turn down or turn off any aggressive or overly stimulating music/sounds (save the thrash metal for the morning)
- Do something that will relax your body/brain such as a hot bath, meditation and/or deep breathing exercises, listening to soothing music, listening to a painfully boring audio lecture/presentation
- Review your day and make a plan for tomorrow more than an hour before you lay down to sleep. You don't want to lie in bed thinking about your deadlines, schedule, etc.
- Avoid alcohol and stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, Adderall, Ritalin, etc.) before bed. Alcohol decreases sleep quality by reducing the amount of time you spend in REM sleep.
Poor Daily Habits
There are many activities that we do throughout the day that can adversely affect sleep. Many of these activities are harmless during the first half of our day, but can be problematic during the second half. Here are some things you might want to avoid:
- Do not nap/sleep throughout the day unless you want to get yourself on a bi-phasic sleep schedule.
- Do not consume stimulants 6-8 hours before bed.
- Do not do vigorous exercise 6-8 hours before bed.
- Do not eat 2-4 hours before bed (especially hard-to-digest foods like red meat)
There are a number of physiological problems that can negatively affect sleep. It's not always easy to fix the primary causes for these physiological disturbances, but you should attempt to minimize them as much as you can.
- Pain is a major disruptor of sleep. It's hard to get comfortable and fall asleep if you're experiencing moderate to severe pain. Pain can be related to DOMS from working out, surgery, herniated spinal discs, migraines or from a multitude of other causes. The key is to identify the cause/source of the pain and treat it to minimize it's negative impact. This might have to be done with the help of a healthcare professional. Avoid using pain medication on a regular basis, especially narcotics. Sleep aids can also be problematic as they might help you fall asleep, but will generally reduce the quality of your sleep. There is no easy fix for individuals with chronic pain conditions, but that doesn't mean that you should give up on trying to solve this problem. Eliminating pain will translate to a better quality of life in general.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea. OSA is a common condition that many Americans suffer from. Simply put, OSA is the temporary disruption/cessation in breathing while an individual is asleep. Some people have an abnormal airway passage that predisposes them to OSA. For most people, however, being overweight or obese is the main issue. The first step to solving this problem should be to lose weight and get yourself into a healthy BMI range (18.5-25). If after losing weight you still experience OSA, you should get it properly diagnosed by completing a sleep study and obtain a CPAP/BIPAP machine to help keep your airway open while you sleep at night. It's always ideal to fix the root-cause of a problem (being fat) as opposed to trying to solve it with medications, medical equipment and surgery.
- Chronic Infections and Disease. Most of us get sick from time to time and being sick can affect our sleep quality. There's not much one can do but to let the body recover from illness and help your body with supportive interventions. Some people, however, have chronic infections and diseases that can negatively impact their sleep for a long time. These conditions should be evaluated, diagnosed and treated by licensed healthcare professionals. If you're not a mechanic, don't try to fix your car. If you're not a body mechanic, go to someone who specializes in fixing or managing the particular ailment that you're suffering from.
Depression and anxiety are two of the biggest contributers to poor sleep. We all have periods of sadness or mild depression and/or mild anxiety. These do not require pills or interventions from mental health professionals. Some people, however, have major depression and/or anxiety disorder, which can require outside help to manage those conditions effectively. If your mental state is debilitating and is negatively affecting your social and professional life, you should absolutely seek help from licensed mental health professionals.
If you're experiencing mild depression and anxiety, here are some recommendations that might help to alleviate those symptoms:
- Exercise regularly for at least 15-30 minutes every day, at the same time of day.
- Meditate (or do deep-breathing exercises) regularly for at least 15-30 minutes every day, at the same time of day.
- If you're overly anxious, avoid stimulants, as they will aggravate your anxiety.
- If you're overly depressed, avoid central-nervous system depressants such as alcohol and narcotics, as they will make you more depressed.
- Avoid overly anxious or depressed people as they will generally make you more anxious or depressed.
- Avoid media (news, blogposts, movies, etc.) that is depressing as it will make you more depressed.
- Avoid eating shitty food as it will make your body feel like shit, which will make your brain feel like shit.
I hope you were able to gain some insight into your personal health and wellness from this post. Sleep is often dismissed or underrated as a component for good health, but this is a huge mistake. Bragging about how little sleep you get or can function on is similar to bragging about how fat you are, or how many toes you've had amputated from the complications of diabetic neuropathy.
Treat your body right and it will help you achieve your goals. If you'd like a personalized health and wellness plan, please feel free to contact me.
Please feel free to comment below and thanks for reading!