Sleep is a precious commodity. Yet many of us have trouble prioritizing it for one reason or another. Perhaps you are a busy parent trying to take advantage of the time your kids are sleeping to get things done. Or you’re burning the midnight oil trying to meet an impending deadline. Or maybe you are so invested in your favorite show that you just have to know what happens next—you’ll sleep later, right? Maybe, but more often than not, our bodies pay the price for these sleepless decisions.
Why is sleep so important?
That might seem like an obvious question, but with the way so many of us miss out on sleep, it’s a question worth asking. Without proper rest we become more forgetful, less productive, and much grumpier.
Most medical professionals will recommend that you get between 7–9 hours of sleep each night unless you are a teenager or a baby. But getting enough sleep is much more serious than just avoiding being groggy and grumpy. Over time, if you are not getting enough quality sleep, you are at risk for some pretty serious health issues. Your risk of conditions like heart disease, cancer, and obesity increases dramatically with prolonged periods of poor sleep. Even a couple of restless nights can increase stress and other psychological issues.
Create a bedtime routine
So, what can you do to get some sleep? One of the first places to start is your schedule. If you don’t have one already, try establishing a bedtime routine by making a sleep “to-do” list. We typically have something like this for our morning routine even if it’s not written down anywhere: set an alarm, make the bed, eat breakfast, read the news. If our typical routine breaks down, we might feel “off” the rest of the day. Your body and mind will benefit from this same kind of routine at the end of the day.
Set a bedtime alarm, brush your teeth, change your clothes, dim the lights, do some stretches, and get into bed. Of course, your bedtime routine may include all kinds of things from reading (an actual paper book, not a screen) to spraying lavender mist on your pillowcase. Whatever works for you, stick to it. Your body and mind will begin to crave that routine, and it will encourage you to drift off to sleep more easily.
Your natural sleep-wake pattern
Not only will your bedtime routine help you mentally prepare for sleep, but it will also encourage your body’s natural sleep-wake pattern and will help you work in harmony with your body’s internal clock.
You can work further with your sleep-wake pattern by taking advantage of how your body reacts to light. At night, when it gets dark, your body starts to produce melatonin. As melatonin is released into your body it makes you feel sleepy. In the morning, as you are exposed to light, that melatonin production slows down and allows you to wake up.
If you can get some sunshine (or bright light) first thing in the morning, this will help trigger your body’s natural wake process. Not only will this help you feel more awake, but it can also actually help your melatonin production start earlier in the evening—helping you get to bed at a regular time.
Track your sleep
Still having trouble sleeping, even with an established bedtime routine? Why not try tracking your sleep for one week? Some questions you might try to answer each morning: How did I feel before bed, how did I feel when I woke up? What did I consume the night before? How soon before bed? What did I do just before I went to sleep? Your tracking may reveal something about your routine—or lack thereof—that may be useful. If you see a correlation between, say, what you ate before bed and how you feel when you wake up, make adjustments.
If you’re not a notepad or journal kind of person, there are plenty of free apps that can help you track your sleep. Many of these apps will offer helpful tips and reminders on when it’s time to get ready for bed. Wearing a device like a Fitbit or an Apple watch may be able to give you even more detailed information about the quality of your sleep and how it impacts the way you feel when you wake up.
A note about caffeine
One last thing, whatever you do, do not drink caffeinated beverages late in the afternoon or evening. Though that jolt of energy may help get you through the end of the workday, it can ruin your ability to shut down for the night. Studies show that having caffeine 6 hours or fewer before bed can seriously disrupt your sleep. That disruption may be anything from not being able to fall asleep to having a restless night.
Sleep and self-care
There is a lot of talk nowadays about the importance of self-care. Working to get some good sleep is an important act of self-care with powerful health and wellness effects. But self-care isn’t necessarily just about caring for yourself. When you are well-rested, you are better able to care for all of the important things in your life. That includes treating others around you with patience and kindness. Simply put, tired grumps don’t make fast friends, so get some sleep!