Did you sleep well? For many people, the answer is no—even for those of us who think our slumber is good. Says Dr. Neil Kavey, director of the Sleep Disorder Centre at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre in New York, “it’s very common for people to be completely unaware that something is wrong at night. They don’t feel refreshed during the day and they wonder why.”
Normal sleep consists of five stages. The first four get progressively deeper. Then the body eases out of the deepest sleep and into a fifth stage known as REM (rapid eye movement).
These different stages come and go in cycles throughout the night, but the deepest stages—when the brain is most out of touch with conscious reality—appear to be the most crucial for people to feel rested and refreshed.
If you suffer frequent brief awakenings that don’t register consciously, you might never reach the deepest stage, or you may stay there only briefly, unable to reap its full benefits.
While an occasional night of tossing and turning is nothing to be alarmed about, chronic poor sleep can have serious consequences, including lack of energy, difficulty in concentrating and irritability.
Here are some factors that can ruin your rest—and seven ways to sleep better tonight:
1) Establish a sleep schedule: Your body’s internal timekeepers want predictability. “Getting up at the same time every day, including at weekends, is probably the most important step you can take towards establishing good sleep patterns, because regular exposure to light in the morning is what sets the brain’s alarm clock,” says James Walsh, executive director of the Sleep Medicine and Research Centre in Pennsylvania. This exposure, Walsh explains, will establish time to wake up and, at night, the time to get drowsy again.
It’s important not to stay in bed in the morning or take naps during the day as this just delays experiencing the tiredness that will stand you in good stead at the end of the day when you really want to get to sleep.
2) Limited bedroom activities: Watching television, planning the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, problem-solving with your partner and even reading are activities associated with wakefulness, says Charles Morin, a psychologist and author of Relief from Insomnia. These activities can help some people wind down but if your rest is poor, says Morin, “use the bedroom strictly for sleep”.
3) Separate sleep from wakefulness: When you persistently find yourself lying awake for a long time, you soon begin expecting to have trouble falling asleep you may even start worrying that you have to get up early, and the pressure to get good rest will mount.
If you are a worrier and bed time is when your mind wanders, take out 30 minutes of “worry time” out of your day. Write down all your concerns and a plan of action. If your troubles return as you try to doze off, tell yourself, “I have already worked that out”.
When you are going to bed, avoid any stimulating activities, such as watching the news or reading an interesting book. Instead watch a quite nature program or read something dull. Go back to bed only when you begin to feel drowsy.
Similarly if you are short on shut-eye because of insomnia, decrease your slumber time by retiring later—when you are genuinely sleepy—and rising earlier. You may end up getting less rest but you know that you will sleep soundly, so you will lose your apprehension about it.
4) Regulate your body heat: Even small ups and downs in body temperature play a large role in your biological rhythms. Sleep generally follows the cooling phase of your body’s temperature cycle. If your inner thermostat is following its own independent schedule, your sleep may be disrupted.
One way to control body temperature is with exercise. An aerobic workout lasting 20 minutes or more about five hours before bedtime may help encourage sleep. Vigorous exercise two to three hours before bedtime, however, can keep you awake.
5) Skip caffeine, even mid-afternoon: Walsh’s researches suggest that the caffeine consumed from three cups of coffee still has stimulating effects up to eight hours later. “Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others,” says James Walsh.
Others are also more affected than they realize. Remember that other caffeinated substances—chocolates, cola and tea—can also cause poor quality rest.
6) Avoid alcoholic nightcaps: It’s becoming a trend these days to take alcohol to help catch slumber. Yes, it does help you to fall asleep. But as it’s metabolized by the body, it releases a natural stimulant that disrupts sleep during the second half of the night. And the greater the quantity of alcohol consumed, the worse the disruption.
7) Screen out night-time noises: You may get used to soft rhythmic sounds but the louder and irregular noises from traffic or aircraft can disturb sleep more than you expect.
Studies have found, for example, that people who say they’ve adjusted to living near airports actually wake up more frequently during the night and spend less time in deep sleep than people who live in quieter areas. If you can’t eliminate the noises, try muffling its sound. Carpets and heavy curtains help.
Sleep problems are not insurmountable. Take a look at your habits, do some fine-tuning, stick with these changes—and sleep tight tonight.