Full disclosure: I was not always the highly effective sleeper that I proclaim to be today. In fact, I would often force myself to stay up as late as I could – often resulting in less than 5 hours of sleep a night. Mornings were usually spent waking up to an obnoxious alarm clock, rushing around to get ready and finally get out the door. I always woke up feeling sluggish and had to rely on artificial energy from coffee and soda just to get me through the day.
Does this sound familiar? If so, I am here to tell you that it is possible to take control of your sleep schedule and wake up feeling energized and ready to tackle the day with major go-getter vibes! Implementing good sleep hygiene in my life has not only been good for my health – it has been life changing. Today, I am obsessed with early mornings. Waking up just before sunlight is my favorite part of the day. When I wake up naturally (I’ve ditched the obnoxious alarm clock) and have time for my morning rituals like enjoying some warm tea, lighting a few candles, stretching, reading and journaling – it helps to modify my mood and energy and I tend to always have a better day. Also, when I give myself the time to wake up slowly and mindfully it helps me keep up with all my other healthy habits throughout the day.
I decided to delve into the topic of sleep after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. I knew that transforming my sleep schedule was going to be a meaningful and necessary step in my recovery. Sleep is really the “linchpin” of wellness. It’s important for immune health, hormone health, brain health, and metabolic health. Even with dietary and lifestyle changes – nothing will work effectively without proper sleep.
What is sleep?
I always used to think of sleep as some random, dormant, inactive state that everyone does to some degree or another for reasons unknown. Now I realize it’s a bit more complex than that – our bodies are actually active during sleep with many important functions happening. Our bodies progress in and out of 5 stages in cyclical fashion while we are in an unconscious state. It takes adequate sleep (without interruption) to perform all five of these functions, which are necessary to achieve optimal health. This is why quality sleep is just as important as quantity.
How does sleep work?
Our sleep/wake cycle is driven by our circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle of biological processes controlled by our brain. There is a terminology used to describe our sleep regulation called “sleep pressure” and “wake drive”, developed by sleep researcher, Dan Pardi, MS. The first, sleep pressure, starts to build the moment we wake up and accumulates throughout the day. As sleep pressure builds, we become tired. The second, wake drive, produces our alertness and wakefulness in contrast to sleep pressure. During the day, our wake drive increases and keeps our energy levels stable.
What happens while we sleep?
Not only does our body engage in a restorative process of tissue repair and regeneration while we sleep but our brains literally drain out the toxins we’ve accumulated throughout the day. The process is called the glymphatic system. You can think of it as sort of a plumbing system for your brain. The space between our brain cells increase during sleep, allowing our brain to flush out toxins that have built up during our waking hours. It’s evident that sleep is crucial for enhancing our memory, mental clarity, improving our energy levels, managing stress, and keeping us happy!
So, what’s the secret to a good night’s sleep? If only it were as simple as counting sheep. To help make falling – and hopefully staying – asleep a little smoother, I’ve put together a list of sleep hygiene habits that I personally use myself or have recommended to clients. Remember, we are all bio-individual so you will have to explore which ones work best for you!
Keep a consistent schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up about the same time each day. Opt for 7-9 hours (or more) of quality sleep a night.
Create bedtime rituals. I like to take a hot bath with some Epson salts before bed or do some reading. I also like to make lists of things I want to accomplish the next day. I find that writing things down is a good approach to clear out my “mental desktop”. This allows me to relax more and not think about all the stuff I need to get done the next day.
Kill the lights. As soon as the sun goes down I like to dim most of the lights in my house or use candles instead of artificial light. Melatonin kicks in a few hours before bedtime and I find that dimming lights helps to jumpstart that process. Keep in mind that light from screens like TV’s, iPad’s, and cell phones is a big trigger for neurotransmitters to keep you “on” resulting in poor sleep. If I have to use my phone or laptop at night I wear blue-light blocking glasses. Ideally I like to eliminate screen time before bed. I recommend getting a pair if you tend to be in front of screens after dark.
Get some exercise. We should be moving our bodies as much as possible throughout the day. Little movements like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a good distance from an entrance add up and result in better sleep. Even a 10-15 minute walk is beneficial for sleep hygiene. Just be sure to avoid anything too intense like running, cycling or biking a few hours before bed.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. To achieve a sound and restful sleep these things must be avoided. Alcohol causes dehydration and blood sugar crashes, which disrupt sleep. Caffeine stimulates cortisol – the “wake up” hormone. At the very least, try to avoid these things a few hours before bed.
Make your bedroom comfortable. Your environment should be cozy and conducive to sleep. Your bed should be clean with comfortable sheets and pillows and your room should be very dark and cool. Consider investing in black out shades for your windows. The less light creeping into your bedroom, the deeper you’ll sleep. Ideally you should keep all electronics out of the bedroom. If that’s not possible, you can cover up any blinking lights with black electrical tape. Even though my bedroom is pitch black at night, I still love to use a silk eye mask. It really helps me to fall asleep quickly! I also love to use a lavender spray on my pillows and sheets. It’s super calming.
Eat well. This may seem obvious to those reading but eating well really does impact your sleep – in the best way! Try to avoid greasy food, spicy food and sugar before bed. Aim to include some starchy carbohydrates like sweet potato or squash and healthy fats into your diet at dinnertime. Leave a few hours window between your last meal and bedtime. I also like to stop drinking anything 2-3 hours before bed. Most people sleep best when their stomach is neither too full nor too empty and their bladder is completely empty!
Practice self-care. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and moisturize your skin. Change into comfortable clothing and prepare your outfit and items for the next day. Keep a clean and organized home free from clutter.
Practice mindfulness. Engage in a “body scan.” To do this start by laying in your bed and tense and release each part of your body starting with your toes and ending at your head. Focus on your breath, your environment, and body sensations in the moments before you drift off to sleep.
Remember, the only “expert” in your personal sleep routine is YOU! Use these tips to discern what does and does not work for you until you get to a good place of ease. Great sleep and great health is not a destination, it’s a journey. Nobody knows you, your needs, or your life better than you!
Noelle Creamer is a Wellness Entrepreneur and Holistic Health Coach. She is trained in all different dietary theories, eastern/western nutrition, modern health issues and personal growth and development. After recovering from her own autoimmune condition she gained a clear vision of what is possible for the mind, body, and spirit. She now helps to support others in their own health journey through whole food and lifestyle changes that are created to be sustainable for life. You can find her on Instagram @wellnesswithnoelle