By Addison Dunn
Despite a desire for a solid night’s sleep, Americans are not remotely close to getting eight hours of shuteye. Eight hours is necessary to avoid the many negative health effects of sleep deprivation. This includes everything from impaired judgment and reaction time to weight gain and potentially permanent brain damage. Approximately 40 million people suffer from some type of sleep disorder due to sleepless nights.
Unfortunately, these problems seem to get worse as we age. Researchers estimate that about half of those 65 or older experience frequent sleep problems. Older adults tend to hit the hay earlier than their younger peers, but report more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, as well as more tiredness during the day. Worse, the restorative, vital deep sleep stage can become extremely shortened or stop completely in the elderly. And studies now show clear connections between Alzheimer’s disease and a lack of sleep.
Your brain needs sleep. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Studies have found that sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances, brain health problems, and physical health problems may coincide with one another. These ailments are believed to affect the overall quality of life and day to day function. Less sleep = less brainpower = lower quality of life.
So where to start on your journey to getting more Zzzs? Healthy habits include avoiding alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine before bed. All of which are stimulants that can make shut-eye elusive. Taking time to “power down” is also important. To get your mind and body ready for sleep, first you must enter relaxation mode. You can do this with a breathing exercise or a quiet activity like reading (an actual printed source). Studies show that those who read before bed on a light-emitting electronic device have a delayed circadian rhythm, are more awake before bedtime, and feel sleepier and less alert the next day—even after eight hours of sleep.
In fact, in the winding down phase, all electronics should be turned off. Everyone should aim to sleep in a room that is as dark as possible, with a comfortable temperature—not too cool or too hot (68-72 degrees is ideal).
Exercise is a powerful yet simple way to improve sleep on nearly every level. It can boost mood and reduce stress, and it can strengthen circadian rhythms for feelings of alertness during the day and bring on that feeling of sleepiness at night. Some experts suggest that as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise a day can dramatically improve sleep quality, while others suggest 150 minutes of exercise a week as the optimal amount. Whatever the time spent; exercise has a direct effect on tiring out your body.
One yoga-style exercise especially touted by medical experts and sleep specialists alike is the 4-7-8 Breath, also known as the Relaxing Breath. It goes like this: exhale out your mouth. Then, close your mouth and inhale for a count of four through your nose, hold the breath for a count of seven, and exhale from your mouth for a count of eight. Typically, a person should aim for around five breathing cycles to exit the land of counting sheep and into a sweet bliss.
Holding the breath fills the lungs and body with oxygen, producing a meditative, relaxing effect. Sleep specialist Michael Breus describes the exercise as an imitation of sleep. “When you breathe out very slowly, it is very similar to what your body is naturally going to do when you are starting to fall asleep, so you are almost mimicking the sleep process.” Focusing on breathing, and not the day’s thoughts helps take your mind deeper into relaxation.
So to recap, here are simple steps to take in order to get a better night of sleep. Do not drink caffeine after 2 pm or before if you are sensitive to it. Get the appropriate amount of exercise depending on your body type and ability. Keep your bedroom cool, 68-72 degrees. Turn off all electronic devices two hours before bedtime. Take time to unwind: light reading is a perfect way to slow down the day’s pace, but choose a paperback, hardback, or e-reader that does not emit blue light. Try light stretching, breathing, or other relaxation techniques. If you still struggle to unwind at night, try natural sleep aids such as GABA, melatonin, L-Theanine, or lemon balm. Sweet dreams!