As summer ends, and the chill of fall begins to creep into the early morning air, most of us think about returning to our regular work and school routine. Getting back into a structured sleep schedule is often one of the more challenging aspects of the end of summer, and it is also one of the best ways to quickly improve our sense of well-being.
Sleep is a critical element in our physical and mental health. The repair and healing process is most active at night while we are sleeping. Sleep also allows our brains to build and organize neural pathways so we can think clearly. Sleep is also fundamental to the hormonal symphony that regulates our physical and emotional health; sleep ensures that we are not functioning on excess stress hormones, which compromises our thinking and our emotional responses in our day to day life.
What are the most important sleep habits to develop?
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark. Changes in light levels signal your internal clock to either wake up or go to sleep. With the introduction of electrical light, humans are exposed to far more light than we once were, making it far more difficult for our internal clock to switch to sleep mode. Having a cool dark room stimulates your brain to send out the correct sleep signals.
- Develop and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Make sure you fall asleep and wake up within the same 20-minute window each night and each morning. If you or your kids have been going to sleep significantly later than you need to, move your bedtime 10 minutes earlier each night until you get to the correct bedtime. Moving the time all at once can actually cause you to have even more difficulty falling asleep.
- Build a wind-down routine into your evening that includes a TV and electronics-free period of at least 30 minutes. The light from the screens of TVs and computer devices is particularly effective at blocking your melatonin production – the chemical your brain releases that allows you to fall asleep quickly. Having a bath, listening to quiet music, or reading a book are all good ways to signal your body to shut down for the night.
- Use your bed for sleep and sex only. Watching TV in bed, reading in bed, using your phone or computer in bed all signal to your brain that the bed is a place to be awake, rather than asleep. You have plenty of other comfortable places in your home for non-sleep activities – use them!
- Get out of bed if you cannot fall asleep after 30 minutes at night. If you find yourself preoccupied by your to-do list, take a few minutes to write down what is bounding around in your head. Then meditate to a chair in a dark room, or even read quietly until you find yourself feeling sleepy. Then return to bed and try again. Under no circumstances should you watch TV or play on your phone or computer.
If these tips seem overwhelming, start with just one or two. Commit to trying them for a couple of months, and see how it affects your overall sense of well-being. And if you find that restful sleep continues to elude you, consider talking to your doctor about getting a sleep study done – there are several physical and mental health conditions that can seriously interfere with good sleep.