Disclaimer. The information in this article is for general information purposes and not meant to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This article does not replace a consultation with your own doctor/health professional.
Sleep is essential to your well-being. It is a restorative state where your body repairs itself. While you sleep, your brain reorganizes and stores information, your cells repair themselves, and all your other systems work to keep you healthy. However, it is easy to forget how vital sleep is especially when you have so much work to do.
In efforts to appear industrious, we turn sleep into a competition of who slept the fewest hours. We brag about how many coffees we drink in the day and about how little sleep we got the night before. We think of sleep as something necessary but not essential– something we can catch up on.
But sleep doesn’t work that way. The hours do not dedicate to sleeping are lost forever. Remember, time is a scarce resource.
Before we delve into fixing your sleep schedule, let’s first understand what causes us to fall asleep. Two things control your sleep: the circadian rhythm and sleep drive.
The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that is a vital piece of your body’s master clock. The circadian rhythm runs in the background carrying out essential processes.
One of the most famous and vital cycles your circadian rhythm controls is your sleep-wake cycle. Your sleep-wake cycle usually consists of 16 hours of wakefulness and eight hours of sleep. However, your circadian rhythm goes beyond just telling your body when to go to sleep and when to wake up. It also controls the other systems in your body, like your digestive system. Think of your circadian rhythm like the timetable at the train station–it displays when certain trains, or in this case cycles, are departing and which ones are arriving.
Your circadian rhythm, while complex and efficient, is not perfect. It is susceptible to environmental cues such as light. Light has always influenced the circadian rhythm of all living organisms. Before clocks and sundials, our bodies told time by looking at the sky. If it was dark, it meant it was time to go to bed. Similarly, flowers open in the mornings and close up at night.
Another thing element that plays a vital role in your sleep is your sleep drive. Your sleep drive functions interdependently with your circadian rhythm, but there are times where it interjects. When you are sleep-deprived, your body craves sleep. But, unlike other cravings such as hunger, you have no control over that craving. Your brain will override you when it needs to sleep.
There are different ideas about how your sleep drive works. Scientists believe that adenosine –a chemical compound produced in the brain– is partly responsible for your sleep drive. Adenosine production gradually increases throughout the day, making you sleepy. Once you fall asleep, it breaks down. However, professor of neurology at John Hopkins Mark Wu believes that your astrocyte cells control sleep drive. Astrocyte cells detect electrical activity in your brain and use these signals to encourage sleep.
Now that you have an idea of what makes you fall asleep, you can start fixing your sleep.
Before we jump in, I’d like to clarify that not all sleep is the same. But, the ideal type is REM which allows for a deeper and more restorative sleep.
So, how can you fix your sleep?
- Respect your circadian rhythm and establish a routine.
As demonstrated above, your circadian rhythm is vital for a good night’s sleep. So, respect your rhythm. The thirty minutes before your bedtime is not the time to begin a new task, video, or Netflix episode. It’s also not the best time to eat dinner or work out (unless your circadian rhythm is more nocturnal, but very few people are).
Establishing a routine that aligns with your circadian rhythm can help you fall asleep faster and achieve a better goodnight’s sleep. Many articles cite the importance of dimming the lights in your house as the day progresses and avoiding electronic devices right before bed.
If you find that your circadian rhythm makes you more of a morning person, try to avoid eating and working out right before bed. The best tip I can give is to set alarms before bed. But don’t make them sound like your morning alarm because that will just be confusing.
Relaxation is essential for falling asleep. You can’t fall asleep when you are stressed. The reason is that your body jumps into a fight or flight system, which overrides the work that your astrocyte cells are doing. Try as you might, your brain cannot carry out two different sets of instructions simultaneously. Adding some relaxation time can signal your brain to start the sleep cycle. In doing so, your circadian rhythm will
Some great ways to relax are:
Do whatever makes you feel relaxed
- Avoid Naps
Telling you to avoid naps sounds a bit counterintuitive. Most of us think we can replenish our sleep with naps but this belief is false. While napping can provide temporary rest, it can have adverse effects on your sleep schedule because it disrupts your natural rhythm and reduces your sleep drive.
If you must nap, do it before 3 pm. Also, make sure your nap lasts less than 30 minutes. If you nap for more than 30 minutes, you will likely wake up feeling groggy and confused.
If your sleep schedule is out of whack, working out can help your reset your internal clock. Most of your muscles function and respond according to your circadian rhythm. Hence, when you work out, it forces your body to re-align itself.
Working out also helps encourage the production of melatonin– the sleep hormone. For optimal results, aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five times a week.
If you have a hectic day and cannot work out during the mornings, you can get away with working out one or two hours before bed.
- Eat early
One of the systems that influence your sleep is your digestive system. Your digestive system works very hard to digest, classify, and absorb the nutrients it extracts from your food. It is a lengthy process that largely depends on the foods you eat– at least three hours. Your digestive system is so connected to your circadian rhythm that eating a heavy meal will prevent you from falling asleep.
So, if by bedtime you are hungry, opt for a light snack.
Also, try to avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks before bed. They disrupt your circadian rhythm, thus making it harder to fall asleep.
- Prepare your room
Preparing a space to go to sleep is can ensure quality sleep. When preparing your room, make sure that your room is cold and quiet.
It sounds a bit strange, but temperature and noise are two factors that determine how well-rested you feel when you wake up.
A 2012 study from the NIH found that temperature is a vital determinant for a good night’s rest. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night during a summer heatwave, you know this to be true. Make sure that your room is not warmer than 75°F or colder than 54°F.
Another factor that plays a role in your sleep quality is noise. During the early stages of sleep, your brain is still awake, which means that it may be processing sounds.
Hence, try to remove loud noises in or around your room before sleeping. If you live in a noisy neighborhood, try using a sleep machine. I find the sound of rain or ocean waves to be very relaxing.
If you don’t think that white noise is for you, earplugs are another option.
I hope you try out these tips next time you have trouble falling asleep. However, if you still struggle to fall asleep, please reach out to a licensed clinician who can help you.
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