Intuition tells us sleep should come as easily as eating and breathing, but experience can tell us otherwise. In fact, one in three American adults report regularly experiencing some degree of insomnia. How did allowing our bodies to power down and recharge wind up becoming such a difficult task?
For many of us, it comes down to just that: Our bodies don’t know when to switch off. After millions of years evolving to fall asleep when the sun goes down and stimuli stops, our bodies are having trouble catching up to a world where the business of daytime continues well into night. Remind your reluctant mind that it’s time to turn in by ending these bad habits.
1) Your Lights Are Blazing
Humans really do have a natural sleep cycle that we refer to as the circadian rhythm, and while its processes are super complex and entail countless chemical reactions, the most important hormone you should know about might be melatonin. It basically functions as a kind of sedative, and because its patterns were forged back when sunset meant sleep our production of the stuff is closely tied to light, less light means more melatonin, and vice versa.
If you want to sleep more soundly, boost your melatonin intake by keeping your home as dark as you can as the day winds down. Try setting an alarm to sound one hour before your bedtime each night, and use it as a reminder to turn off your all the lights you can, ending the day with just a dim bedside lamp. Feeling up to it?
2) You Indulge the Munchies
Late-night ice-cream, nachos, cereal, or all three (no judgement) might be a proud American tradition, but ingesting a large meal can make it harder to enjoy quality shuteye. Brazilian researchers have found late-night snacking (and the energy intake and blood sugar spike that comes with it) can easily lead to poor quality sleep and more frequent nighttime awakenings. And since crummy sleep and fatigue is so strongly linked to causing binge eating and junk food cravings, this is a cycle that’s worth breaking before it starts.
3) You Screen Time Skyrockets
Once you silence that alarm, turn off your phone. And your TV. And your computer, your iPad, your Game Boy, your Game Gear, your glow-in-the-dark Kindle, and anything else that shines artificial light directly into your eyeballs. Ninety-five percent of Americans report using electronics in the hour before bed, and it’s not just because all that light keeps confounding those melatonin levels. Electronics are darn fine sources of stimulation, and if the mind is flitting between news stories, Instagram likes and TV show story arcs, it’s firing neurons that can wind up the nervous system and convince your brain that the day is far from over.
Ditch screens an hour before bed or, failing that, try an app like f.lux which, as bedtime approaches, gradually changes the color of your screen from the standard blue to red and yellow, mimicking a melatonin-friendly sunset.
4) You Lap Up Liquids
A steaming cup of chamomile, some warm milk or a glass of water with some magnesium powder can all be effective ways to send you to sleep, but they can also wind up working as diuretics - and if you’re already having trouble getting a good night’s rest, late night bathroom trips can seriously sabotage your efforts. If this is sounding all too familiar, try to limit liquid in the hour before bedtime.
The no drinking rule goes double for alcohol. Sure, you might fall asleep more easily after a nightcap or three, but studies have shown that alcohol tends to bring fragmented sleep, increase the risk of snoring (which can lower your blood oxygen) and reduce the amount of deep, REM-quality sleep that the body needs to be fully rested the next day. The result? Sleep that makes you sleepy: no bueno.
5) You Sip a Fashionable After-Dinner Espresso
In case it wasn’t obvious, caffeine is the anti-sleep—and the later you drink caffeine, the later you will be awake (simply put). Monitoring caffeine in-take is personal, but most physicians suggest cutting caffeine after 3 PM. And that means all caffeinated beverages, including decaff! Decaff does not mean no-caff.
Photo credit: iStock