When it comes to improving our sleep, a great place to start is by evaluating our sleep routine. We all have one, whether intentional or not.
Your sleep routine involves everything you do in the run-up to sleep. It ©, as everything we do in the day leading up to sleep will have an impact on our sleep quality, from the food we eat to the stress we experience.
Improving your sleep routine doesn’t have to involve drastic changes overnight (pun intended!) To implement long-lasting change, we need to change our habits. To successfully change our habits, we want to look at implementing one habit at a time.
So take a deep breath, grab a pen and paper, and let’s take a look at how we can improve your sleep routine.
Describe your current sleep routine
Write down everything you do in the 4-5 hours leading up to sleep. When do you have dinner? What do you typically have for dinner? When do you get ready for bed? Do you watch TV in the evenings or read? Do you shower or have a bath? What time do you usually fall asleep? What time do you usually wake up? Do you use your phone or laptop in bed? The more detail at this stage, the better.
Putting your detailed sleep routine to one side, next we’re going to choose one out of the following areas to focus on improving:
- Falling asleep faster (between 10-15 minutes)
- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours)
- Waking up feeling refreshed
Next, we’re going to look at ways to improve each of these sleep goals so that you can choose one to focus on.
How to fall asleep faster
If your goal with your sleep routine is to fall asleep faster, we need to first understand why we’re struggling to fall asleep. So what might be keeping you up?
As humans, we sleep at night time and are active during the day. During daylight hours, our vision is improved, making it the ideal time for humans to hunt and gather food, protected from our impaired vision at night time.
Because we’re designed to sleep at night, the body releases hormones around nighttime to encourage the body into a sleepy state, one of these being melatonin.
Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone. When we experience darkness around the late afternoon/evening, the body starts to produce and release melatonin, as darkness is nature’s cue for us humans to get some shut-eye.
The term ‘midnight’ literally refers to the middle of the night, as back when this term was thought up, we didn’t have any artificial lights interfering with our sleep routine. We got tired when the sunset at around 8 pm, and we woke naturally when the sun rose at around 4 am. Our body stops producing melatonin once we experience daylight.
It’s the blue light in daylight that has an impact on our melatonin production. Blue light can also be found in device screens like laptops, computers, tablets, smartphones, even in the kindle, which is an electronic book designed as a convenient option instead of carrying heavy books around. While the Kindle doesn’t emit as much blue light as a smartphone, it still emits enough to impact melatonin production.
Why do we love natural melatonin production?
Not only is melatonin responsible for giving us that yawny feeling, but research shows that melatonin also has an impact on the quality of our sleep.
Melatonin gets us to sleep, but it also keeps us asleep. If we use our phone in bed just before we go to sleep, our melatonin production is going to be impaired for the following 2 hours. It takes about 2 hours for melatonin production and releases to occur after consuming blue light.
So, essentially it’s a good idea to reduce screen time before bed… BUT! At Somnus, we appreciate that everyone has their own unique lifestyle to contend with. Maybe you’re crazy busy at work and the idea of no screens before bed is laughable. Here are some blue light reducing hacks you can use if you aren’t in a position to reduce screen time before bed:
1. Turn down/off the lights in your home in the 2 hours leading up to bed
It’s not just our screens that emit blue light! So do artificial lights. If you have a dimmer in your home, use it. Turn off as many lights in the home as possible. Just reducing artificial light in the home can improve our melatonin production. It’s also worthwhile turning the brightness all the way down on your devices.
2. Use a blue light filter
There are screen protectors available with blue light filters that help to reduce the amount of blue light emitted from your phone. You can also find blue light reducing glasses you can wear if you can’t find a screen protector with a blue light filter that fits your device.
3. Keep the lights off as the sun sets
Similar to our first suggestion of dimming the lights and turning as many lights off in the home in the run-up to bedtime, with this method, we’re actually keeping the lights turned off as the sunsets. If your evening routine allows, give it a try and I can almost guarantee that as it gets darker and darker in your home, you’ll start feeling the effects of that melatonin production, getting sleepier and sleepier.
Remember, don’t try to implement all of these at once! Start with one small habit implementation and once it becomes so automatic that we don’t have to put effort into doing it anymore, then we can look at implementing a new sleep routine improvement.
What we eat directly impacts how we sleep, and vice versa! We eat for energy, and so when we eat close to bedtime, we suddenly have this energy available that we aren’t using. The body has to either use this energy or store it for later use, both of which take some internal processes that are quite disruptive for a body that’s trying to fall asleep.
Certain foods are more disruptive to our sleep than others, and some foods even promote sleep! A good rule of thumb though when it comes to eating to promote sleep is to finish eating 4 hours before you plan on sleeping. This gives your body plenty of time to either use or stores the energy from dinner.
As a percentage, how often do you feel stressed at work? How often do you feel stressed at home? How often do you think about your stressors in bed?
Stress will keep us from sleeping, and that’s because stress is a survival trait that causes the body to shut down its non-essential processes, like resting and digesting.
We need stress so that we know to jump out of the way of a speeding car as we’re walking across the stress. If we didn’t experience stress, we’d wave at the car instead of jumping out of the way.
However, the stress we typically experience today isn’t for survival. Typically in the modern-day, we experience stress around work, family life, relationships, home, things that are not a direct threat to our survival.
The body can’t differentiate stress for survival vs stress from lifestyle, which is why it’s great news that our body has built-in mechanisms to encourage the body out of a sympathetic response (fight, flight, freeze) and into a parasympathetic response (rest & digest).
One of those built-in mechanisms is breathing.
What happens to your breathing when you are panicked, stressed, or anxious? It becomes short, shallow, and rapid. What happens to your breathing when you are calm, relaxed, and at ease? It becomes long, deep, and slow.
Just as our breath can inform us as to how we’re responding to a situation, we can also influence how we respond by leveraging our breath.
If you’re experiencing stress in bed because you’re reflecting on an argument you had with a loved one, we need to remind the body that we are in fact safe. There is no speeding car, we are in an environment where it is safe to start resting and digesting.
If we have time to practice deep, mindful breathing, the body recognizes that we must be in a safe environment. Deep breathing sends messages to the fear center of the brain which in turn, instigates a parasympathetic response, allowing us to rest and digest.
How to Get Enough Sleep
What is ‘enough sleep’? Well, the research is in, and for the vast majority of adults, enough sleep means 7-9 hours per night. This is because every night, we need to go through our 4 sleep stages a total of 5 times to benefit from all of sleep’s restorative qualities.
All 4 sleep stages offer different health benefits and put us in a different sleep state. In fact, if you were to wake up from sleep stage NREM 3, otherwise referred to as deep sleep, you are likely going to feel groggy for minutes to hours.
You might be thinking ‘I probably sleep an average of 5 hours and I get by.’, except that we don’t want to just ‘get by’ from our sleep routine. We want to THRIVE from our sleep routine.
If we’re used to getting 5 hours of sleep per night, the idea of getting 9 hours might be laughable. As we grow older our natural production of melatonin reduces, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Similar to any of these sleep routine changes though, let’s take it one small improvement at a time. If you’re currently sleeping 5 hours per night, start to schedule enough time in bed for 6 hours of sleep per night. This probably means getting into bed 7 hours before you plan to wake up.
If you usually get 6 hours of sleep per night, try increasing it to 7 hours of sleep per night by getting into bed 8 hours before you plan to wake up.
Gradually add onto your sleep time until you are comfortably able to schedule in 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
REMEMBER: If you get into bed 7 hours before you’re due to wake up, you’re likely only getting 6-6.5 hours of sleep. It takes us a little while to fall asleep and resting in bed is not the same as sleeping. If you’re super busy, schedule in your sleep like it’s an 8-hour meeting. Set an alarm in the evenings to let you know it’s time to go to bed.
How to Wake-up Feeling Refreshed
You wake up with your alarm and barely muster up the courage to open your eyes enough to hit the snooze on your phone, only to hit the snooze button a further 5 times before reluctantly getting out of bed. Sound familiar?
So there could be a few reasons for not feeling refreshed when we wake up…
As we previously mentioned, if you wake up from sleep stage NREM 3, you’re likely going to get that groggy feeling when you wake up that could last for minutes, or even hours. There are apps available that you can download that track your sleep. They record the environment you sleep in to listen for changes in the rhythm and pace of your breath, which informs us which sleep cycle we’re in. You can then let the app know which time you need to wake up, and it sets an alarm to go off within the 30 minutes (or the amount of time you give it) leading up to your wake up time, to wake you at the optimal time for feeling refreshed, essentially avoiding waking you from sleep stage NREM 3.
It’s possible we simply aren’t getting enough sleep to wake up feeling refreshed. Remember, we need 7-9 hours to benefit from all of sleep’s restorative qualities, so if we aren’t sleeping long enough to run through our 4 sleep stages 5 consecutive times, we’re likely going to feel pretty groggy when we awake.
If what we ate before bed disrupts our digestive system, causing it to work while we’re trying to sleep, this could also be impacting the quality of sleep, causing us to feel less than refreshed in the morning.
Essentially, if we want to improve how refreshed we feel when we wake up, we can assess our sleep quality, looking for improvements to our sleep routine to promote an improved sleep quality where possible.
When it comes to implementing long-lasting change, we need to look at changing our habits. For a habit to truly become a habit, it needs to be automatic. This takes time. Identify the areas of your sleep routine you’d like to improve, and take it one small step at a time.
If you want to reduce screen time before bed but you’re overwhelmed with work at the moment, setting a habit of ‘no screens 2 hours before bed’ might be too much. Instead, try ‘Sleep with my tech charging in the kitchen. This way, we’re implementing a habit that encourages reduced screen time without setting the unrealistic goal of zero screens before bed. We can add improvements to our new sleep routine gradually, learning along the way what to prioritize for your unique health goals.
Remember to always speak to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about your sleep routine. We all deserve good quality rest! From us at Somnus Therapy, sleep well and sweet dreams.