Happy Habits: Permission to Sleep

Experts have long believed they have found a treatment that will boost immune systems, improve concentration, increase memory function, aid in weight loss, reduce depression and even make you smarter. And better yet, it’s free, actually enjoyable to take and totally accessible. This miracle cure is sleep. 

We’re finally beginning to understand the importance of sleep and realising that good quality sleep is essential to our overall health and well-being. But still so few people get the recommended eight or more hours each night and yet the consequences of sleep deprivation can be disastrous. Not to mention, it’s impossible to be truly happy, or function optimally, when we’re tired and exhausted.

Many people – myself included, before brain surgery – believe that sleep is a waste of time that could be better spent elsewhere. We don’t prioritise it because we believe there are far more important things to do. If you’re guilty of this then read on because, like eating and breathing, sleep is essential to help us repair and build cells.

Whilst recovering from brain surgery, I was constantly told by the nurses “you need your sleep. Sleep will help you heal.” There had to be some truth in why they were telling me to sleep off my symptoms. Getting quality sleep has so many benefits. It ensures a healthy heart, reduces stress and inflammation and can help prevent cancer (I). Sleeping can even make us smarter by making us feel more alert, improving our memory function and ability to effectively problem solve. Getting quality shut eye each night can also reduce depression, and anxiety, boosting our overall mental health, which is a benefit we can all reap right now.

Studies also show that those who are sleep deprived, and have shorter sleep cycles, are much more likely to develop obesity (I). Whilst there are numerous reasons for this, lack of sleep affects hormones, appetite levels, diet choices and motivation to exercise. It should be clear by now that there are so many benefits we can gain by sleeping more. Therefore, we need to recognise its importance and start putting value on it. 

By improving our quality of sleep and the duration of it, we increase our energy levels, clarity, and positivity affect all areas of our lives.

Here are 10 tips to help you drift off into a deeper sleep:

1. Limit screen time an hour before bed

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t use our phones at night because of the blue lights they emit. But exposure to that light, right before bed, can keep us from getting a good night’s rest. Because of this, we are much more likely to wake up feeling groggy and tired in the morning (I). We’re far better off picking up a book than scrolling Instagram, using our phones or even watching TV for at least an hour before bed.

2. Wind down before bed

Remember as a child when we used to have a bedtime routine? Our parents would probably give us a warm bath, get us into our pyjamas and read to us, or have us read to them. We simply knew when it was night-time by the activities we participated in. We seem to lose this routine as we get older, and yet it works! Adopt a bedtime routine so that your body starts to know when it’s time to sleep and signals to the brain that it’s time to relax.

3. Go to bed at the same time each night

This follows on from adopting a bedtime routine and is so important because each evening our body produces a hormone called melatonin. This hormone sends a chemical signal to the brain telling it that it’s time to sleep. By constantly changing the time you sleep, you disrupt this process and make it difficult to adopt healthy sleeping patterns. I’m currently quarantined with my mom at the moment. That is incredibly lucky – to have a garden in this sunshine, home cooked meals and more importantly the company (even if I had to really dig at first for the positives of being in isolation with my mother!) But the other night, whilst binge watching a series on Netflix, we had just one more episode to go yet it was SO late! Her response was “oh well, let’s just watch it as we haven’t got to get up early” (now that none of us, my stepdad included, have work to go to in the morning.) But right now, even more so, it’s so important to keep our routines structured. This includes going to sleep, and waking up each morning, at the same time.

4. Watch your caffeine intake, especially after 3pm

Obviously most of us know that caffeine is a stimulant and is used to make us feel more alert throughout the day. But despite positively affecting our mood and mental performance, the effects of it can last anywhere between 4 and 6 hours (I). Therefore, it can make it hard for us to fall asleep at night. And it’s not just coffee that affects us. Caffeine can also be found in certain teas, soft drinks and even dark chocolate. Even if you’re someone that feels intolerant to it, and claims it doesn’t affect you, avoid caffeine after 3pm for a few days and see for yourself the positive benefits it has on your overall sleep.

5. Avoid alcohol before sleeping

Similarly to caffeine, alcohol disrupts our sleep and affects the overall quality of it. It might seem to be helping you fall to sleep at first, and is often the reason those with insomnia rely on it to help them drift off quicker, but these are only short-term benefits. Studies have shown that it leads to disruptions to sleep, particularly in the second half (I). This second half – known as the REM state – is what we need to reap those benefits previously mentioned, including improved concentration and memory function.

6. Practice expressive writing

I mentioned the benefits of doing this in the first habit of focusing on what’s going right. But sleeping with a clear mind, and offloading from the day, allows us to effectively manage our worries. By keeping a journal close by and writing in it before bed, we are able to identify our thought patterns and effectively change our beliefs surrounding them. We become more aware of our minds and emotions, and more able to accept that even though we may not have brought a certain situation on ourselves, we still have choices and can decide how we are going to react. With our worries out of our heads and onto paper, we allow ourselves the opportunity to separate ourselves from them. Having more clarity means you can sleep better and feel more equipped to handle them the next day.

7. Express your appreciation

Right before you go to bed, get into the habit of writing down a few things that you are thankful for. This is so beneficial because by doing so, you are forcing your brain to focus on all the positive things that happened during the day. By cultivating positive emotions before bed, you also allow yourself the opportunity to fall into a more peaceful sleep and wake up in a state of joy by feeling optimistic about life.

8. Exercise

Physical activity has been shown to increase the time we spend in deep sleep (I). By expending energy during the day, we become more tired and ready to rest by the evening. By exercising, we also lower the level of cortisol in our bodies, which reduces stress and the sleep problems that stress and anxiety can lead to. However, exercising too late in the day can leave us feeling too energised and stimulated when it comes to night-time, by raising our body temperatures and interfering with our ability to fall asleep. To avoid this, incorporate light exercising such as yoga and stretching ahead of bedtimes and save vigorous activity for the morning/early afternoon.

9. Keep the temperature of your room cool

The temperature of our bedroom isn’t something we often give thought to. However, our body temperatures naturally drop at night, signalling that it’s time to rest. By keeping our rooms cool, we reinforce that process and increase our ability to fall asleep. A cool room also boosts the production of that sleep hormone, and powerful antioxidant, melatonin, which protects your overall brain health (I).

10. Meditate

It’s important to relax and take a moment to find calm, especially right before bed. Suddenly, as we’re ready to drift off to sleep, our minds can start racing over all the things we need to do, keeping us awake and making it difficult to shut off. Often, we just need to achieve a state of relaxation that will help quieten our busy minds and promote overall calmness. If you’re someone that has trouble falling to sleep, meditation might help you to achieve that relaxed state and inner peace, by forcing you to focus on the present moment. There are so many apps and guided videos to help you do this, throughout any time of the day. But to avoid electronics before sleep, simply take a few deep breaths, listen to the sound of them, become aware of the surroundings underneath you and observe your thoughts as they start to wonder, steering them back to the moment without judgement.

Apparently in order for a new habit to really form, we have to keep it up for a period of 66 days! Whilst that sounds like an incredibly long time, small changes make huge differences in the long-term. To heal, and be at our best, we simply need to rest and sleep. Our bodies and brains need a break from time to time and just like our phones need charge, so do we.

Maybe it’s vowing to scroll less, or stop watching TV right before bed. Maybe you’ll take up a bedtime routine. Maybe you’ll temporarily get out of bed if you suffer from insomnia, to avoid associating your bedroom with sleep struggles. Whatever the change is, do something small today that will help you sleep better tonight. And overtime, if you continue these changes, watch your sleep quality improve, as well as your overall happiness.

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