By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist
Have you ever pulled an all-nighter or woken up in the middle of the night unable to fall back to sleep? It’s a drag.
Sleep is a weird thing. No one yet truly understands why we do it the way we do.
One thing we know for sure: sleep matters. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t spend one-third of our lives doing it. It’s as important as good nutrition, exercise and stress management.
Insufficient sleep jeopardizes physical and mental health. Side effects range from headaches to full-blown hallucinations. The immune system is compromised, hormones become imbalanced and other consequences can include high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.
Sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu says even one night of missed sleep can create a pre-diabetic state in an otherwise healthy person. Government agencies use sleep deprivation as a form of “enhanced interrogation”—torture.
While sleep hygiene used to refer to the cleanliness of your sleeping area, it has come to mean the habits that help you get a good night’s rest. Regardless of the cause of your sleep deficiency—insomnia, chronic pain, jet lag or working the graveyard shift—sleep can be lengthened and the quality improved if you make good sleep hygiene a priority.
Before we dive into sleep hygiene, let’s take a look at the four stages of shut-eye culminating in rapid eye movement, or REM.
Stage one is light sleep, when you feel yourself nodding off. Here you might experience a myoclonic jerk, or a falling sensation followed by a sudden muscle contraction. Stage two is still light sleep but the body and mind relax further. Deep sleep occurs in stages three and four, and REM is when the dream state begins. The brain becomes active but the body is temporarily paralyzed with the exception of the heart and lungs. (Side note: alcohol can suppress REM, leaving us feeling unrested.)
We cycle through these stages four to six times per night with each phase lasting approximately 90 to 110 minutes.
If you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or falling back to sleep consider the following tips to improve your sleep hygiene and get all of the “Zs” you need.
1. Avoid screen time, LED and fluorescent lights as you’re winding down. These emit blue light, which signals the body to stay awake and alert.
2. Avoid foods that cause indigestion, compromising the quality of your sleep.
3. Be conscious of caffeine consumption, which can make falling or staying asleep challenging.
4. Exert physical energy throughout the day. Consuming calories that don’t get used can build up energy, leading to a restless feeling when it’s bedtime.
5. Make your bedroom a sanctuary. Keep it clutter free and reserve your bed for sleep and sex.
6. Take long deep breaths that allow your belly to expand. This signals the brain that you’re safe.
7. If you have to sleep in a noisy, bright environment, use earplugs and an eye mask.
8. For those with sleep apnea, research if there are ways to mitigate it. For some it is hereditary, but for others prevention is possible through reducing your intake of alcohol and sleeping medications and/or losing weight.
9. Maintain a healthy and consistent sleep/wake schedule.
Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, culture consultant
and public speaker. For a complimentary health consultation, reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.