We had an epidemic of sleep deprivation before the pandemic hit, before the onslaught of racist incidents, and the federal government ordering a gas attack on protesters. I live in DC and last week the city felt like it was under siege with constant helicopter noise and sirens.
If we don’t feel safe, sleep is impossible.
Yes, I am feeling sleep deprived this week. So this post serves as a reminder for both of us!
Children seek out their parents when they’re scared of thunderstorms, nightmares, or monsters under the bed. To a child, parents represent safety.
When you’re an adult, you have to cultivate that sense of safety yourself so that you can surrender to sleep.
Sleep is not something our brains can direct, like breathing. You must nurture an optimal sleep environment so that you can relax fully and drift away. Your body will not fall unless there is a sense of a safety net.
So, how do you build better sleep? I like to think of that sleep safety net as a garden, one we need to mindfully tend to. You need the right soil, water, sunlight, weeding, and trimming.
Here in part 1 here are 5 recommendations to promote that sleep safety net::
1 | Mind your diet
There are two main culprits in our diet that inhibit sleep – alcohol, and caffeine. Alcohol may help you fall to sleep and therefore be tempting, but it actually interferes with the quality of your sleep. After you drink, you’ll wake up more frequently throughout the night. It also disturbs REM sleep and our respiration. Caffeine – yes, even in chocolate – lingers long in the body and messes with our body temperature regulation and cortisol levels. (I know. It’s a bummer.)
High-fat foods and sugar will also cause wakefulness. Instead, add more fiber to your diet – especially from vegetables. Foods that contain melatonin (like in tart cherry juice), tryptophan (chickpeas and hummus), serotonin (kiwi), and magnesium (pumpkin seeds) are amazing for your sleep. Read more here.
But try not to eat anything in the two hours before your bedtime.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Just as good food can promote good sleep, bad sleep can cause bad digestion. It messes with the microbiome of your gut resulting in inflammation, insulin resistance, and even weight gain.
2 | Sun therapy
Sunlight that hits your eyes helps regulate and stabilize our circadian rhythms. (That’s why my top recommendation to help with jet lag is to get some sunlight in your new location, preferably in the morning hours!) Sunlight filtered through a windowpane isn’t quite as good as taking yourself outside and soaking in some sun, so get out there if you can.
Your biological built-in timekeeper is tuned by sunlight. This is critical because the hypothalamus regulates so many of our body’s functions, such as sleep, energy, and hunger. It also helps to manage melatonin, serotonin, and body temperature levels for optimal rest.
Try a walk, without sunglasses, soon after waking – and expose yourself to sunshine throughout the day to help regulate your sleep!
3 | Maintain a routine
When you wake and retire at the same time every day, your body will adjust and help you along. A consistent sleep schedule is probably the single most helpful lifestyle change you can make to build better sleep!
Eating at consistent times – all day long, not just in the evening – supports good sleep because the digestion of food is part of the same nervous system that regulates sleep. This is an easy way to create dependability for and within our bodies. Developing a custom bedtime routine can also help downshift your body and your mind and cue them to prepare for sleep.
A regular routine in all of your daily activities helps reduce mental stress and frees up bandwidth, as it reduces decision and uncertainty. Your body knows you are nourishing yourself and your nervous system can relax and rely on your predictable patterns – for eating, sleep, and everything in between.
The best time to wind down your day is between 9 and 11 pm, depending on your constitution and the season. I find setting up reminders on my phone helps me stick to my schedule and routine.
4 | Create the right environment
Your bedroom should feel like a sanctuary to you.
Aside from the obvious such as keeping the room clutter-free, clean and orderly, consider the colors in the room. Do they soothe you?
A good general rule of thumb – the closer something is to your body, the better the quality should be. How do your sheets feel?
Electronic devices (even e-books) have been found to reduce sleepiness, so pick up a good old fashioned novel to help take your mind off of your busy life.
Pay attention to the room temperature which ideally is 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. If you tend to feel chilly, don’t hesitate to wear socks to bed. The reason a hot bath or shower helps us fall asleep is that the drop in your body temperature induces sleep and can help with muscle tension too.
And of course, aromatherapy boosts relaxation and a sense of safety. Check out my Dewy Sleep Blend here for an idea of what to diffuse! And if you are looking for high-grade essential oils at wholesale prices, click here.
The environment includes not just your physical space but your psychic space as well. It’s hard to feel safe and fall asleep if we are incandescent with rage after watching the news or scrolling Twitter… so avoid anything stimulating and aggravating at least 3 hours before bedtime.
You should feel pleased, relaxed, and eager to escape to the sanctuary of your bedroom.
5 | Breathing practices
Breath is the one and the only thing in the body that happens automatically without thought… and also, it can be directed with thought. (Pretty amazing, right?)
The breath is therefore a way to gain conscious control over runaway thoughts and to help tone the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems of that autonomic nervous system.
For sleep, we want to support the parasympathetic nervous system which slows the heart rate, calms the nerves and clears the mind. In yoga, this practice is called pranayama, which translates as harnessing of the life force.
I could write a whole post just on this, but here are three main ways to do this –
slow down your breath – to trigger the relaxation response and put the brakes on any stress response.
deepen your breath – to engage the diaphragm for maximum physiological effect.
lengthen your exhalation – to promote a sense of safety during a time of stress, worry or panic. (Work up to a count of 4 for inhalation and 8 for exhalation)
It really is as simple as it sounds… take 60 seconds out of your day and give it a try before you drift off tonight. Sweet dreams, my friend!
(And stay tuned for part 2! We’ll discuss journaling, meditation, muscle tension relief, restorative yoga, and body check-ins.)
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night At a Time by Ariana Huffington
Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life by Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar
Why We Sleep – Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Dr. Matthew Walker
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