That’s a shame, because how well we spend our nights tends to impact how well we spend our days. Sleep affects brain function (as in processing what we learn, storing memories, and making decisions), mood (as in not turning into an asshole in stressful situations), our immune system, and overall health, said Seth Davis, an adult sleeping coach.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that sleep impacts almost every area of our physical and mental health,” Davis told VICE.
If you pay a modicum of attention to your own body, the importance of sleep makes itself evident.
Kelly Murray, an adult and pediatric sleep consultant, said that when we’re sleep deprived, our brain can’t determine what is important. For us modern day humans, that means our brains begin to think everything is important.
“That’s why after a night of poor sleep, the smallest thing may send us into a panic,” Murray said.
Sleep also affects appetite—not enough of the former could mean too much of the latter. Our bodies also release cytokines, antibodies, and white blood cells—things that fight infection and inflammation—when we sleep. Murray explained that this is why our bodies demand that we slow down and sleep when we’re sick.
Who wants to be irritable, too hungry, and sick? Not us.
VICE asked these sleep coaches about the most common ways people mess up their sleep, the tell-tale signs of good and bad sleep, and the best ways to sleep better.
What are the most common ways people mess up their sleep?
Seth Davis: One very common mistake I see is when people keep irregular sleep schedules, meaning they wake up or go to sleep at widely different times throughout the week. When this happens, it throws off your circadian rhythm, so your body doesn’t know when’s the right time to fall asleep or wake up and be alert.
Many people don’t give themselves enough time to wind down at night and they try to just keep going strong until the very last minute. When they do try to go to sleep, their mind is still racing, their body is still active, and it’s hard for them to relax into restful sleep.
I see many people worrying about sleep and clinging to anxiety about sleep, and this usually just leads to more sleep issues. It takes education and practice, but it’s effective to gradually let go of those worries and anxieties so they can rest more calmly and sleep more soundly.
Finally, there’s just so much stress out there in the world with the pandemic and politics and everything else that’s going on. That stress can have a major impact on sleep quality and leave people struggling to sleep.
Kelly Murray: Some of the most common ways I see people accidentally sabotage their sleep often result from diet or light sources. It’s often as innocent as a Happy Hour with coworkers or opting for that chocolate ice cream and Netflix before bed. The problem with this is that anything containing refined sugar—like alcohol and ice cream—and possibly caffeine—in chocolate or that after-dinner espresso—will effectively prompt a cortisol response in the body hours after consumption and make us alert, and that’s usually when we should be sleeping.
Watching any kind of bright screen within a couple hours of bedtime—be it a phone, a TV, laptop, etc.—is also going to trigger a cortisol response in the body. This is because our eyes have small data receptors that detect different colors of lightwaves that then trigger specific responses in the brain. Blue and green lightwaves, as emitted from the sun, are also emitted from our screens. So if our eyes are glued to our screens and the lightwaves are cueing our eyes saying “Hey! This is the sun! It’s time to be awake!” then that’s going to prompt a cortisol-production response in the brain and effectively keep us wired instead of tired before bed.
I often find that people want a “magic pill” to help them sleep, when it’s often so much more than that. You can try to fix your sleep issues with melatonin supplements, but if you’re never actually solving the root issue, such as sleep hygiene, chronic stress, or even a gut imbalance, then the “magic pill” will only ever be a temporary solution that often backfires.
How can people tell that they’re sleeping well?
Davis: If you’re groggy in the morning, experience excessive daytime sleepiness, and it’s hard for you to fall asleep or stay asleep, those are signs that your sleep quality could use some improvement.
Murray: When you find yourself waking up clear-headed without brain fog, that’s a clear indication that the sleep you’re getting is good quality. Having a clear memory, quick reaction times, and feeling sharp are all signs of good sleep. Also, feeling less achy and generally having more energy is another good sign that you’re getting good quality sleep. Lastly, if you’re feeling happier and you don’t feel glued to your bed, nor do you feel repelled by it, and you notice you’re falling asleep and waking up at consistent times daily, then you can be pretty sure your sleep is on the right track for optimal zzzs.
How can people get better sleep?
Davis: One thing that really makes a difference is to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, as often as possible. This is an important step in keeping your circadian rhythm functioning well and ensuring that you’re working with your body’s natural rhythms.
Do your best to get morning sunlight and sunlight throughout the day. It helps your body tell time, boosts your mood, and increases your energy during the day so you can be more active, all of which will help when it is time to sleep.
I would recommend giving yourself enough time to wind down before bedtime. Somewhere around an hour where you’re doing things that will calm you down and help you relax rather than stimulate you and keep your mind racing before bed. For some, part of this wind-down process involves putting away devices with screens because the content they normally watch is contributing to keeping them alert.
If you like to have a nightcap before bed to try to help you sleep, I would think twice about that because alcohol is definitely not helping your sleep quality. If you are going to have drinks, remember that the more you drink and the closer it is to bedtime, the more likely you are to experience fragmented, low-quality sleep.
I also recommend looking at the daytime stresses that are in your life and seeing which of those stresses you can reduce or remove. Many times, stressful thoughts and circumstances are still hanging over you when you climb into bed and try to relax. It’s great if you can remove some of those stressors, or at least learn to reduce their effects on you through practicing things like breathing exercises and mindfulness.
Murray: Exercise for at least 30 minutes per day. This will help to reduce cortisol levels, allowing you to relax and sleep through the night more soundly. Don’t consume caffeine or alcohol late in the day, and watch your sugar intake. Create a sleep sanctuary that is dark, cool, and comfortable. Prime your body to lower its core body temperature by taking a bath (it’s relaxing and helps your core body temperature to drop, which facilitates sleep), lowering your thermostat by a few degrees 30 minutes to 1 hour before bedtime, and sleeping in natural fibers (like linen, cotton, bamboo, wool) to help your body stay cool and comfortable. Don’t just lie in bed if you can’t sleep. Get up and do a relaxing activity in dim light for 20 minutes until you get sleepy and then try again. And make sleep a priority.
Interviews were edited for length and clarity.
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