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Who else doesn’t feel well-rested in time for fall?: If the break wasn’t “break” enough, it might be time for a solid sleep routine.

Tessa Morton

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Sleep. In elementary school, I hated it. I feared missing out. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of it and frequently slept in past noon. Now, in my thirties, I can’t seem to get enough and yet my fear of getting behind on work means I am an exhausted insomniac.

This summer I moved to St. Louis with my husband. Not only have I been attempting to unpack and set up an entire house worth of belongings, but I have been commuting from St. Louis to Glen Ellyn to attend summer school classes. I am physically and mentally drained, yet I find it impossible to establish good sleeping habits. The effects on my sanity and health were not motivating enough to really solve the problem, but a sleepy 5-hour commute was becoming dangerous, and I had to make a change.

The science is in, as a health psychology researcher from the University of London, Phillippa Lally, found it takes 66 days to form a habit. We only have 30 days until fall semester starts, but 30 days is a good head start. I have decided to establish a sleep routine that will prepare me mentally and physically for the new school year.

So, what am I doing wrong, and why do I feel so bad? Not surprisingly, sleep is pretty important for your overall health and wellbeing. What is surprising is just how much sleep we need, and just how unhealthy it is when we don’t get enough of it. In fact, in 2007 the World Health Organization classified shift work, when individuals have minimal or disrupted sleep, as a probable human carcinogen. The National Institutes of Health found sleep deprivation increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Neuroscientist and author of the book “Why We Sleep,” Dr. Matthew Walker stated, “once you get below seven hours [of sleep a night] we can measure objective impairments in your brain and in your body.”

In an interview with Joe Rogan, Walker said we need seven to nine hours of sleep a night to be at our physical and mental best. The consequences of one bad night’s sleep are immediately felt the next day, but a consistent pattern of sleep deprivation can greatly impact your health, body and mind long term.

One of the more noticeable ways a lack of sleep can impact our bodies is our weight. The World Health Organization also noted the link between shift work, sleep deprivation and obesity. The less we sleep, the more we eat and crave the carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods, which are the worst for our body and health.

Sleep doesn’t just keep us healthy long term. Sleep can also help us become more productive day to day. Sleep is crucial for learning, and it is during sleep when the information we absorb during the day is consolidated and retained. When we sleep the brain transfers our waking memories from the hippocampus to the cortex where long-term memories are stored.  When I study flash-cards or read a textbook right before bedtime, the information I learned is retained far longer than when I read it earlier in the day and don’t sleep well at night. This is also true for motor skills. I now understand why my husband will occasionally punch the air or kick out his legs in the middle of the night. The brain consolidates the motor learning from the day, whether it be martial arts or piano playing, and replays it while you sleep. This improves muscle memory and helps a new skill become a natural practice.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice with a night of sleep makes perfect,” Walker told Rogan.  

This is all very well and good, but my problem is not that I don’t understand the importance of sleep. My problem is that I can’t sleep.

A year ago I jumped on the ASMR bandwagon. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and is defined as the feeling we get when we hear a sound, or sounds, that stimulate our mind and body. For some, it can generate a “tingly” sensation on the skin. For others, such as myself, it creates a relaxing and soothing feeling that can send someone to sleep.

Although it worked for a while, the magic is sadly wearing off. ASMR just isn’t the long-term solution to a daily problem the way I hoped it would be. My intermediary solution was to start drinking red wine. This was also not a great plan of attack. Alcohol consumption can help a person sleep, but it can also prevent us from reaching the deep stages of non-REM sleep when body replenishment takes place. Alcohol consumption also inhibits REM sleep, which is also known as dream sleep.

The quality of our sleep is just as, if not more, important than the quantity of sleep we get. I had to stop finding temporary and unrealistic solutions to a lifelong problem. With help from Walker and various science journals on the subject, I have found some top tips for getting a quality night’s sleep.

Here are the things I will be trying for the next 30 days, as well as a few extra ideas for those who are also interested in embarking on the journey to great sleep and good health.

Regularity

Regulating your body clock is a crucial first step, and sticking to it is the real challenge. This means going to bed and getting up at the same time on weekdays and on weekends. That’s an incredible challenge for those of us with early morning classes who look forward to a Saturday sleep in. Allowing your circadian clock to dictate when you sleep can really help your body drift off and wake up naturally and can help you feel more rested. It can help to create a night time routine and to find productive ways to use the extra time on the weekend.

Light Pollution

This refers to a number of things. We must put away our electronics. I have always dimmed my screens and convinced myself that this alone was good enough. You can also buy special sunglasses that block the screen glare. Wearing sunglasses in bed is really a level of screen attachment I don’t want to sign up for. Instead, leave the cellphone in your bedside table and leave the computer on your desk. Try to read a book before bed instead and make sure you read for pleasure. Any excuse to put down the dry textbook material is good enough for me.

Screens aren’t the only source of light pollution. Bright LED lights may be energy efficient, but they can mess with our natural melatonin production. Start turning off lights or dimming them as it nears your bedtime. Dimmed, warm lighting can help prepare your mind and body for sleep. I try to rely on a couple of lamps and some night lights to help me get around in the evening. Night lights can also help if you are the type of person who wakes in the night to use the bathroom.

Temperature

Keep it cool. If you are trying to save money on air conditioning, the evening is the time when you should really make some concessions. Our brain needs to drop in temperature by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit in order to go to sleep. Dr. Christopher Winter, a sleep specialist and author of “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It,” suggests sleeping in a room between 60 and 67 degrees. Despite the hot St. Louis weather, I tend to keep our apartment temperature at around 76 degrees, so 67 is certainly freezing in my opinion. Try to turn the thermostat down a little in the evening, no matter what you are used to. A cool core body temperature will help you sleep longer and feel more well rested in the morning.

Taking a warm bath before bed can help cool your inner body temperature also. Warm baths increase the blood flow to the skin and consequently increase the heat loss from the body.

Just to really throw a wrench in the works, although we need a cool core body temperature and a cool brain in order to sleep well, warm extremities are also helpful. The circulation of blood to your hands and feet aids in the cooling of the body by redistributing the heat from the core. It also triggers the dilation of blood vessels which promotes sleep.

A hot bath, a cold room, skimpy pajamas and sexy night socks. The perfect combination.

Food, Drink and Stimulants

Late night snacks, late afternoon caffeine and alcohol are all part of the recipe for bad sleep. I have been ticking all those boxes lately. Drowsy afternoons have had me reaching for one cup of coffee after another. Making sure you cut the caffeine at least 12 hours before bed is advisable, and this includes cutting soda from your diet in the evening. That might sound extreme, but caffeine has a half-life of six hours, so it takes 12 hours to fully leave your system. Not drinking soda is easy for me, but the evening glass of wine and the late night chips and popcorn have been hard cravings to curb.  Eating and drinking alcohol in the evening can mess with your body clock. Organs, like the liver, have their own clocks and rhythms. Putting them to work in the evening can mess with your digestive system and affect your entire body.

Drinking any fluid too close to bed can create other problems. Disrupted sleep is not as deep and doesn’t allow your body to recover in the way it needs to. Frequent nighttime bathroom trips can be a problem. This is another reason to avoid late afternoon coffee as it’s a diuretic.

Exercise

This tip makes me the saddest. I don’t hate working out, but I am such a Type A person that I either go all out or don’t do it at all. Trying to find several hours in the day to make it to the gym, work out for an hour, and get back home has not been a priority. Exercise as a sleep aid is not about physical results, but about consistency. Any amount is better than none. Working out every day, even for 20 minutes, can help you sleep better every night. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey in 2013 and found that although all respondents reported similar sleep patterns, those who exercised reported getting better sleep.

When you exercise is more important than how much. Exercising when you wake up can help establish a routine, help your body wake up fully and help you prepare for the day. Late night exercise can disrupt sleep. If you are going to work out in the evening, try to finish at least 3 hours before your bedtime so your core temperature has time to drop.

Atmosphere

I personally believe bedroom atmosphere is a personal preference. Although some prefer a completely quiet sleep environment, others may need some white noise to help them relax and wind down. ASMR was helpful for me because some noise allows me to escape the cacophony of thoughts and worries that rush into my head in a silent room. Although complete silence does not work for me, I do need a comfortable mattress and my favorite feather pillow. I even take my pillow with me when I travel. Finding the right mattress can be a huge part of creating the perfect sleep environment. If you invest in anything for your home, a good mattress should be a priority.

Another idea for creating an environment conducive for sleep is to use blue and yellow tones in your bedroom. Avoid bright oranges and reds, and try to keep the colors matte and muted. Lavender or eucalyptus candles can also help you drift off to the Land of Nod. You can also try sprinkling lavender essential oil on a tissue and tucking it under your pillow. I have also started using a salt lamp. Himalayan salt emits negative ions which can help to reduce anxiety and promote sleep.

Melatonin

Should you take supplements? Melatonin supplements can be great when combating jet lag and trying to re-adjust your body clock, but melatonin is also a hormone that our body produces naturally. Consistently taking supplements is generally unnecessary when your body is able to create its own rhythm and rely on its own circadian clock. Walker says long-term melatonin supplements are not effective, but he also defends those who do take them and feel they are working.

“The placebo effect is the most reliable effect in all of pharmacology,” Walker said. “If it works for you, no harm no foul.”

Sleeping pills are a different thing altogether. Long-term use can be highly detrimental. They do not imitate the natural way our brain goes to sleep the way melatonin supplements do. Sleeping pills, like any medications, can have side effects and long-term use can create a dependence. Alternatively, a person can build up a tolerance to sleeping pills that may drive them to take higher doses, and this can pose dangerous health risks.

 

 

Getting a good night’s sleep is about more than just closing your eyes for seven hours a day. The quality of sleep we get, and when we get it, is all a part of the bodies much needed daily recovery process. My mission to create a sleep routine in preparation for the fall starts today. Thirty days is just the start, though. Sixty-six days creates a habit, and a lifetime of good sleep creates good health.

 

If you want to find out more, I recommend episode #1109 of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast with Dr. Matthew Walker. It can be download from any podcast app on both Apple and Android devices.

 

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Who else doesn’t feel well-rested in time for fall?: If the break wasn’t “break” enough, it might be time for a solid sleep routine.