Failure to get an adequate seven to eight hours of sleep each night (temporarily or chronically) can negatively affect many aspects of your life, including decreased alertness, impaired concentration, and possibly chronic health problems. Quality sleep should be a top priority for everyone, but it’s often a struggle to make it a habit. Complex demands in life with hard responsibilities can make it difficult, if not impossible, to get quality sleep. Hopefully life’s extreme demands are only temporary, and you can learn, and put into practice, some of the following tips to improve your sleep quality.
Develop a Sleeping Routine
The first option you should try to implement to improve your sleep is to develop a sleeping routine. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This is effective because your body will start to get used to the time when you should get sleepy and the time you should wake up. This can be easy to do if you have a day job or workout in the morning. Of course, it’s not so easy if you’re a firefighter that works 24-hour on/48-hour off shifts.
Planning for a good night’s sleep is all about optimal temperature and humidity, avoiding distractions, and transitioning gently to sleep. Before you go to bed, find some time to wind down. A good option that will help you fall asleep faster is to read a book — a real book, not a book on an electronic device (see more on light in the next section on ‘Light and Sleep’). A constant issue many people face that disrupts them from sleep is the need to get up to use the bathroom. A lot of people have a glass of water on their bedside table, but you should avoid this. If you wake up with an extremely dry throat, you need to consider the humidity in your bedroom. Winter heating systems, drop the humidity in the indoor, heated air, which can cause dry mouth, and even sore throats. Sleeping at a lower temperature helps keep the humidity level up. But sleeping at a lower temperature requires a good comforter, fleece sheets (to avoid the chill of cotton sheets), and wearing a hat or hoodie, sweatpants and socks — instead of only thin pajamas. If you follow the low heat, higher humidity preparation for your bedroom, you might not have to stop drinking water one to two hours before going to bed, and you might not need water at bedside. Keep in mind you shouldn’t sleep cold, because when your body is cold, blood flow is shifted away from your skin to your core. Extra blood flow to the core might cause the kidneys to sense excessive blood pressure, which is countered by more frequent urination.
Of course for sleep preparation, you also need to avoid distractions that might wake you up. Outdoor noises or neighbor noises might cause problems, and you can imagine the multitude of methods to avoid outdoor noise (ear plugs, headphones with soothing music, etc.). There is even a YouTube channel (youtube.com/relaxingwhitenoise) with 10-hour videos of ‘white noise’, such as ‘Thunder and Rain’, ‘Rain No Thunder’, ‘Fan Sound’, ‘Train Sound’, ‘Ocean Waves’, ‘Airplane Sound’, “Waterfall”, “Creek Sounds”, “Space Sounds” and more.
If you don’t silence your phone when you sleep because you’re an ‘on call’ person, keep the phone at a distance, or turn down the volume so alerts and rings are barely audible. Then you have a fighting chance at some decent sleep without being ‘alarmed’. If you’re on ’emergency call’, learn how to program your phone so only the dispatch center or the ‘one person who might need you’ gets through your phone’s silence mode. If you sleep with a night light, or you need the pathway to the refrigerator or bathroom illuminated, use dim red lights because dim red illumination is the least likely to disrupt your circadian rhythm or make you wide awake during your temporary sleep interruption. Red illumination is the opposite of ‘bad blue’ mentioned in the next paragraph).
Light and Sleep
For some people, a bad way of winding down is watching TV or being on your phone immediately before it’s time to go to sleep. This is because of the blue light that comes from the screen. Blue light has been shown to decrease melatonin levels and shift circadian rhythms. Although research showing the connection of blue light to ill health are not strong, there are ‘suggestions’ that exposure to light at night, which might also occur while working at night, may be connected to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. So far, research hasn’t proven a mechanism for negative health issues caused by night time artificial light, and hasn’t proven that the artificial light itself causes disease, but the connection is on scientists’ watch list.
Avoid Long Naps
When people don’t get enough sleep the previous night, it’s common to take a nap. However, a long nap can just make you feel more tired. Try aiming for a 15- to 30-minute nap instead of an hour-plus nap. This advice really depends upon your sleep history and your future schedule. You might really NEED a long nap, and it might be your only opportunity to get some decent sleep. You’ve probably heard people say they feel better when they wake up after a short nap compared to a long nap. Again, it all depends upon your recent sleep history and your future work or school scheduling circumstances. Be aware of short and long naps and learn what is best for you for the circumstances.
Another thing you can do that can improve both your sleep and your overall health is to get regular exercise. Lifting weights or going for a run can help you improve the amount of sleep you get each night — just don’t do it right before bed because it might give you a problem falling asleep. If you have to exercise near bedtime, then exercise at lower intensity with a sort of relaxing workout. Low intensity workouts — which consist of stretching, using resistance exercises with lower weights with a slow rate of repetitions, and skipping cardio — can fine tune joints, and keep muscles active, but relaxed when your finished.
Sleep Inertia is a physiological state of impaired cognitive and sensory-motor performance that is present immediately after awakening. Sleep Inertia persists during the transition of sleep to wakefulness, where an individual will experience feelings of drowsiness, disorientation and a decline in motor dexterity.
Sleep Inertia can be a dangerous condition when decision-making abilities, safety-critical tasks and the ability to operate efficiently are a priority soon after awakening. In critical situations, Sleep Inertia poses an occupational hazard risk due to impaired cognitive and motor skills.
Some experts report that abrupt awakening during stage 3 sleep, slow-wave sleep (SWS), produces more sleep inertia than awakening during sleep stages 1, 2 or REM sleep, but studies also have mixed results regarding the onset of SWS and the duration and severity of sleep inertia following short naps, making guidelines regarding the use of short naps unclear. One sleep center reports that sleep inertia is the result of sudden awakening during REM sleep.
Understanding Sleep and ‘Getting Up on the Wrong Side of Bed’ — Sleep Inertia
Most of us have experienced waking up at a bad time in a sleep cycle. You might be forced to wake up suddenly, and be especially uncomfortable, cranky, or even uncoordinated or physically impaired shortly after waking. Chances are you were awakened with bad timing — with your awakening occurring in the wrong sleep phase. Sleep inertia is probably dependent on several factors: (1) how long you have been asleep, (2) the efficiency (‘distract freeness’) of your sleep, (3) recent sleep deprivation, and (4) the stage of sleep at awakening. Make sure you’re alert before you begin to drive or operate hazardous machinery. Be careful to avoid arguments, as you remain aware of your ‘rudely awakened’ condition status that might be cranky. Make sure you take care of yourself as soon as possible after a rude awakening. Keep in mind that in general more heart attacks occur on Mondays than any other day of the week. Is it the rude awakening for most workers that start a new week on Monday, or is it the consequence of playing hard, partying hard, or excess drinking all weekend?
See a Doctor
If you continue to have sleeping issues, there might be a larger issue at play like sleep apnea or insomnia. The best thing you can do is go visit a doctor so you can get the proper treatment and medication if you have a serious sleeping problem, or discuss whether melatonin might work for you.
Hilditch CJ, Dorrian J, Banks S. A review of short naps and sleep inertia: do naps of 30 min or less really avoid sleep inertia and slow-wave sleep? Sleep Med. 2017 Apr;32:176-190. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2016.12.016. Epub 2017 Jan 11.