By Kim Lowman
Wellness Program Manager
As a lifelong New Englander, I tend to pride myself on resiliency like my fellow Yankees. We try to outlast each other with who can hold off turning on the heat or air-conditioning, who does their own yardwork vs. hiring it out and, of course, who slept the least over the past few days, but can still function. Well, I am having a change of heart! I have “hired” a 10 year-old neighborhood kid to help me with my yardwork; I turned on the heat already because being unnecessarily cold is stupidity; and I quit the lack-of-sleep contest because it just feels terrible to lack sleep. But joking aside—it’s a real problem for many of us. I, too, have had some bouts of insomnia over the past few months. When I was younger, I could fall asleep anywhere. Trains, planes and automobiles were naptime for me. Not so much these days. I get jet lag without even flying. So, of course, I have been researching sleep and what it means, and I am here to share some pretty cool stuff I am learning.
First of all, it’s not really all that valiant to be able to function on the least amount of sleep. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. Less than 6 hours of sleep or 19 hours awake on consecutive days makes your cognitive ability equivalent to being legally intoxicated. More car accidents are caused by drowsy driving than texting and OUI combined. And speaking of alcohol…it may help you to initially fall asleep, but it will most likely cause a fitful night sleep. You will wake up feeling tired. If you had a nice big meal with your adult-beverage, then you are really pushing the limits of digestion. If you want to sleep, stop asking your digestive system to keep working when you need to sleep. But if you insist on winning the contest of who slept the least, be sure to add in caffeine! You don’t drink coffee? Well, what about tea or carbonated beverages that may have caffeine? Double check that you are not inadvertently adding caffeinated beverages. A rule of thumb is to avoid alcohol, tobacco, large meals, and caffeine up to 4 hours prior to bed.
So now what? Well, a consistent routine is very helpful in setting up your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s sleep, eat, energy cycle. Research finds that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep for optimal functioning during the day. So, if you have to be up at 6 a.m., then 10 p.m. would be an ideal bedtime. The more you commit to that bedtime, the better chance your body and brain will start to wind down at that time. Creating a routine can increase your chances of falling asleep quickly. By the way, electronic devices work against sleep. Blue screens are sleep killers. I am guilty of watching TV until I am tired…raise your hand if you are too. Try to add a buffer between turning off the TV and going to sleep, like reading a book (not a kindle—sorry, but that’s a blue screen device) or listening to sleep meditations/adult bedtime stories, which are easily found on Youtube for free. Or watch TV in one room only, that is not where you sleep. Please don’t kill the messenger! I’m only trying to share what I know.
By now, if you are still reading, things may be popping out that you are doing that affect your quality of sleep and you have to “give them up” if you really want to commit to better rest and restoration of those brain cells. But there are also things we can add to increase our chance of better sleep, such as foods that have natural melatonin benefits. Foods that contain melatonin include: kiwi, milk (yup – that warm milk trick is for real), nuts and tart cherry juice. Melatonin also comes in a supplemental form in most grocery stores and pharmacies. Ask the pharmacist the best dosage because more is not always better!
If you are suffering from chronic insomnia (3x per week sleeplessness for at least 3 months), then seeking a physician’s advice is recommended. If you are like me and just have those nights where a good night’s rest alludes… then the above-mentioned tips may help. You can also download a sleep tracker (I use Sleep Cycle) or I recommend Mathew Walker’s book, “Why we Sleep.” We spend 1/3 of our life sleeping, so why not make it a priority? A good, healthy sleeping pattern boosts the immune system, reduces anxiety and depression, and keeps the brain sharp! It’s easy to win the ridiculous least-amount-of-sleep badge of honor… let’s change the contest. Starting in November… who slept the best?