How To Improve Your Sleep Health

How To Improve Your Sleep Health

Picture this – it’s 2019 (pre Covid)- I’m working full time and loving my job, commuting 2 hours a day, engaged to a wonderful man, working out and/or running everyday.

I’m pretty fit and I think I’m healthy- even though I occasionally pass out at 6pm and sleep through until morning. And then a pandemic hits- and everything falls apart. Well, that isn’t exactly my story.

Living my life at the crazy pace I was and thinking everything was ok, was something that the pandemic seriously challenged and challenged in a really good way. I had to shift to working from home (no more 2 hour commute) and doing my workouts at home which was actually kind of fun.

After about 3 weeks of working from home, not getting up every morning at 5am and going to bed at midnight, I realized that I had been really tired, like I have no idea how I functioned day to day, tired.

During this time I truly realized how important sleep was and started learning how I could really optimize my sleep. Sleep truly became a priority for me and my fitness, health and wellness improved.

 

So why is sleep important?

Sleep is a time that we are truly shifted into our parasympathetic nervous system- the rest part of our nervous system, instead of being stuck in fight or flight all the time. Sleep is one of the 4 cornerstones of health and impacts all systems in our body.

Have you ever noticed that you crave high sugar or high salt foods after a night of poor sleep? What about when you haven’t been getting enough sleep for several days and then all of a sudden you end up catching a cold or other virus? What about general energy and mood levels the night after poor sleep?

Sleep impacts so many things and yet so many of us neglect this aspect of our health.

Sleep is also the time that our mind processes and files all of the things we were exposed to throughout the day. We actually digest much of the information we take in while we are sleeping.

Sleep is controlled by complex interactions of hormones, neurotransmitters and circadian processes. Getting enough sleep and sleeping at the right time can have a huge positive effect on our health and wellness.

 

So how can I improve my sleep?

I have included lots of information and suggestions here, but they are not all realistic for everyone, and I don’t even do all of them all the time. Think about what will work for you and that you can realistically fit into your daily life.

Perfection is never the goal when it comes to any health or wellness strategy but progress is something that we can all attain, especially when it comes to sleep health. I hope you can build your sleep tool kit to improve your sleep overall.

 

So, let’s dive in:

1. SLEEP TIMING

When we sleep is important, maybe more important than any of us want to admit. In fact, our hormones that impact our sleep and wakefulness actually follow a pattern throughout the day.

Cortisol, our stress hormone, is lowest in the evening and at night, while melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep, is highest at night. Research has shown that the most important time for sleeping is between 10pm and 2am, as that is when we are able to access our deep sleep cycle.

Sleeping from 2am until 5am is also important as that is often when we get into the REM sleep cycle. Sure, many people identify as night owls and yes, everyone is bio-individual, but I would recommend trying to get to sleep around 10pm and not waking up before 5am.

Personally I have found that getting up at 5am is too early and impacts my energy for the whole day, but getting up at 6am is completely different and so much better for my energy. This was huge learning curve for me when I no longer had to commute!

Also on the topic of sleep timing, is the actual amount of time we need to sleep- which it is important to note that most adults need between 7-9 hours each night.

Even if you think you might only need 5-6 hours, I would encourage you to give 7-9 hours a try and see if it makes a difference in some aspect of your health and/or wellness.

 

2. SLEEP ENVIRONMENT

Your sleep environment matters when it comes to your sleep quality! Having a quiet, dark, and cool room is ideal for sleep- and black out blinds are amazing in our Alberta summers when it is light later into the evening and early in the morning.

Having your bedroom reserved for only sleep can also go a long way to help your mind and body “know what to do” when you get into bed. So, having your bed reserved for just sleep means, no tv in the bedroom, no phone at the bedside, and no working from the comfort of your bed on a computer.

Now I am not perfect at all these things yet either, as I have a tv in my bedroom and I am currently still sleeping with my phone beside my bed, but consider what steps might resonate with you for helping your body and mind focus on sleep while in bed.

Comfort is also important- a comfy mattress, breathable sheets, and your favorite pillow are all things that can make your bedroom a sanctuary and a place that can support your sleep health.

 

3. WAKING UP

So, I know the focus of this blog is sleep but how you wake up and what you do upon waking can also impact your sleep.

Consider your alarm clock- does it startle you out of a deep sleep in the morning so that your heart is already racing and you wake up in a fight or flight state? Mine sure did.

Or do you barely open your eyes when the alarm goes off because you’re so groggy you just open an eye long enough to hit the snooze button?

Or do you wake as the sun comes up to birds chirping and feel rested and eager to start your day?

If the last one is you, you may not need this blog. My alarm clock scared me every morning and it made me wake up already in a terrible state. Instead, I started using my fitness tracking watch as my alarm, which gently vibrates at my wake up time- and helped immensely.

Then I bought a fairly cheap wake up light which gradually brightens until my wake up time, when a recording of birds chirping starts. Wake up lights like these actually simulate the sun rising which is technically how humans (pre electricity) were meant to wake up.

If you find yourself constantly hitting the snooze button, please know the sleep you get in between snoozes is not as beneficial as you think. Hitting snooze can actually put your body into a state of sleep inertia where it’s not sure if it should be awake or asleep resulting in grogginess and lower energy.

Putting your alarm clock on the other side of the bedroom can help with hitting snooze, as once you’re out of bed, you will likely feel that you might as well start your day.

Another strategy to start your day more positively is, immediately upon waking, think about one thing you’re grateful for and one thing you’re super excited about for the day.

This can help change the focus from ‘oh no I have to leave my bed’ to, ‘ok I am ready and excited to start my day’.

 

4. WHAT WE DO DURING WAKING HOURS

What we do during our waking hours can impact our sleep immensely. For example, research shows that getting direct sunlight within 30 minutes of waking up can help reset our hormones and ensure we produce not just the waking hormones in the morning but can even help us produce the sleeping hormones in the evening.

Getting exercise, even just walking, can impact our sleep as well. Humans are meant to move, not be seated at a desk. However, so many of us have sedentary jobs, and it can be tough. But getting just 10,000 steps a day can help you fall asleep at night!

Eating a healthy, nutritious diet made up of mostly whole foods and lots of vegetables can also help ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to make the hormones and neurotransmitters needed for good sleep. Managing stress throughout the day can also help you fall asleep at night.

In addition, being mindful of when you are partaking in certain activities can help your sleep. Although working out and being active is important, doing hard workouts within a couple hours of bedtime can make it more difficult for your body to relax and sleep. Consuming caffeine later in the afternoon and evening will also impact your sleep, even if you feel you can fall asleep after having caffeine. 

Truthfully, your sleep quality will not be as optimal if caffeine is consumed later in the day, as caffeine can actually stay active in your system for up to 6 hours or more for some people.

Alcohol can also impact sleep quality, and although I am not an advocate for day drinking, stopping alcohol consumption 2-3 hours before bed and consuming water for hydration will help you sleep when you are indulging in some adult beverages.

Even eating right before bed can impact our sleep. If you eat right before bed your body is using energy to digest and sometimes this can directly impact your sleep. It is recommended to finish your last meal 3 hours before bed- and this is one of the things that has made the biggest difference in my sleep quality.

 

5. PREPARING FOR SLEEP

For a long time I lived my life at a very fast pace- I would run, run, run throughout the day and then collapse into bed at the end of the day exhausted, but I could never understand why I had trouble falling asleep. I was exhausted after all.

Well I have come to learn that one of the best things we can do to improve our sleep is to actually prepare our body and mind for sleep. We can’t expect to go from level 10 to level 0 in a matter of minutes and sleep well.

Now my sleep routine starts 2 hours before bed, which still seems crazy to me, but it is so worth it for my sleep health and my mental health. So, how can we prepare ourselves for sleep?

Really by doing anything calming and/or relaxing. But there are some other specific things to consider.

Blue light: I know many of us like to watch tv or be on our phones prior to going to bed, but blue light from these devices can actually trick our bodies into thinking it is still day time and that we should be producing day time hormones.

It is ideal to limit blue light 2 hours before bedtime. If staying off devices is not possible, invest in a pair of blue light blocking glasses or blue light blocking software for your phone/computer.

Turn down lights in your house, this will help your body and mind know that bed time is soon.

Think about the activities you engage in during the 1-2 hours before bed: I have already mentioned avoiding eating or drinking alcohol in the 1-2 hours before bed, but also really consider what you are doing during this time.

Scrolling social media? Probably not the best idea as this often increases energy and/or anxiety and turns on more of the waking hormones and response.

Working right up until it’s time to fall asleep? Again not going to contribute to the slowing down our bodies and minds need before sleep.

Think about things you can do that are calming: reading (an actual book to avoid blue light), gentle calming movement such as yoga or stretching, connecting with your family, friends or partner in gentle conversation, snuggling with your partner or pets, or anything else that is truly calming for you.

Getting your body and mind ready for sleep will help you to fall asleep more quickly when you do get in bed.

 

6. FALLING ASLEEP

Ok, so now we’re in bed and ready to get to it. If you have been working on all the things above the actual falling asleep part should be much easier, however sometimes falling asleep is hard.

How you fall asleep is likely very individual to you and to be honest I haven’t found a strategy that works 100% of the time. But there are things you can try.

Meditating right before bed may help quiet the mind and help with falling asleep.

There are also lots of breathing techniques that can help with sleep, my favorite is the 4-7-8 breathing method, where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold your inhale for 7 counts and then exhale for 8 counts.

Being mindful, feeling the mattress support you, the comfort of your pillow and the warm coziness of your blankets can help.

I will often use affirmations or listen to sleep stories. Again, one strategy might not work all the time, so having a toolbox of ways to fall asleep may be helpful.

 

7. SUPPLEMENTS

Last but not least there are many supplements that can be used to help with sleep.

I am only including a few of them that I have used and found helpful. I do recommend trying other strategies before turning to supplementation, but sometimes supplements are very helpful for sleep health.

Magnesium glycinate

Ashwagandha

Valerian

Melatonin

 

As I have learned more about sleep health, I have realized how important sleep truly is and how it can be impacted by so many things in our everyday lives.

There are many things that can affect our sleep, but that means there are many things we can adjust to improve our sleep.

My top 3 things that have improved my sleep were not the things that I initially thought would have the greatest impact, but I was so surprised after trying them that they have become a regular part of my sleep routine.

Although these things may not have the dramatic effect for you they did for me, it may be worth trying them as a place to start. So, my top 3 suggestions for sleep health are:

  1. Not eating within 3 hours of bed time
  2. Waking up to a wake up light alarm clock
  3. Actually having a bedtime routine (mine usually includes yoga) and not just falling into bed at the end of the day

 

Therefore, I hope you have found something useful to add to your sleep tool kit.

Happy Sleeping and Good Night Everyone.

 

Love,

Holly Killeen, RN

Registered Nurse

I am a registered nurse, educator of nursing students and aspiring holistic health coach.

I have worked in the healthcare and post secondary education system for over 15 years and have come to realize that there was something missing in these areas for me… a true focus on health and wellness of the individual.

As I learn more about holistic health and focus on my own health and wellness, I aim to share this knowledge and empower others to start or continue their own health and wellness journeys.

I am also a lover of dogs, nature, exercise and food and believe all these things can have a positive impact on our health.

CONNECT HERE:   INSTAGRAM

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Hi, I’m Brianne

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