I commonly see patients in my practice who lack sufficient sleep. A surprisingly large number of people either don’t get enough hours, get poor quality sleep, or both. Sleep is essential for repair mechanisms of the body to function properly. When we are lacking in sleep, the immune system is suppressed, emotions are more labile, energy stores are not replenished, and oxidative damage done to cells during waking hours is not properly repaired. Inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and premature aging. Research indicates that people who get less than six hours of sleep per night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get eight. For example, a 2010 study found that C-reactive protein, which is associated with heart attack risk, was higher in those who slept six or less hours of sleep per night. Getting sufficient sleep has been stressed in Chinese medicine for millennia, and in fact, is taken a step further, by adding that we should be asleep by 10 or 11 pm. This is because 11pm to 1am is the liver’s “repair time”, and if we aren’t asleep during that time, repair processes are short-changed. In more recent years, Western medicine has found that a growth hormone gets secreted during deep sleep that is between 9pm and 7am, which means this is the ideal time to sleep.
Tips to Improve Sleep
Besides being asleep by 11pm and carving out 8 hours for quality sleep, there are things you can do to ensure you get sufficient sleep-time repair and restoration.
- Limit screen time. Shut down the computer, iPad, or smart phone by 9pm. Studies have shown that the light emitted from screens suppress melatonin and disrupt the sleep cycle.
- Exercise. Regular exercise facilitates and regulates healthy sleep. You don’t have to become a triathlete to benefit – just 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day can greatly improve sleep.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule. The body likes predictable sleep times, so set a regular bedtime and do your best to be consistent.
- Avoid or moderate caffeine. You would be surprised how much even small amounts of caffeine can negatively impact sleep. Many people who feel the need to caffeinate in order to get going in the morning are actually tired and need more sleep, not more stimulant. And taking stimulants can set up a vicious cycle in which sleep is inhibited, and the resulting sleep deprivation results in reaching for more stimulant, thus continuing the cycle.
- Sleep in a dark room to boost melatonin production. Our bodies produce melatonin naturally, and any light at night, especially blue light, suppresses that production. Ditch the alarm clocks that emit LED light (or cover them with a cloth), try blackout shads, and resist turning lights on if you wake in the middle of the night.
- Make sure your bed is comfortable. Comfort is an essential part of a good night’s sleep. Make sure your mattress is the correct firmness for you, and that your pillow is a good fit. The neck should be properly supported to promote alignment of the spine. Choose a mattress and pillows made from natural materials. Some mattresses are made from materials which off-gas harmful chemicals, and since we ideally spend a third of our lives sleeping, it’s best to avoid them all together during sleep hours.
- Utilize a bedtime relaxation technique. One easy meditation that relaxes the mind is to focus all your attention on the sensation of breathing. As the mind wanders, gently bring it back. This single-pointed focus lets the clutter of the mind drop away and promotes more restful sleep. Another great relaxation method is the body scan. Starting with your feet, place all your attention on one body part at a time. Work your way up from your feet to the top of your head. If neither of those appeal to you, try listening to a guided meditation or relaxing lecture on headphones.