Getting a good night’s sleep requires more than plopping down on your bed. In fact, sleep is an active process. While we snooze, we pass through several stages of sleep, each with its own distinct physiological changes. We also alternate between non-REM (rapid eye movement) — which serves to restore the body — and REM sleep, during which we dream and restore the brain. The time you spend in these stages varies by age, but a good night’s rest means the sleep should be continuous and uninterrupted.
The urge to sleep is dictated by two natural forces. Our homeostatic sleep drive helps us balance our wakefulness with sleep. “It tells us we’re only good for so many hours of alertness before we become functionally intoxicated,” says Helene Emsellem, MD, director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of Snooze or Lose. Our circadian rhythm, on the other hand, regulates the timing of our sleepiness and wakefulness. You can thank your circadian rhythm for that daily afternoon slump, for instance.
Both forces are highly affected by our habits, our routines and even our exposure to sunlight. So for truly sound slumber, it’s important to respect these internal drives and do things that gear your body for sleep --some folks call this practicing good sleep hygiene. Here’s how you can ensure that you’re properly prepped for a good night’s sleep.
Move That Body
A good workout that gets your heart pumping and muscles flexing works wonders on promoting sleep. Regular physical activity makes it easier for you to get to sleep and improves the quality of your sleep. For maximum benefit, avoid rigorous activity three to four hours before bed. Body temperature rises when you exercise, which can make it hard for you to get to sleep.
Get Some Sun
Exposure to sunlight influences circadian rhythm, which is controlled by brain cells in the hypothalamus. These cells respond to light and dark signals from our environment, and set off reactions in our bodies to either wake us up or make us sleepy. In the mornings, it triggers the release of cortisol, a stimulating hormone, which raises body temperature. “Sunlight is a strong stimulus for wakefulness in humans,” says Nancy Foldvary, DO, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic and author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Sleep Disorders. “So getting sun exposure promotes wakefulness during the day and can help people sleep at night.” Darkness, on the other hand, triggers our brains to produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythm and promotes sleepiness.
Lose a Few Pounds
No doubt about it — sleep affects weight and vice versa. Studies have found that people who regularly sleep less than six hours have higher body mass indexes (BMIs). When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re too tired to exercise. You also have higher-than-normal levels of ghrelin, a hormone involved in appetite control, and lower amounts of leptin, a hormone that puts the brakes on food intake. Without enough sleep, you’ll be grabbing baked goods with a vengeance and packing on the pounds.
But if you’re too heavy, it becomes harder to get a good night’s sleep. “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing in terms of not knowing what came first,” says Amy Drescher, PhD, a research specialist at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. “Less sleep leading to obesity, or becoming obese and then getting less sleep.”
Breaking the pattern isn’t easy. Start by trying to ditch just five percent to 10 percent of your body weight, which is all it takes to begin shrinking fat stores, especially the kind that’s concentrated in your belly. “Belly fat is associated with snoring, which can lead to disruptions in sleep and if it’s progressive, to developing sleep apnea,” Dr. Drescher says. Even small changes like eating 100 fewer calories or taking a short walk every day can help.
Create a Sanctuary
Think of your bedroom as your private retreat where you go every night to be renewed. Here’s how to turn it into the ideal environment for sleep:
- Look for a mattress and a pillow that are comfortable. Preferences for bedding vary widely, so be sure to test out a mattress for a good 15 minutes before you buy.
- Set the thermostat on the cool side. Body temperature naturally falls at night. By keeping the room cool, your body will mimic its surroundings.
- Darken the room with shades and curtains to keep out light, or even use an eye mask. Darkness helps stimulate the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness.
Ditch the Electronics
Clear your bedroom of TVs, computers and any other electronics. These gadgets emit blue light, which like any light, can cause wakefulness at night and disrupt the body’s natural inclination to sleep. Use your bedroom only for sleep (and sex), so you won’t associate it with any other activity.
Poor sleep is just one more reason you shouldn’t light up. Smokers are four times more likely to report feeling unrested after a night’s sleep than nonsmokers. The smokers also spent less time in deep sleep and more time in light sleep. Smoking before bed pumps your body with nicotine, a stimulant that can keep you up at night. It also raises overall body temperature and elevates your heart rate and metabolism — all of which will keep you awake. To make matters worse, smokers go through withdrawal when they’re asleep, which disrupts their sleep too.
Stick With a Routine
It doesn’t matter whether you soak in the tub, read a good book or listen to your favorite music, the key is doing the same thing every night, so your body gets the signal that you’re prepping for sleep.
And okay, we know you want to sleep in on the weekends and make up for the slumber lost during the week. But don’t. Get in the habit of waking up and going to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends. Sleeping in on Saturdays and Sundays will only make it hard for you to get to sleep on Sunday night, and you’ll feel less refreshed on Monday.