The single greatest thing you can do to improve your overall health is sleeping well. After many nights of good sleep, you will be able to make better decisions about diet, have energy to exercise, and your body will simply function better. But sleeping well is an art. It will not happen perfectly every night. Yet, there are many things you can do to help get a good night’s sleep.
Insomnia is when it is hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or when one awakens too early. It means not sleeping enough to feel well-energized when awake. It has many sources, like anxiety, a traumatic event, or a changing circadian rhythm.
Insomnia will make you feel irritable, exhausted, and moody. It will make it hard to pay attention, focus on tasks, or remember things. Many accidents and errors are related to not sleeping well. Too little sleep decreases neural coordination, causing clumsiness. You may find that you bump into furniture or drop objects more often when you are tired.
Many adults can experience acute (short-term) insomnia. It is normal to have insomnia for a couple of nights or even most of a week. Chronic (long-term) insomnia, however, is very bad for your health, work performance, and overall quality of life. A good night’s sleep is incredibly restorative and important.
Circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock, which determines when you feel sleepy and when you wake up. If you have ever gone on a week-long vacation to a different time zone, you have experienced “jet lag”. Jet lag is when your body has not yet adjusted to the new time zone. It still wants to sleep and wake up at the same time. So you feel tired because your cycles are no longer in harmony with the clock and when the sun sets and rises. It takes about a week for your body to adjust. As a result, you may be finally overcoming your jet lag when it is time to end your vacation and confuse your body all over again by flying back home.
Jet lag is just one consequence of the circadian rhythm. The Some people are “night owls”, which means that feel better if they stay up later and wake up later. Others are “early birds” or “morning larks”, which means that they have more energy when they go to bed early and wake up early. People tend to naturally be one or the other, and there is only a slight correlation between being an early bird and having better health. Researchers have not, however, determined a strong causal relationship. At the same time, if people are feeling too tired during the day, they may want to change their bedtime, which is pretty easy to do.
Matching the sunrise and sunset as closely as possible is likely best for your health. In places like New York, this is not always possible. Summers nights are only about eight hours long and winter nights are about 16. So, in the summer, your body can barely calm down fast enough at night. In the winter, you wouldn’t want to sleep 16 hours. Still, it’s ideal to be awake while the sun is still shining and asleep while the night sky is dark. If your sleep patterns do not match this and you want to align yourself better, you can. However, don’t try to do it all in one day. Experts say that this process should be done slowly, changing the time you go to sleep and wake up by only about 15 minutes each day.
Exposure to bright light soon after you wake up will rouse your body and help you feel alert. Very light exercise is also recommended about an hour after waking up. One great way to accomplish both is to wake up, drink some water, get dressed, and go outside for a walk. The sunlight will tell awaken you, and the exercise will increase your metabolism.
Many people have trouble sleeping in the dark winters. Because the sky is often cloudy and the weather is cold, people may be inside most of the day. Thus, they are not exposed to enough light. One remedy is light box therapy. For light box therapy, a person sits in front of a very bright light (10,000 lumens) for 30 minutes shortly after waking up each day. The light exposure helps adjust their circadian rhythm and relieves the “winter blues” (mild depression in winter). I have been using a light box and find it is very helpful.
In the same way that light in the morning can awaken you, light at night can keep you up. A big source of insomnia can be traced to the use of bright screens (cell phones, computer monitors, and televisions) at night. Stop using screens and dim the lights about an hour or two before you want to fall asleep. This will help signal to your body that it is time to rest.
Caffeine, the energy-releasing chemical in coffee, green and black teas, and chocolate, is a tool that humans have used for thousands of years. It helps wake us up in the morning and push through the energy slump we feel in the late afternoon. However, it also affects the quantity and quality of sleep.
Caffeine has a long half-life. This is the time it takes to metabolize (break down) fifty-percent of a substance, which makes the chemical lose half of its effect. Caffeine’s half-life is between 2 and 10 hours, depending on the physiology of the person who consumes it. This means that for some people, 10 hours after they drink their coffee, they will have half of the effect of caffeine still powering their bodies. What’s worse, 10 hours after that, they will still have half of half (one quarter) of the original effect. So, if you drink two cups of coffee at seven o’clock in the morning, you may still have about 40% of it boosting your heart rate and energy when you try to go to bed at ten or eleven o’clock at night.
The key is to ingest (drink) the minimum amount of caffeine needed to give you the energy you’re looking for. And drink your coffee or tea early in the morning and give it time to wear off throughout the day.
creating a good night’s sleep
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Katherine May, in discussing her Wintering with Krista Tippett, says, “We’ve come to see [health and illness] as something that’s externally approved from our own knowledge and knowing. We’ve divorced ourselves from our gut instinct….If I felt I had the right to judge my own wellness, I’d have declared myself ill a year before that. And I would have taken a rest much earlier.”