It’s not uncommon to struggle sleeping this time of year. In part, that can be due to the recent time change that came with Daylight Savings Time.
But lack of sleep is not something to dismiss when it comes to overall health, said Dr. Amber Hairford, a family medicine specialist at Novant Health Mountainview Medical in King.
“Sleep is important for your overall health. Some even claim sleeping well is just as important as diet and exercise for your body,” Hairford said. “Lack of sleep is linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease, depression, suppressed immune system and even stroke. And you will never maintain optimal health without adequate sleep.”
Making simple but important changes to your daytime routine can make a big difference, said Hairford’s Novant Health colleague Dr. Nancy Behrens, a sleep specialist who offers the following tips to those looking for a better night’s sleep:
1: Get a regular dose of sunlight
“Getting outside in green space with trees and nature each day for about 15 minutes can lead to a better night’s sleep,” said Behrens. The bright, natural light helps the brain to know that it’s daytime so that later that night it is able to ramp up production of melatonin, the sleep hormone which helps us to fall asleep. Light boxes that simulate sunshine can also be helpful during short winter days.
2: Another reason to eat better
Eating habits can play a role in how well we sleep. Data shows that eating less fiber, more saturated fat and more sugar throughout the day is linked with lighter, less restorative sleep. “A diet high in fiber and protein like fruits, vegetables, beans, brown rice and whole grains can improve sleep,” said Behrens.
3: Sip in moderation
While alcohol may help us fall asleep faster, it can be disruptive to sleep, especially in the second half of the sleep cycle. “One glass of wine in the evening with dinner is fine for most people, but anything beyond this can decrease deep sleep and increase arousals from sleep,” said Behrens. It takes time for your body to metabolize one drink, so finish your last sip at least two hours before bed.
4: Keep it cool
Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room because the coolness helps trigger a drop in body temperature, which signals the body to produce melatonin. “The body has an internal temperature level that it needs to reach; and, the ideal room temperature to help the body achieve this is about 65 degrees,” said Behrens.
5: Get comfortable with silence
Take time to reflect and sit quietly each day without distractions. “It is important to get comfortable in the quiet,” said Behrens. If you are not use to silence, you might find your mind racing at night when it’s time for bed. And if you do find that you can’t shut off your mind once you are in bed, keep a notebook handy and make a list of things you need to accomplish the next day to settle your brain.
6: Breathe deeply and dim the lights
Practicing relaxation techniques before bed is a good way to wind down, calm the mind, and prepare the body for sleep. “Deep breathing helps reduce your heart rate and blood pressure and relaxes your body,” said Behrens. Bring down the lights. Dimness signals the biological clock that it’s time to wind down.
7: The more comfy, the better
“You want your body to associate your bed with sleep and not television, cell phones and tablets,” said Behrens. Making your bed comfortable, clean and inviting can really help as well.
When you can’t sleep
“Don’t panic when occasional sleeplessness strikes,” said Behrens. “You can start deep, slow breathing relaxation exercises and focus on just being comfortable.” Alternately, you can get out of bed and read a book or magazine with lights dimmed, or something else relaxing and non-stimulating that won’t make your body think it’s time to wake up.
If you have tried all of the lifestyle tips above and are still having difficulties with falling and/or staying asleep, you may want to speak with your primary care physician or consult a sleep specialist.