During my residency, there was a kind of unstated competition, to see who went the longest without sleep, or who worked the most number of hours per week. It was routine practice to go over 140 hours per week on some surgical rotations, and sometimes we had to work through two straight nights, without any sleep. These days are long gone, now with new residency work hour mandates requiring no more than 80 hours per week.
Chronic sleep deprivation is known to significantly increase errors in judgment, focus and memory capacities. You don’t need any studies to prove this, when most of us can attest to this first hand (Read about pregnancy and sleep deprivation in this month’s Ask Dr. Park by clicking here) Yet, sleep is still given low priority and the first thing to be sacrificed when someone is short on time.
The Importance of Sleep
Studies come out daily about the benefits of good, quality sleep, as well as the health consequences of not getting enough good sleep. I can’t emphasize enough how important sleep is, in terms of both quality as well as quantity. I’ll even go as far as to say the you should center your life around good quality sleep.
You may be asking by now, with all of life’s stresses and distractions, how can one sleep better? The answer to this simple. Don’t try to accomplish everything all at once-take it one step at a time.
Take Mini Steps
Below a list of 10 steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep. To be successful, begin with implementing only one or two strategies at most into your nightly routine. Moreover, do this consistently for 30 days before trying anything else.
Some options need only one action step, whereas others are daily habits. Since habits are not something that’s formed overnight, I emphasize again the importance of implementing one strategy at a time and repeating it over 30 days. If you can master these sleep disciplines, I guarantee you’ll not only sleep better, but also feels better during the day, with much more energy, productivity, and increased quality of life.
The 10 Easy Steps for a “Do It Yourself” Sleep Makeover
1. Try not to eat anything within 3-4 hours of going to bed. There are many good explanations for why this helps you sleep better, but one simple explanation is that any lingering stomach juices can regurgitate up into your throat, causing inflammation and swelling. Since most modern humans are susceptible to intermittent breathing obstruction while sleeping, eating just before bedtime can aggravate this process, causing you to keep waking up.
2. Avoid alcohol close to bedtime. Drinking a nightcap may help you to fall asleep after a stressful day, but because alcohol is a muscle relaxant, it can aggravate obstruction and arousals, worsening your quality of sleep even more. It’s OK to have 1-2 servings of wine or beer with an early dinner.
3. Don’t watch TV, use the computer, or play video games within 1-2 hours of bedtime. Stimulation of the brain and information overload will definitely prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.
4. Don’t read, eat, watch TV, surf the internet, or talk on the phone while in bed. Leave your bed exclusively for sleep and sex.
5. Set your room temperature slightly cooler than normal. Colder temperatures promote sleep.
6. Avoid eating or drinking anything that’s stimulating close to bedtime. This includes anything caffeinated (coffee, tea, sodas), chocolates, or ginseng. Certain cold medications that contain decongestants can keep you awake.
7. Exercise regularly outdoors in the sunlight. Your eyes need natural bright sunlight to stimulate the sleep-wake cycles. If you can’t exercise in the mornings, make every excuse to go outdoors in the middle of the day.
8. Make your room as dark as possible. Many of the newer LED lights on electronic devices are super bright. Cover them with black electrical tape. Get light-blocking curtains or shades.
9. If your nose is stuffy for any reason, take measures to start breathing through your nose again. If you have a simple cold, or even allergies, nasal saline can act as a mild decongestant. This also works for people who have chronic nasal congestion. A Neti-pot or any other device that vigorously sprays nasal saline into your nose on a regular basis will help you to sleep better.
10. If you snore, or feel tired and unrefreshed no matter how long you sleep, see your doctor and get it taken care of. If your bedpartner snores and it bothers you, get that taken care of as well, so that you can sleep better (click here for a complete list of medical and non medical snoring solutions)
Bonus tip: Learn proper deep breathing techniques as taught in yoga or tai chi. Do it for 5-10 minutes just before bedtime, and especially every few hours during the day for a minute or two. This helps to calm your nervous system, which helps you not only to sleep better, but will also help you to remain calm, focused and more productive in whatever activities you engage in throughout the day. (Click here if you’d like to sign up for a FREE audio download (worth $45) of my live workshop on how to breathe better with Yoga expert, Deborah Quilter)
If you’re thinking that many of those steps are just impossible to implement given your hectic life and work schedule, think again. If you’re not putting sleep at the top of your list of priorities, it won’t be too long before your body functions will start shutting down making you incapable of doing much of anything. If it’s deemed risky for medical residents (who are used to being on call) to go without sleep, think how much more risk you’re taking by doing so yourself. Just something for you to sleep on.