How to get to sleep, get better sleep and stay asleep

By: Paula Burchat, BA, RMT, CSMTA(SF) • October 30, 2015

Not everyone can fall asleep easily or stay asleep all night. This can have a detrimental on your life because sleep is integral to your health, wellbeing and productivity.  Generally, most people assume that sleep will just happen, but some people need to take an attentive and methodical approach to getting better sleep. Sleep, like training for a race or working out, is a process that your body learns and you can change or alter.

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep is so important for many reasons. It helps your brain work properly.  Research shows that without proper sleep people have difficulty making good decisions, solving problems, and controlling their emotions.  Sleep deprivation is linked to depression, obesity, heart disease and stroke.  For athletes of all levels, it can inhibit adaptation to training and recovery from workouts.

From an athlete’s perspective, you need every edge you can get. Solely focusing on training and pushing your body without proper regard to recovery means you are not getting the greatest return for your effort.  According to peer reviewed literature, sleep is the number one means of recovery from athletic activity.  Recent research shows that for well trained athletes increased sleep rather than increased training leads to significant increases in performance.

Establish a Sleep Routine

Beyond the “why” is the “how” of sleep. Creating a sleep routine is as important as having a training plan, a household budget or a business plan.  A sleep routine is a set of activities that you do at approximately the same time every night that signals to your body that you are preparing for and ready to fall asleep.  Building a sleep routine helps to remove factors that inhibit your ability to get to sleep or stay asleep.

For some waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night can be problematic even if they can get to sleep okay. The sleep routine or parts of it can be used at those times to signal to your body to get back to sleep.  It’s very important to avoid electronics as this is stimulating.   Try using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, listening to music or reading to get back to sleep.

My Experience

Before Laurel was born I had great difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. After her birth, I unknowingly created a sleep routine. Every night for almost a year she needed to be fed or changed around 10 p.m.  I got into a habit of going upstairs at 9:30 p.m., getting into my pyjamas, brushing my teeth, doing 10 minutes of easy yoga or stretching, checking Laurel and then reading for a few minutes before falling asleep.  Since then, I’ve rarely had difficulty with sleep because I still follow a fairly consistent sleep routine although it does have some variability at times.

After researching the topic I found the clues to how my accidental sleep routine had helped me and I follow these tips to keep a good sleep routine on a regular basis:

  • Go to bed at approximately the same time every night.
  • Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed
  • Make your bedroom a clean, comfortable and relaxing place to be.
  • Remove electronics or anything that can disturb you from the room.
  • Go to bed when you are sleepy; don’t force yourself to stay up.
  • Stop using electronics or screens (TV, Ipad, computer, cell phones) at least 90 minutes before you want to fall asleep.
  • Develop sleep rituals or a pattern of activities that will signal to your body that you are preparing to sleep. For example:
    • 10 minutes of relaxing stretching or yoga
    • Read a book or magazine
    • Listen to relaxing music
    • 10 minutes of visualization/meditation/prayer
  • If you have difficulty falling asleep, take a warm bath 90 minutes before bed. Normally, about 60 minutes before we fall asleep our body temperature will drop. When you get out of a warm bath your body temperature drops and this will help prepare you to fall asleep.
  • Try using a sleep mask and ear plugs to block out and stimulus from snoring partners, street noise or air conditioners and fans.

Eliminate bad habits that stop you from getting good sleep

One of the big inhibitors to good quality sleep is viewing electronics before going to bed. Many people read on a device, watch TV or some form of media before going to sleep.  The blue flickering light of the device actually inhibits the production of Growth Hormone for 90 minutes after you have turned it off.  We produce GH during sleep cycles and it’s responsible for aiding our repair functions when we sleep.  In our first phase of sleep we produce a significant surge of GH and then lesser amounts during the following sleep cycles.  This means if you watch any media 90 minutes before you fall asleep you may be missing a significant phase of productive sleep.  This can explain why you are waking up tired even after 8 hours of sleep.

When you are well rested you wake up refreshed and ready to get on with your day. If you wake up tired and have to keep hitting the snooze button you need more sleep. If this is your regular routine, sleep in when you can or go to sleep earlier.  If possible, try taking day time naps as long as it doesn’t interfere with night time sleeping.

Getting proper productive sleep is not just about how much you sleep, but the quality and timing of your sleep. We tend to think that sleep patterns can’t be changed.  However, we can take control of when we fall asleep, staying asleep and getting good quality sleep by paying closer attention to the details and establishing a good sleep routine.

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