7 Tips for Your Optimal Rest
Sleep is one of the pillars of good health. Getting good sleep along with proper nutrition, hydration, and exercise go a long way to keeping us healthy. Despite this most people don’t get enough sleep, and the sleep they do get is often of poor quality.
Our fast paced, around the clock society is part of the problem. Many people of every age cut back on sleep in order to make time for other things such as work, family obligations, commuting, school, socializing, and fear of missing out (FOMO). We wish the days had more than 24 hours so we could get it all done and sleep, but every day is still only 24 hours long. This is why it’s not surprising that almost half of Canadian men and over half of Canadian women report consistent trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.
Before we can work to fix it, we need to see if there is a problem. In general the amount of sleep we need is based on our age. Most teens need 8-10 hours a night. Most adults need 7-9 hours a night. Most older adults need 7-8 hours. Yes these are general guidelines and every individual is different, but they are good goal posts to aim for.
The hours of sleep needed increases if they have been sleep deprived in the previous nights. This is called “sleep debt”. When you have a sleep debt, your body will compensate in future days forcing you to make up for the missed sleep.
A common misconception is that your body will become used to getting less sleep without a health penalty. This is patently untrue. Long term sleep deprivation leads to reduced cognition, impaired memory, impaired judgment, poor coordination, decreased reaction time (may lead to serious safety issues especially if driving), weakened immune system, and increased risk of multiple diseases.
We need sleep. Sleep is not just chill time when our brains shut down and our bodies relax. It is a highly active time for our brains. The brain has two distinct types of sleep; SWS or slow-wave sleep, commonly referred to as deep sleep, and REM or rapid eye movement sleep commonly referred to as dreaming sleep. Most of our sleep is SWS. You can tell SWS by relaxed muscles and slow, deep breathing, which helps the brain and body to recuperate and heal after a long day.
REM sleep is a bit of a mystery to modern science. We know that our brain needs REM sleep, but we don’t know why. In REM sleep the brain becomes highly active while the body's muscles are paralyzed, and breathing and heart rate become erratic. We do know that the changes throughout the night in blood pressure and heart and breathing rates promote cardiovascular health.
When we are sleeping our brain is constantly working. Our brains can make decisions while sleeping, processing information and creating action plans for us to execute when we wake. Our brains can file and organize memories, linking and consolidating memories to keep them better organized. It can also move short term memories to long term memories. Our brains can get creative while we sleep, letting our imagination run wild and giving us new ideas and concepts to explore (and possibly invent).
Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Exclusive space. Make your sleep space is exclusively (or almost exclusively) for sleep. If your sleep space is just that, the fact of being there sends signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep and gets the process started. If the space is used for 1000 things, your brain gets signals to do things based on whatever of the 1000 things it sees first in the room.
Stick to a sleep schedule. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. As it becomes habit, you will find it harder to move out of your sleep schedule, ensuring you get enough.
Get Physical. Exercise is great in many ways for your body including sleep. Research has shown that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and also improves sleep quality. Ensure though that you do it early enough in the day that it does not make it harder to sleep. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2–3 hours before your bedtime.
Tune out. We live in the digital world, but that world is trying to eat away at our precious sleep. Try keeping all screens (phones, tablets, computers, games, e-readers and TVs) out of your sleep space. We all give in to the temptation for one more look, but if they are nowhere in sight it’s much harder. Beyond the addictive nature of the devices themselves, the light they give off signals our brain to stay awake, not sleep, which can mess with our sleep cycles. Avoid the “but it’s an e-book” trap. Use the old fashioned page turners with real pages to help you sleep.
Tea time. Wind down with a cup of relaxing herbal tea. Chamomile and lavender have been used for generations with great success. They smell and taste great while they help you unwind and prepare for sleep. Also they are great for enjoying with that page turner before bed.
Essentials. Essential oils can help set the mood for sleep. Just a drop or two of pure essential oils (not fragrant oils or oil blends) on the corner of your pillow or on a cotton ball (on a coaster) on your bedside table can add a relaxing and calming scent to the room. My favourites are lavender, jasmine, and chamomile.
Avoid stimulants. Most of us rely on stimulants to get us ready for the day. These are precisely what you want to avoid at the end of the day. Don’t wind your brain and body up when you need to be winding down. The big two are caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine is not just in your cup of joe (coffee). It’s also in colas, certain teas, chocolate, sports drinks, energy drinks, some alcoholic drinks and many diet supplements. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant with effects that can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Nicotine can cause smokers to sleep only very lightly and erratically. Additionally, many smokers need to wake up too early each morning to smoke in order to feed the addiction and avoid nicotine withdrawal.
By understanding why you need better sleep and just how much you need, you can plan properly and optimize your sleep for better health.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.