Friday, July 15, 2011

Change Your Life by Changing Your Sleep Habits

I've recently been thinking about ways to get unstuck and change your life that are either free or cheap.  We often find ourselves stuck in unhealthy patterns that actually destroy our health, and we'll use every excuse in the book to latch on and hold that unhealthy pattern forever.  Why?  Because people are resistant to change.  But we need to change our unhealthy habits because merely by making some small changes in our routines, we can begin to feel better and lead fuller, happier lives.

I chose sleep as the first area to discuss because the quality and amount of sleep you're getting affects almost every other area of your life.  Well-rested people focus better, are generally less irritable and feel better.  How much stress do you have each month due to oversleeping and being late to work or late to get the kids to school?  How much money do you spend on coffee, soda and energy drinks to keep you awake?  And the bigger question is, what effect are these habits having on your health and happiness?  Below are tips that can help you fall asleep faster, have more restful sleep and wake up feeling refreshed.

Reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex.
Don't do work or homework in your bedroom, do your taxes, argue about your relationship with your partner, or try to solve the problem of finding world peace in bed.  The bedroom should be a stress-free sanctuary, so don't invite stress to join you by engaging in stressful activities in bed.  Use your bedroom for calm and enjoyable activities and move all other activities to other areas of your home.

Set a sleep schedule and stick to it.
A doctor once told me, "Your body will tell you when it's tired."  He was right.  Even if you sometimes have difficulty sleeping, go to bed and get up at the same time every day.  Part of the reason that Monday is so hard is because people go out on weekends, stay up late and consume alcohol.  If someone has been going to bed at 2:00 a.m. all weekend and sleeping until noon, then getting up at 6:00 a.m. on Monday morning is going to be extremely painful.

You may not feel tired at your selected bedtime during your first few days of establishing this habit.  Go to bed at your selected time, turn off the lights and try to rest.  It's OK if you don't fall asleep right away.  Even if you feel tired in the morning, get up at your selected time.  Don't allow yourself to hit the snooze button 10 times, and don't overcompensate with caffeine.  After a week or so, your body will get used to the new schedule.  Aim for eight hours of sleep each night.

Don't consume alcohol, caffeine or heavy meals just before bedtime.
Although alcohol is a depressant, it can actually prevent a person from getting quality sleep.  Sometimes small amounts of alcohol can even keep people awake.  Some people avoid alcohol for religious reasons, but there are some scientific studies that suggest that a small amount of alcohol per week can help ward off health problems.  Because of the benefits, I won't recommend cutting out alcohol completely, even though I don't drink.  Nevertheless, you should avoid alcohol near bedtime and reduce your overall drinking if you drink frequently or drink to excess.

Remove caffeine completely from your diet to help you feel less tired in the morning and help you sleep better.  As with any drug, users build up a tolerance to caffeine.  Imagine that the first time you use caffeine you feel "average" before and "great" after using.  The next day you start off feeling a little "below average" and the high is a little bit less intense.  Now you only feel "good" when using caffeine.  A few days later you wake up and instead of feeling average you feel "terrible".  You can't stay awake without caffeine.  When you use caffeine, you only get up to what used to be "average".  And the trend continues.  I will write about quitting caffeine in a later article.  I quit caffeine in 2003 and started feeling better than I had ever felt in my life.

Eating heavy meals just before bed does not give your body sufficient time to digest the food, which is why you should avoid big meals late at night.  Heartburn, indigestion and weight gain are the unwelcome side effects that come with late night snacking.  It's best to eat a light dinner that is rich in fiber and protein, so that you will feel full through the night, but don't have to worry about all the problems that come with late night eating.

Use relaxation techniques to fall asleep naturally.
My favorite technique is what I call "counting meditation".  Start by taking some deep and slow breaths.  First think of the number one.  Let your mind settle on the idea of one as you continue to breathe deeply and slowly.  If your thoughts wander, come back to the idea of one.  When you have spent some time on one, move to two.  Do not let your mind wander to the next number or other thoughts.  If your mind wanders too far, go back to one.  My boyfriend told me that this technique is "silly", but I told him that it absolutely works.  Try it, and you will fall asleep in minutes.  Racing thoughts or worries can prevent you from falling asleep, but focusing thoughts on neutral topics, like counting, helps a person fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep.

A product that I bought in the 1990s and highly recommend is Steven Halpern's Sleep Soundly (Relaxing music plus subliminal affirmations).  This program is made up of soft, ambient music that contains subliminal messages encouraging sleep and relaxation.  I love this product because you can't help but feel at peace when you listen to the gentle music.  The suggestions are barely audible and not distinguishable, but they have a profound effect of inducing sleep.  The music is not too focuses on a specific melody.  Songs that have a very strong and repetitive melody, especially if they have sing-along type lyrics are not good to listen to before bed because they can stimulate your mind too much, preventing restful sleep.

What are your best tips to get a better night's sleep?  Please share your best ideas below.


Mel the Crafty Scientist said...

Love your blog design and the cute kitten pic! Thanks for stopping by my blog and I'm so glad you liked my wall art - it really wasn't too much work and I really do love how it turned out! I'd love to see what you make if you try it! : )

Tina said...

Thanks for stopping by! LG Tina

Rob-bear said...

This is a good point. There are sleep habits we can change, which would help us.
Sadly, however, some of us suffer from things like Sleep Apnea, which may be impossible to change.

Lola said...

@Rob-bear has a great point! If you still notice sleep issues after making some changes in habits, it could be a sign of something more serious. See your doctor and request a sleep study to determine if you have a more serious condition. Sadly, an acquaintance of mine died from untreated sleep apnea, so it's quite a serious condition that needs medical attention and probably a CPAP machine.