Healthy Changes for Better Sleep and Relaxation

Why is sleep important? Let me count the ways… Sleep:

  • Maintains physical health
  • Increases immune system to prevent infection and inflammation
  • Supports growth and development in children and teens
  • Helps your brain work properly
  • Improves learning
  • Helps stabilize mood
  • Improves attention
  • Increases ability to regulate calories
  • Decreases risk of heart disease

That’s a quick and incomplete summary of a complicated topic. There are entire divisions of medical and scientific research that delve into the complexity and value of sleep (and conversely, the problems with sleep deprivation and disorders). Too little sleep means you’re putting your physical and mental health at risk—possibly severe risk. Getting enough sleep is essential for health and wellbeing. 

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, most adults should be getting 7 or more hours of sleep per night. And if you’re a child or teen, that number should be higher.

That means… there is a good chance that you’re not getting enough sleep. About 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems.1 But sleep issues seem to be even more wide ranging. Over 35% of adults in the US report that they sleep less than seven hours per night.2 And some people, depending on region or race, are affected more severely. For example, 43% of Hawaiian adults on average report getting less than seven hours per night,3 and Black adults are almost twice as likely to describe getting too little sleep.4 

How Can You Create Healthy Habits for More Sleep?

If you think you have a sleep disorder (e.g., insomnia, sleep apnea, circadian rhythm) then talking with your health care provider is your best next step. They can use your medical history, sleep history, a physical exam, and quite likely a sleep study to figure out possible diagnosis and treatments. Some sleep disorders require medical equipment and prescription drugs to treat. 

But there are a lot of things you can try to improve your sleep even if it doesn’t seem like you have a sleep disorder. Studies have shown that there are many effective ways to improve the quality and length of your sleep. So, grab a blanket, get comfortable, and dive deep into sleep… habits. 

Good sleep habits, rules, and techniques

  • Sleep situate your space

A good environment can improve some people’s sleep, and there are a number of studies that show that external distractions can cause poor sleep—in particular light and noise. Noises, like traffic, can lower cortisol levels and disturb endocrine and metabolic hormones, which are associated with lower sleep quality and mood.5 For good sleep, try to minimize external noise and artificial light. 

Temperature can also impact sleep quality, in particular increased bedroom temperature (and therefore body temperature). Making your bed comfortable and supportive can also dramatically improve your sleep. If your bed is old, a new mattress can potentially reduce pain, stiffness, and improve sleep quality.6 This can be expensive, so mattress toppers and supportive pillows can also help. 

  • Stay away from certain late-night habits

You might have heard some of these recommendations before, and it’s because they’re effective.  Reduce the amount of caffeine you consume, and don’t drink it late in the day. Caffeine can affect you for 6-8 hours, so say no to tea, coffee, and soda in the afternoon and evening if you’re having trouble sleeping. And reduce your alcohol consumption overall. Alcohol disrupts all sorts of things including melatonin production, human growth hormone, rapid eye movement,7 and even your throat muscles (which can lead to breathing difficulties and sleep apnea). 

In addition to what you’re drinking, reduce how much blue light you consume in the evening. Blue wavelengths of light boost attention, reaction, and mood during the day. But some studies show that they’re a hazard at night.9 Experts believe that it suppresses the production of melatonin, and it seems to be linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. So, how do you stay away from blue light? The easiest way is to reduce how much you interact with screens at night (computers, phones, televisions). Blue-blocking glasses or covers might help, but it’s better to avoid screens altogether. 

  • Keep to a schedule

A circadian rhythm is your internal clock. It’s a natural, internal process that tells you when to sleep and eat. All sorts of things are associated with your circadian rhythm—your body temperature, brain activity, hormone production. One way to make the most of your circadian rhythm to sleep well and for the right length of time, is to assign yourself a sleep schedule and stick to it! Go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Be consistent and avoid major disruptions. Sure, you can go to bed a little late occasionally, or sleep in just a little bit on the weekends. But avoid any major disruptions. 

To be consistent and avoid disruptions, you should also stick to short power naps instead of long naps. Sleeping for a sustained amount of time during the day confuses your internal clock. Some people can take naps and sleep well at night, but if you’re struggling with sleep quality then try leaning into a sleep schedule and avoiding naps that are longer than thirty minutes.

  • Find a Relaxation Technique that Works for You

For many people, a major trigger of bad sleep is stress and anxiety. According to John Hopkins, a recent survey said that 44% of adults had a sleepless night within the last month that was caused by stress. It’s hard to drift off to sleep if you’re worried about work, a sick kid, money issues, or a recent argument. 

Relaxation techniques can help. Research shows that one of the best ways to improve sleep is by using relaxation techniques before bed.10,11,12 Here are some excellent relaxation techniques to try:

  • Box breathing: Exhale to a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, inhale for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat. 
  • Belly breathing: Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Breath in making sure that you’re breathing moves the hand on your belly and not the hand on your chest. Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale. Repeat.
  • Body scan visualization: Start at one end of your body (let’s say the top of your head for this example). Breathe and think about how your head feels. Then move to the next area of your body – your face, then jaw, then neck, then shoulder. Each time, think about how it feels, just accepting the sensation. Breathe and move through all the parts of your body. 
  • Stretching: Pick 5-7 gentle stretching exercises to do before bed. E.g., child’s pose, sphinx pose, knee to chest stretch, supine twist, bear hug. Take gentle breaths, move through the exercises slowly, and do not overextend.
  • Retrain your thoughts
  • How we think about sleep impacts how well and how much we sleep. Research shows that one of the best ways to improve sleep is to fix our thoughts about sleep. There are sleep exercises and education materials that can help you identify how you think about sleep and reframe your thoughts to think like a good sleeper. There are CBT based sessions available specifically designed to provide cognitive restructuring and break damaging cycles that cause poor sleep. 

    The Uprise Health digital platform provides three courses and 12 exercises all about sleep basics, sleep and relaxation, and mindfulness for sleep. These courses have been designed using an evidence-based approach that has been proven to work. If you’re interested, check out information about the Uprise Health platform

    Sleep training can really help, so check with your EAP or mental health services to see if they have any courses or exercises related to sleep. Or ask your primary care doctor for CBT resources related to sleep.

    Resources

    1. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_us.html 
    2. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.html 
    3. https://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/hawaii/2020/measure/factors/143/data 
    4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12170-013-0330-0 
    5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12493567/ 
    6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2697581/ 
    7. https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/amh/if-amh-alcohol-and-sleep.pdf 
    8. https://www.conehealth.com/services/sleep-disorders/late-night-snacks-and-better-sleep-how-what-and-when-you-eat-imp/
    9. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side 
    10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6989409/ 
    11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1986039/ 
    12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10271532/