Good quality sleep is vital to the health of the body and mind. Long term sleep deficiency or irregular sleep is known to carry significant health risks.
So far, in a series of three posts related to sleep, we covered the importance of sleep, the brain waves and stages of sleep from a neuroscience perspective. In this post, we will cover some simple habits to help you get a relaxing and rejuvenating sleep. There is nothing more rewarding than awakening refreshed in the morning full of energy throughout the day.
You can establish some simple habits to improve the quality of your sleep. They can be categorized into sleep hygiene, exercise, and eating.
Sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleep habits that can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Keep regular bedtime as well as a regular time of waking up in the morning. Sleep for eight hours straight without any interruption. By having a regular sleep schedule your circadian rhythm will stay synchronized with the schedule – which is very important. We covered circadian rhythm in our post on Jet Lag. It controls the release of body chemicals (hormones/neurotransmitters), hunger, sleep, body temperature and shift of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in your daily cycle. For example, a neurotransmitter called Melatonin, which released to prepare the brain for sleep, will automatically be released at a fixed time and put you to sleep without difficulties.
- Use your bed only for sleep and intimate relations. Or, at least move clutter out of the bedroom – remove laptop, paperwork, and anything that reminds you of work. Do not use your bed for working, reading, watching TV, snacking, or worrying. This way you train your brain to associate your bed only with sleep and nothing else.
- Avoid naps after 3:00 pm as they tend to disturb your regular sleep. Also, make sure that the nap is no longer than thirty minutes. Longer afternoon nap will make you enter into later stages of sleep (stage III Non-REM and REM) which when disturbed will make you uncomfortable, and also make you lethargic in the evening.
- Keep the bedroom clean, pleasant and well ventilated. If your bedroom is too cold or hot, too bright, noisy, smelly, your sleep may get disrupted without you consciously knowing it.
- Thirty minutes before going to bed, start to wind down. Listen to soothing music, read a good book, follow nightly rituals of prayers or chanting of mantras. Relax your mind and body by gentle and relaxing stretching, or aromatherapy. Most important – stop the use of your laptop and mobile phone – particularly stop accessing social media Apps at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Writing down ruminations, or writing down thoughts before bed can help calm the mind.
- After you lie down, if you are not asleep in twenty minutes, simply get up, go into another room, and relax or read in dim light until you feel sleepy. If you wake up in the middle of the night and find it difficult to go back to sleep within twenty minutes, follow the same. Yoga practitioners can do simple supported forward bends like Adho Mukha Virasana, Adho Mukha Swastikasana, Paschimottanasana with head supported. These poses will relax the mind and help you get back to sleep. We will cover this in the next post dedicated to Yoga for sleep.
Nobody can deny that exercise is good for health. You should set up a routine for exercising daily. Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking is one of the best ways to improve the quality of your sleep. It helps you to fall asleep faster and to sleep longer. Doing it in nature will have more benefits. Studies indicate that those who exercise regularly also spend a greater amount of time in stage III Non-REM and REM stage of sleep, which are the most restorative and repairing stages of sleep.
Incorporate Yogasana practice in your exercise routine. Yoga is not just a physical exercise – it is a holistic mind-body practice for a healthy living. It works beyond anatomy/physical level and has profound and positive physiological and physiological benefits – reducing your stress at all these levels. Include restorative poses in every Yoga session. Practicing 20 minutes of restorative Yoga poses every day will de-stress you, build emotional stability, and induce peaceful and relaxing sleep. We will dedicate our next post to Yoga for its benefits for sleep.
Do not exercising too close to bedtime. Exercising stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates different parts of the body and also releases stress hormones that come in the way of your sleep. Intensive Yoga practice should also be avoided in the evening. Instead, restorative Yoga and Pranayama are advisable, as they relax the mind and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to help with sleep quality. Calmer the brain, better the sleep quality. Yoga Nidra (guided meditation) and guided imagery are also helpful in inducing sleep.
Though eating healthy food is key to good health, what you eat or drink in the latter part of the day is more important from a sleep perspective. Eat normal portion size and a well-balanced meal at dinner time – preferably three to four hours before bedtime. It is okay to have a light bedtime snack. More on the eating habits for a good sleep in a separate post. Just a few key points to ponder here:
- You should get plenty of B-complex complex vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and other essential nutrients in your diet.
- Caffeine increases alertness and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. So, avoid it close to bedtime.
- Avoid chocolates late in the evening. They may contain Caffeine, Theobromine, Tyramine or Phenylethylamine that increase alertness and can contribute to sleep problems.
- Avoid foods high in processed carbohydrates and sugar. They can be stimulating.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake. Though alcohol helps you fall asleep quickly, it reduces the time spent in stage III Non-REM and REM sleep, which are the most restorative stages of sleep. This is discussed in post of stages of sleep.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal or a meal with too much fatty food close to bedtime. Our digestive tract is not designed to digest in a prone or supine position. The digestive system works best when we are up and moving around. Our stomach and pancreas are not designed to be undergoing major digestion of food while we are sleeping. Eating heavy close to bedtime can cause heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux – disturbing your sleep.
- L-tryptophan is the amino acid that helps you get a good sleep. It is a precursor to serotonin – a neurotransmitter brain that enables you to sleep. L-tryptophan tryptophan is also the precursor of melatonin, a hormone that also helps the body to go to sleep. You can get L-tryptophan in meats, cashews, butter, rice, and whole-grain food. For Indians, Daal-rice-ghee for dinner is a good sleep tonic.
These habits may seem too much. But even a few slight step-by-step adjustments can make a big difference. They take you from a restless night to a sound sleep in a matter of a few days. So start today itself!
Stay tuned for our next post on the benefits of Yoga for sleep.