This time of year is particularly stressful for everyone, even those folks who are not celebrating a holiday. It’s hard to avoid the just general heightened stress that is in the air. It becomes a little bit harder to muster up the patience needed to deal with difficult or extra needy people.
Sleep is probably the one thing you can do that will help you the most holistically. It effects your physical and mental health. Poor sleep whether from sleep disorders or just not getting enough sleep because you’re up reading too late (you know who you are!) effects us deeply into the far reaching corners of our health. It effects our ability to think. It effects our immune system. It effects our mood. It effects our ability to react quickly. It effects our motor skills. It effects our ability to remember. We all know how much shaving a few hours of sleep here and there effects our ability to be patient and nice. We joke about it actually. But what about the non laughable effects it has on our mental health?
In doing the research for this post, I was actually astonished by the following quote in New Scientist (February 21, 2009):
Adults with depression, for instance, are five times as likely as the average person to have difficulty breathing when asleep, while between a quarter and a half of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sleep complaints, compared with just 7 per cent of other children.
They are now starting to rethink the “poor sleep as a symptom of mental illness” and flip it to a theory that just maybe, poor sleep causes mental illness.
Matt Walker, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkley and his colleagues conducted a study to find out just why people become irritable when they get a poor night’s sleep. What they discovered is that the part of our brain that basically inhibits us from highly emotional reactions to encountering things we don’t like is not communicating properly. According to Walker, when we are deprived of good sleep our “emotional brake” is not working. He suggests if you are feeling emotional or irritable that you try to take a nap. After taking a 90 minute nap where they reached REM sleep, his previously irritable study participants were not only less irritable; but, they also became more receptive to happy faces.
We know, innately, as living, breathing humans that if we don’t sleep well we become grouchier and short tempered. We already know this. But how do we change our poor sleep habits? In stressful times, we probably need MORE sleep than normal.
It seems that the experts agree on the following.
1. Set regular sleep hours. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
2. Relax in the time leading up to your bedtime. A warm bath, a glass of warm milk or sleepy tea can help you start to feel more relaxed and ready for bed. There are a couple of things you probably shouldn’t be doing right before bed: exercise and talking on a cell phone. While exercise is important to good sleep (see below), it takes time for your body to wind down after exercising and you should refrain in the 3 hours leading up to your bedtime. Researchers in Switzerland have have linked long phone conversations on cell phones to disturbed sleep. While more research needs to be done in this area, if you have disturbed sleep and are yakking on your cell phone leading up to bed, you might want to try to avoid phone calls. Minimize stressful conversations, reading, TV and projects.
3. Cut way back on caffeine. You know if caffeine keeps you up at night. Some people can fall asleep minutes after having a cup of coffee. I need to stop drinking caffeine by mid afternoon.
4. Exercise. Getting into a regular routine of exercise in the morning or afternoon will not only help you fall asleep faster; but, researchers have discovered that regular exercise helps people reach deeper sleep for longer periods of time.
5. Prepare your sleep environment. Make sure you have a comfortable bed. Reduce noise and light as much as possible. Lower the temperature. Sleep specialists also suggest that you only use your bed for sleeping and sex. If you are watching television, working on projects, talking on the phone, typing on your laptop while your in bed, your body is not programmed to think “sleep” as soon as you climb in.
6. Honor the need to sleep. I love this one because it’s really about taking care of yourself and making sleep a priority. I’m as guilty as the next person for shaving sleep here and there; but, I feel the consequences so immediately and so severely because of the brain injury I sustained in 2005 that it is always a “wake up call” no pun intended! I have a brain that does not play along when I stay up late reading The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (it’s sooo good!). I am acutely aware of my deficits the next day. Many of my friends exercise and eat really well; yet, they are quick to stay up late watching television or surfing the web and just compensate the next day with more caffeine. But, if you take anything from this post, it should be that getting more sleep is probably one of the easiest and most impactful adjustments you can make for your health and mood.
If it seems that you are doing everything right and still need caffeine and still feel tired, go talk to your doctor. Sleep disorders effect millions of Americans.
I suggest a nap. If in doubt, nap. I may not post until after the New Year; so, if I don’t, I wish you all a pleasant holiday season (whatever holidays you celebrate) and plenty of opportunities to catch some cat naps. Sleep well.
UPDATE JAN 04, 2010: I ran across this Huffington Post article and am going to take the challenge myself: 30 days of good rest. I’m tempted to say I’ll start tomorrow (insert guilty laugh here); but, I will start tonight. How about you? Can you get 30 continuous days of good rest?
Rizzo, Terrie Heinrich. “Sleep matters: learn smart strategies to make sure your body gets the zzzzzs it needs.” IDEA Fitness Journal 4.5 (2007): 102+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://find.galegroup.com/gps/start.do?prodId=IPS&userGroupName=midd90876>.
“10 keys to a great night’s sleep: sleeping better can increase your physical and mental performance, put you in a better mood, and perhaps even boost your immune system.” Women’s Health Advisor 11.6 (2007): 4+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://find.galegroup.com/gps/start.do?prodId=IPS&userGroupName=midd90876>.
Young, Emma. “Sleep well, stay sane: could our bad sleeping habits be driving us mad?” New Scientist 201.2696 (2009): 34+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://find.galegroup.com/gps/start.do?prodId=IPS&userGroupName=midd90876>.
When I changed my eating habits (less-to-no additives, chemicals, caffiene, processed ickiness –though I still can’t afford organic), I instantly slept better. With the added comfort of having found my lifemate, I sleep like a baby. Deep, fast, instant sleep. Before these changes, it was so hard to fall asleep. I couldn’t calm my mind, I didn’t feel restful. But since I’ve eaten healthier–and in that way grown to respect myself more and be happier overall–I have found that I do sleep better. And truly, exercising regularly this last year has also helped!
Excellent post. Makes perfect sense. Afterall, if sleep-deprivation is used as torture, wouldn’t it make sense that true health is to get good, regular, full sleep? And no matter all the “I have to do such-and-such first” statements. If we aren’t at our best, how can we do our best? Everything in life can wait–but taking care of our health cannot.
Excellent points. I also switched to a less processed and more “real” food diet and feel pretty strongly that combined with exercise and all of the stress management tools…it’s the key to maintaining health. A couple of years ago, my sister got bad numbers back from cholesterol and triglyceride tests and sought my opinion because she knows I try to eat healthy. I told her: try to reduce as much as possible the amount of food you eat that comes in a bag or a box. Eat more real food.