There has been a noticeable shift in American sleep cycles over the last century: We sleep less than our grandparents did. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, we sleep an average of 6.8 hours per night, with 40 percent of Americans getting less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night. This is in sharp contrast to polling results from 1942, when Americans averaged closer to 8 hours of sleep and 80 percent reported getting at least 7 hours of shut-eye per night. Why the change?
It seems that our biological clocks have been altered by certain lifestyle changes. One change is that both children and adults spend a lot more time indoors during the day than they did 50 or a hundred years ago. Kids and teens are now more likely to stay inside and play computer games or use technology to communicate with each other than to go outside and play. Meanwhile, many adults are putting in long hours inside enclosed work spaces, as opposed to working outside, perhaps on a farm. Being exposed to midday sunlight outdoors is a key factor in setting our biological clocks for sleep at night. But how many of us spend even a few hours outside each day anymore?
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Then there is the massive onslaught of information and communication that comes our way at all hours of the day and night, thanks to new technology. There are now an awful lot of distractions— smartphones, tablets, computers, fitness tracking bands, televisions, you name it—competing for your headspace at a time when you could be unwinding or falling fast asleep. We no longer go home at the end of the day to relax and tune out the world. Instead, many of us put in a few more hours of work at home, where we check e-mails or respond to social media activity. How can you push past all of this to get a good night’s sleep? And do so without resorting to sleeping pills?
Start by creating the best-possible environment for sleep, a concept called sleep hygiene. The general idea is to create the conditions that tell your body it’s time to cool down, slow certain internal activities, and otherwise prepare for sleep. Here are some tips for doing so:
• Make “calm ” the theme of your bedroom. Try to remove as much noise and light as possible from your sleeping area. Dim the lights and bring down the room temperature ahead of time.
Keep televisions, phones, and all other electronic gadgets away from your sleep space. It’s much easier to fall asleep in a quiet, cool room.
• Go outside during the day. Exposure to sunlight during the day helps keep the body’s natural circadian rhythms aligned with the rising and setting of the sun. Exposure to bright light triggers the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which makes you feel energetic, alert, and happy. Late in the day, serotonin is converted into melatonin, which helps you feel drowsy and ready for sleep. Producing good amounts of serotonin during the day ensures there will be sufficient melatonin at night to help you fall asleep.
• Make time for movement. Exercise is an excellent antidote to stress and promotes longer and deeper sleep. But be sure to finish exercising at least three hours before going to bed, as movement can rev up certain hormones, as well as body temperature, making it difficult to get into sleep mode.
• Shun caffeine after noon. Caffeine is a stimulant that can rev up the body and make it difficult to sleep. To make sure that it’s cleared from your system by bedtime, stop consuming foods and beverages containing caffeine by noon. These include coffee, black tea, green tea, soda, chocolate, and cocoa, to name a few. Also, be aware that medications, especially headache remedies, sometimes contain caffeine.
• Don’t chow down late at night. It takes a lot of energy for your body to digest food, especially fats and proteins. And all of this energetic activity raises the body temperature, the opposite of what you want when you’re getting ready to sleep. When your body temperature rises (as it does in the morning), it’s a signal that it’s time to wake up. So be sure to stop eating two or three hours before bedtime. It’s also a good idea to stop drinking anything, even water, so you don’t have to wake up at night multiple times to go to the bathroom
• Don’t drink alcohol before bedtime. Avoid the temptation to use alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol has a sedating effect, but it disrupts normal sleep cycles and leads to poor-quality sleep. You’ll wake up feeling tired and dull the next morning.
• Wind down well before bedtime. Don’t wait until you’re actually in bed to try to quiet your mind and body in preparation for sleep. Start slowing down at least an hour before your head hits the pillow. Switch off computers, cell phones, television, and other distractions. Finish up any preparations for the next day. Turn off unnecessary lights, and dim others. This is an excellent time to do relaxation exercises or meditate.
• Set a sleep schedule, and stick to it. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Creating this routine will help set your biological clock and optimize your chances of getting sufficient sleep every night. It can also eliminate “Sunday night insomnia,” the inability to fall asleep on Sunday after a weekend of sleeping in. You may find that following a regular sleep schedule means you’re the first one up on weekends. If so, great! You’ve got some quiet, uninterrupted time for yourself.
• Remember that bed is for sleep and sex only. A lot of people turn their beds into a combination desk/entertainment center, where they do their bills, watch television, chat on the cell phone, and so on. But turning your bed into a beehive of activity is the opposite of creating a calming environment for rest and renewal. Limit your activities in bed to sleep and love-making. Then your mind will associate your bed only with rest and pleasure.