December 11, 2019
Back in the day, in my early years as a doctor, I frequently worked night shifts.
It was useful in getting as much experience under my belt as possible, but it utterly wrecked my health. I’d become angry, anxious and tired, and would often lash out at people, even my own mother!
But I have now resolved not to accept any more night shift work. I decided to do this because multiple high-quality studies have shown night shift workers die younger than their day shift counterparts.
The reason? It’s because it’s clear that good quality sleep on a regular basis improves health and leads to a longer life. The human body works in a day-night cycle, and it’s vitally important to sleep at night and be awake during the day.
Your body is smart: even if you turn off all the light sources, your body can “tell” that it’s not in a sleeping environment.
You may be unconscious, but your body isn’t resting properly.
And it’s important. A good sleep allows your body to rest, recuperate and grow. You don’t want to survive on cortisol and adrenaline and then wake up at the wrong time. It can make you a miserable jerk. Believe me.
A lack of good quality sleep jumbles up your hormones, and can also make you hungrier and put on weight, which is definitely something we don’t want.
My New Year’s resolution for 2019 is to improve my habits surrounding sleep, but how am I going to go about this? Read on to find out.
Ditch the electronics
It’s something parents nag their kids about all of the time nowadays, but there is some merit to it. Using your phone around bedtime is a bad idea.
Modern phone usage and internet use isn’t a slow-burning, mindful activity. Rather, it’s a hyper-stimulating, dopamine-releasing game of whack a mole that can hype your brain up — pretty much the opposite of the relaxing state you want to be in before you go to bed.
You want to switch your brain into a “wind down” phase as you go to sleep, rather than a “wind up” phase. You can do this by removing high stimulus things from your bedroom. The phone is usually the biggest offender.
If you’re on a super-tight schedule and you simply have to be on your phone or computer half an hour before bed, there are solutions that can help.
Most phones and computers have a “night time” setting where it can change the composition of light. It will switch the screen to warmer, more natural colors –the cold, artificial light is bad for your eyes and is far too stimulating.
There is actually one place for phones when it comes to sleep –apps. Certain apps like Sleep Meister can track your movements while you sleep and detect your sleep cycles. It can produce graphs showing how well you slept and has a feature that will wake you up within a certain timeframe.
Setting the last possible time to wake up as your standard alarm means that if you’re still in a deep sleep when you’re due to wake up, it can wake you up just before, meaning you’ll be fresher and more vitalized during the day.
Keep ambient light away from your bedroom
Sleep is hard-wired into your system. We’ve been doing it since we’ve been around, and your body has developed lots of systems for working out when it should be resting.
Your body is programmed to shut down at night, not in the day; It’s clear from all of the health issues we face when we become nocturnal.
That being said, you want to minimize as many sources of light as possible. Often times curtains are not enough, I would seriously recommend investing in an eye mask. They’re on planes for a reason, and it will stop the morning light from disrupting your sleep patterns.
Noise can be as bad as light when it comes to disturbances. Your brain is programmed to wake up when significant noise crops up.
It’s a primal thing. If you’re asleep, you’re vulnerable. And if you’re vulnerable predators and dangers can threaten you. This is why it’s so important to minimize noise. Only then will your body allow you to fully shut down undisturbed.
Don’t nap during the day
I’m a fan of intermittent fasting and working hard and playing hard. It’s good to do things in dedicated sections; it’s more efficient and satisfying.
This is also why you shouldn’t break your sleep up unless you’re trying to stop being nocturnal. It’ll stop you from being tired when you should be sleeping, and it’s quite difficult to get a solid rest with all the other factors considered.
If you have to have a nap, try and keep it to less than an hour. After that, you’ll risk going into deep sleep and being rudely awakened. Alternatively, have some coffee and try a 20-minute catnap. You’ll wake up just as the coffee hits, feeling much fresher.
Exercise more and expose yourself to sunlight
For every yin, there’s a yang, and this also applies to sleep. When you’re awake, you really want to emphasize to your body that this is awake time.
Sunlight and physical activity are the antitheses of sleep, and by exposing yourself to these it sets your body up to actually commit to sleep, having checked off the former during the day.
Exercise will also tire out your body, making the process of sleep much easier.
Your body has a natural rhythm, called the circadian rhythm, which emphasizes different bodily functions. By exercising during the day, you’re reinforcing this rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep.
Engage in mindfulness
Instead of engaging in high stimulus activity, engage in process-oriented ones. This can even be as something as simple as reading. The words don’t move, there isn’t any artificial light, and you can go as fast or as slow as you want.
You could also try mindfulness meditation. This will switch your focus away from all of the thoughts streaming through your mind and put you in the present moment, in your body, and ready to engage with whatever you’re currently doing.
There are plenty of apps for this like Headspace, and there are even guided meditation videos on YouTube. Don’t worry if it sounds a bit woo-woo to you, you can simply use it as a practical tool.
Designate your bed as your sleep zone
This theme of separating out day and night, work and play and activity and sleep should also apply to the layout of your home.
Having a cluttered room tells your body there is disorder and chaos, which can trigger hyperactivity and hyper-awareness. By cleaning your room, it becomes an environment of tranquility and rest.
By the same token, by designating your bedroom as your sleep zone, you’re reinforcing this point. Don’t work on your laptop in bed, it can confuse your brain and make it less likely to want to rest there.
Making sure your sleep is on point is the foundation for your daily activity. Once it gets out of control, everything else suffers. You’ll become less productive, less happy and far less healthy.
The key to ensuring your sleep is high quality all comes down to designating your awake times and your sleep times. Make sure you’re committed to doing daytime things in the day, and nighttime things in the night. Only by segmenting different periods in the day can your body fully commit to them, and you won’t be left feeling unhappy, lost and in sleep purgatory.