Health — May 15, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Stress Less and Start Living: The Sleep-Stress Cycle, Part 4

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Did you know you should be getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night for optimal health? Yet 35.2% of American adults aren’t getting enough sleep and 33% report symptoms of insomnia – difficulty falling or staying asleep – every night. And that’s on a good day! With us all cooped up and restless due to the pandemic, we’re betting many more of us are in this tired-but-wired state, counting COVID cases when we should be counting sheep. And since inadequate sleep causes stress and undermines our immune systems, that gives us the perfect pandemic project to work on. Let’s talk about how to build healthy sleep habits and put insomnia to bed once and for all.

Work hard, rest hard

Regular exercise is a promising treatment for reducing anxiety and stress-related disorders, and has been shown to reduce insomnia and improve sleep quality. Physical activity burns the excess energy your brain uses to race around the clock while releasing endorphins to improve your mood. Although commercial gyms aren’t an option right now, there are still plenty of ways to stay active. Circuit training is a great way to get your heart pumping with body weight exercises like push ups, squats, plank, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and burpees. You can also put your muscles to work while keeping your mind at ease with yoga. Add some cardio into the mix using a treadmill or exercise bike, by going up and down the stairs, or on an outdoor walk, run, or bike ride – but remember to first check with your local health department for permission and routinely practice social distancing. Vigorous exercise is best, but even light-to-moderate aerobic exercise can dramatically improve the quality of your sleep, so make it a part of your daily routine.

Cold sleep is gold sleep

Your body temperature needs to decrease by approximately 2-3°F/1.5°C for a good night’s rest, which is why sleeping in a hot room can be such a nightmare. The ideal bedroom temperature is around 68°F/20°C. If that’s too much brrr for your bedroom, set it as cold as you can tolerate and try bathing at night. While the warm water initially raises your temperature, it causes your blood vessels to dilate, which makes it easier for your body to shed excess body heat throughout the night. Your core temperature will be primed for both falling asleep and getting deep sleep if you leave a 90-minute buffer between bathing and sleeping.

Consistency is king

The flexibility of working from home is blurring our sleep-wake schedules. Even if you are getting enough sleep, you’re hurting your sleep quality and overall health by going to bed and waking up on an irregular schedule due to the effect it has on our body’s circadian rhythms. Instead, keep a predictable routine by sleeping and waking up within the same hour every day, even on weekends. Factor in that it takes on average 15-20 minutes to fall asleep. And if you don’t get enough sleep one night, try not to sleep in the next night to compensate. It’s better for your health to stick to your schedule than to try and pay an accrued “sleep debt”.

Come to the dark side

One thing is absolutely clear about self-isolation – it’s boring. And so, we’re marathoning Netflix and Instagram right up until bedtime. The problem is that your brain uses darkness as a trigger to release the sleepy chemical melatonin, and that queue is disrupted by blue light emitted by your devices. Try avoiding your devices in the hour before bedtime. If you’re nodding along but deep down know you won’t do that, at least try enabling “Night Shift” on your iPhone, “Night Mode” on Android, or software like “F.lux” for your computer to filter out blue light from your display in the evening. Another simple trick is to turn off half your interior lighting in the evening to set the mood for winding down. Lastly, install blackout curtains, and reduce the brightness of any small, blinking lights from devices in the bedroom with scotch tape and a black permanent marker. Any visible light in the bedroom can disrupt your sleep, even if it doesn’t prevent you from drifting off.

Don’t overthink it

Sleep is not to be feared, but it’s understandable that when you’ve had a few nights tossing and turning, you start to dread the idea of being stuck awake while the world around you shuts down. However, fearing insomnia feeds your insomnia. You want to have a healthy relationship with sleep, not an obsession. When you find yourself awake in bed, don’t force it. Get out of bed and do anything to distract you, such as reading a book, assembling a puzzle, practicing a quiet hobby, or meditating. Wait until you feel sleep weighing down your eyelids and then climb back into bed. Doing this helps decatastrophize your insomnia and reconditions your brain to associate your bed with sleep.

It’s a nasty cycle in which lack of sleep causes stress and stress contributes to insomnia. But with a few changes to your nighttime routine, you can help alleviate insomnia and boost the quality and quantity of your sleep. COVID-19 has given us plenty to worry about, but what’s important is that we take care of ourselves and focus on that which is in our control.

Sleep well.

This is the last installment in a series written by Chad Morris.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. None of the information presented is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. This is a personal account and individual experiences may vary. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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