Sleep. We talk about it all of the time, especially our lack of it.
In February of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of a study on sleep. In this study was the statement that more than one-third of adults in the U.S. do not get enough sleep that is, they sleep less than seven hours a night on a regular basis. This is alarming, says the CDC, because lack of sleep increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and emotional distress.
So, how does a person get enough sleep in this harried, hurried, connected world?
All day long our brains are functioning in high gear and most of us fail to turn our brains off at night. Then, we wonder why we lie awake in bed unable to shut that brain down so that we can get a good night’s sleep. Or, we stay up all hours connected to our devices – reading and answering emails, checking all of our social media accounts, playing video games or watching movies. And, again, we wonder why we can’t just fall off to sleep when the head hits the pillow.
The issue is in the brain. The brain, like any computer, is programmable, and if we want a good night’s sleep, we have to program our brain for that sleep. Here are seven hacks to program the brain correctly for sleep.
Meditation is not some eerie, mystical, magical activity. It is, quite simply, a way to disconnect from the world and all of the stressors that are still invading our brains and keeping all of those synapses firing away.
Meditation is a learned skill, and it must be practiced. You can learn simple meditative techniques online, or you can take a class, if you want to engage in more advanced technique.
For purposes of preparing your brain for sleep, however, your goal is to quiet your body and your thought. You can do this by sitting or lying quietly and focusing on your breathing. Take slow, even breaths and count them. Focus on your diaphragm expanding and contracting with those breaths.
You can also visualize a peaceful scene while you breathe. Place yourself in a peaceful lagoon on a raft or some other place that is relaxing for you. Serotonin will be released and that is a chemical that will relax all of you.
Screens are too stimulating for the brain, not to mention continued mental activity that continues to occur as you stay plugged in. Whether you are responding to emails, checking Facebook, or playing a video game, your brain continues to be stimulated. It takes time for that stimulation to subside, so you need to get unconnected two hours before bedtime. Staying connected reduces your ability to fall asleep, and even a few nights like this will have a pretty disastrous impact on focus and memory.
When you engage in highly active and strenuous exercise at night, you release endorphins, increase heart rate and blood flow to the brain. All of these things perk you up, keep you alert and positive. These are great things to have during the day, but not at night when you need to get the body and brain quiet. Instead, if you feel a need to physically move in the evening, take a leisurely walk. This has the effect of quieting your brain too, as you notice nature, enjoy the quiet surroundings, and allow your mind to think on pleasant things.
When we are physically uncomfortable as we try to sleep, our body sends those messages to our brain, and our brain process those messages as long as they keep coming. The solution lies in getting bedding that provides comfort, and the most important part of that bedding is, obviously, a mattress. And there’s a lot of new technology out there that has impacted the materials out of which mattresses are now made – natural and synthetic – as well as dials and gadgets that can add or reduce air content, dependent upon how much firmness a sleeper needs.
One of the newest mattress technologies has been developed by two brothers, Tony and Terry Pearce, who designed and patented a cushioning technology that was quickly adopted by comfort giants such as Dr. Scholl’s. Ultimately, they took that technology to the design of mattresses that provided both spine support and cradling pressure points at the same time. Called the Purple Mattress, this new technology, when tested by sleep quality apps, such as Sense, shows that the amount of deep sleep is increased. This is that sleep phase that allows people to wake up refreshed. “We’ve put all that we have learned from our high-tech careers into the world’s greatest bed,” says Tony Pearce, co-founder of Purple Mattress.
Diet has an impact on sleep quality, especially the time of day that foods are consumed. Spicy foods can disrupt sleep as can heavy meals too soon before bed. At the same time, going to bed hungry can disrupt sleep too. A light snack before bed may benefit deep sleep. Alcohol may put you to sleep initially, but your sleep will not be good.
Reading a book, not on a screen, can be a soothing experience and does not stimulate the brain the way screens do. The repetitious brain activity of reading calms down other parts of the brain and takes attention off of the worries and anxieties of the day. This is a good thing.
During the day, you should expose yourself to as much natural light as possible, to stay on an “awake” cycle. At night, when you go to bed, your room should be dark. This keeps your brain in the right awake and sleep cycle. And going to bed at the same time every night keeps your brain in that cycle too.
If you do get up in the middle of the night, keep any necessary light low. It will be easier to fall back asleep if you do.
Temperature is also important. In general, your room temperature should be cooler than you normally have during your waking hours.
Your brain controls your sleep – when you get sleepy, how easily you fall asleep, and how well you actually sleep. And you have to program that brain to do your bidding. You do this by controlling your thought, by controlling the messages your body sends to your brain, and by setting up an environment of physical and mental calm, so that your brain gets the point. Getting consistent, deep sleep keeps you alert and productive and prevents a whole host of negative consequences.