In 1965, a 17 year-old college student tried to set a world record for staying awake. During his quest he experienced the following symptoms: visual and auditory hallucinations, increased heart rate, low blood pressure, and psychosis. After 264 hours and 12 minutes (just over 11 days), he collapsed due to profound weakness. Thankfully, he made a full recovery after sleeping 14 hours and 40 minutes.
While this is an extreme example of the consequences of not sleeping, many in today’s society are suffering from health challenges that are partly due to chronic sleep deprivation.
Sleep is essential for optimal health. The amount and quality of sleep we get each night will influence the way we feel and our performance during daytime hours.
High-level functioning of the nervous system requires that we receive enough quality sleep. Inadequate rest results in reduced ability to remember, concentrate, plan, make decisions, and carry out math calculations. Too little sleep also results in drowsiness and reduced physical performance, which may result in a higher rate of injuries, including motor-vehicle accidents.
When we sleep deeply, we allow for efficient cell growth and repair. The release of growth hormones takes place during deep sleep. Sleeping deeply at night helps us to engage at our best, emotionally and socially, with others during the day.
Too often, people who have difficulty falling asleep and sleeping deeply turn to medication. Experience has shown that many sleep disturbances can be solved through natural means. The following are 9 steps you can take to ensure a good night’s sleep.
1. Reserve your bedroom for sleep.
Your bedroom should be reserved for sleep and lovemaking. Homework, office work, and other stressful and stimulating activities should be kept outside of the bedroom, as should televisions, radios, stereos, and other entertainment equipment. This will condition your body to relax and anticipate sleep once you walk into the bedroom. You want to keep any stress and unnecessary stimulation as far away from the bedroom as possible.
2. Be consistent with sleep and wake times.
Go to sleep at the same time each night, and get out of bed at the same time each morning. This will condition your body to fall into a routine of sleep and wakefulness. It is best not to disrupt this routine, such as by sleeping in on weekends.
3. Avoid nicotine, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol close to bedtime.
Nicotine, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol often cause insomnia. Nicotine, caffeine, and sugar are stimulants that cause you to sleep lightly and to wake up before you need to because of withdrawal. Common sources of caffeine are coffee, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, and some over-the-counter and prescription medications. Alcohol prevents deep sleep and interferes with REM-stage sleep, the stage of sleep that stimulates the learning centres of the brain. Adopting an unprocessed and whole food diet will help you avoid these stimulants.
4. Sleep in complete darkness.
Melatonin is a hormone that initiates our desire to sleep and affects the depth of sleep we achieve. Melatonin regulates our sleep-wake cycles and is produced by a gland in the brain. The amount of light we are exposed to at any given moment is what tells this gland whether or not to produce melatonin. Darkness stimulates melatonin production while light inhibits it. Thus, the darker it is when you sleep, the better your melatonin production, and the better the quality of your sleep. Even dim light from a night-light or hall light can disrupt sleep cycles and prevent you from getting deep sleep.
5. Exercise regularly.
Exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Being active promotes a greater need for deep sleep and decreases stress. Do not exercise close to your bedtime, however, as exercise is stimulating and can create difficulties in falling asleep. It is best not to exercise vigorously within 3 hours of your bedtime.
6. Make sure you have a comfortable mattress.
This sounds simple, but there are countless numbers of people out there who are sleeping on a mattress that is too hard, too soft, or not supportive enough and are wondering why they can’t fall asleep. Invest in a mattress that you feel comfortable sleeping on.
7. Claim your bed space.
Don’t share your bed with a companion who takes up your space or who moves around so much that you have difficulty falling or staying asleep. This includes your partner, children, and animal companions. Children after a certain age and animals should have their own designated places for sleep. If you share a bed with your partner and/or children and find it crowded, consider investing in a bigger bed, push two beds together, or try sleeping with separate blankets. You may also want to consider sleeping in a separate bed.
8. Get up if you can’t sleep.
If you have not fallen asleep after 15 minutes, get up and do something else in another room. Thinking about your inability to sleep will contribute to the inability to sleep, which creates a vicious cycle. When you get up to do something else, make sure that the activity you engage in is relaxing and doesn’t involve bright light. Reading and listening to music can be good activities. Watching television and surfing the internet are not.
9. Figure out how much sleep you need.
To determine how long you need to sleep in order to function optimally, take the time to sleep until you wake up on your own without external motivation such as alarms or loud noises. Through this exercise you can determine the optimal amount of sleep for you.
If you are following these steps and are still experiencing sleep difficulties, you may want to consult with a qualified professional to explore organic causes of sleep disturbance.