These days, it feels like the sacrifices we make to meet mounting work and familial obligations are endless. The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality has become a necessity as demands on our time and attention grow unapologetically. Even if we’d like to sleep more, guilt prevents us from indulging that fantasy; instead, we guzzle various caffeinated concoctions all day long to keep on grinding.
Here’s the kicker: Consistently getting insufficient sleep not only negatively impacts our health, but significantly increases our mortality risk, robbing us of years of our lives (yes, years!). Let’s make one thing clear: Sleep is a must. You’re not a selfish slacker if you prioritize your slumber. In fact, we invite you to do just that. Sound daunting? We asked the experts for tips to make sleep priority number one.
SLEEP TO BOOST YOUR HEALTH
Not getting enough ZZZs does more than make us brain-fogged and cranky. When we don’t sleep enough, our health pays the price. We need sleep for every bodily system (cardiovascular, reproductive, metabolic and immune) to work optimally. Chronic sleep deprivation, or less than six to seven hours of sleep per night, is recognized as one of the highest accelerators of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown it even decreases our lifespan. “Anything you can think of health-wise, sleep impacts: obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, cancer and even colds. You need to sleep well in order to heal,” says Michele Okun, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
In a perfect world, you’d wake up at about the same time each day without an alarm, feeling refreshed and ready to go before that first cup of java. “Stick to a regular sleep-wake cycle, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends. The less variable that schedule is, the better off you will be,” Okun says.
SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE
For busy moms with never-ending to-do lists, making time for sleep can seem downright impossible. “By the time I get home from work, there’s little time for everything that needs to get done on a nightly basis. Our family has dinner together.
My husband cooks, I clean up. [We] give the kids baths, [read] stories and put them to bed, often to log back onto the computer for an hour or so, make lunches for the next day and feed the dog and cat. Sometimes, I try to fit in exercise, so it’s late. I still need unwind time before I can go to bed or I won’t be able to fall asleep. It’s definitely tough, and I wish I was getting more sleep consistently,” says attorney and Maplewood mom of two Rachel Witriol.
Most of us aren’t even close to getting the sleep we need. It’s time to start letting go and re-prioritizing. Maybe that means the house is less tidy than we’d like or ordering takeout a few times a week, but it’ll be worth it. “Most people need at least seven to nine hours. It’s the amount you need to feel your best the next day, to function optimally, but there are individual differences,” says Andrea Spaeth, PhD, assistant professor and director of the Rutgers Sleep Lab. “You shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re someone who needs nine hours to feel your best. Listen to your body.”
Try to get into bed at the same time every night. Set an alarm if you have to! Just as important, avoid the temptation to repeatedly hit that snooze button. “You want to get up as late as you can. Set one alarm that is as late as possible,” Spaeth says.
LIMIT CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL
Caffeine is a stimulant, so while it’s great for keeping us alert, too much can backfire, making it tough to fall to sleep at night. “Eliminate caffeine consumption after the hours of 12-2 pm,” Okun says. In fact, it’s important to not stimulate your mind or body in any way when it’s close to bedtime. “While moderate exercise is an important lifestyle habit, don’t engage in any heavy physical or mental activity late in the evening. Minimize electronics, and be mindful of watching news before bed, as this can agitate or hyper-arouse your brain.”
Hooked on vino? Sure, a glass of wine before bed may send us to dreamland quickly, but there’s a catch. Imbibe before bed and your quality of sleep suffers. Alcohol disrupts sleep in the second half of the night, leaving us drowsy and less productive the next day. “Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so while it helps relax you and put you to sleep, too much of it suppresses REM sleep, which is really important for health. It’s very restorative,” Okun says. Instead of your usual adult beverage, try a cup of soothing, hot chamomile tea.
CONTROL YOUR ENVIRONMENT
A few strategic manipulations of your bedroom will go a long way. First, keep it cool. “Room temperature for sleep should ideally be between 60-67 [degrees], so turning down the thermostat at night can really help,” Spaeth says. Your room should be free of artificial light; the darker, the better. “If you have screens, they should be off, and phones should be face down so that if you get notifications, your room isn’t going to light up. Really look at your room and get dark blinds or shades to block out all light.”
Addicted to Instagram? Use the night shift mode on your phone in the evening to eliminate the blue light being emitted, Okun suggests. Blue light suppresses melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the body at night (cued by darkness) in preparation for sleep. Finally, keep things as quiet as possible. If you live in a city or noisy area, utilizing a source of consistent sound like a fan or white noise can help lull you into a deeper, more restful sleep.
CAST THAT STRESS ASIDE
The link between stress and sleep is strong, creating a cycle that’s tough to break. Writing your worries down in a journal each night before bed can work wonders to quiet the mind.
Do whatever it is that helps you decompress. “Do not get into bed until you’ve gone through a winding down process so you don’t associate being in bed with anxiety or stressful thoughts.
Thirty minutes before bed, really power down and practice relaxation. Take a shower, stretch, practice deep breathing, use aromatherapy or listen to relaxing music,” Spaeth says. “Daily stress keeps me from falling asleep. I try to meditate or read once I’m in bed, but sometimes it’s a catch-22. You know the meditation will help, but you’re too stressed to actually do it. It’s hard to put down your phone and let yourself relax,” says Maplewood mother of two Melanie Kidd.
Okun suggests implementing a pre-bedtime practice of meditative gratitude. “Think of three things you are grateful for that day and expand and explore why you’re thankful. This sets your brain up to be in a positive state to get into bed.”
Reduced stress is an important by-product of devoting adequate time to slumber. By setting aside a few minutes to relax and unwind before bed each day, your bedroom will become a worry-free zone. Now, go get yourself some sleep!
—Heidi Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition
coach based in South Orange.