5 top tips to help you nod off - from a sleep doctor

5 top tips to help you nod off - from a sleep doctor

In my work as a Sleep Specialist, I am always asked for my “top tips” for healthy sleep. My advice repeatedly includes the suggestion to avoid using electronics at least one hour before bed. There are two facts to back up this recommendation. One is the negative effect that electronics have on our cognition, eliciting an emotional response that will prevent our brains from relaxing. We need a calm and relaxed mind to fall asleep and to stay asleep at night. The second is the negative effect that electronics have on our body, specifically the decrease in melatonin production due to blue light exposure. We need our body’s melatonin production to increase at night so that we feel drowsy when it is time to go to sleep. Think of it as a sunny day, you wouldn’t pop your head out of the window when you’re trying to wind down for sleep - or have a cup of coffee before you hit the sack. 

During the pandemic, sales of melatonin supplements increased exponentially, so I am pretty sure that people understand that there is a connection between melatonin and sleep. However, many people are not aware of how they might be able to naturally improve their body’s production of melatonin at night. Before I offer some suggestions, I’d like to discuss in more detail how blue light negatively affects our sleep.Our circadian rhythm is our body’s 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. We sleep best when our circadian rhythm is consistent and is in sync with natural light, as the outside factor that has the greatest effect on our circadian rhythm is light. When it is dark outside, our body increases the natural production of melatonin and we begin to feel sleepy. This sets the stage for our body to be able to drift off easily and peacefully into sleep. When we wake in the morning to natural light, our body decreases the production of melatonin so that we feel awake, alert, and ready to start the day. Makes sense, right?

However, in today’s society, most of us are addicted to our electronic devices and report using electronic devices in bed at night. Whether it’s catching up with friends or responding to that work email - many of us are guilty of using our devices in bed. Electronics emit a blue light, which enters the eyes and tricks the brain into thinking it's daytime. This, in turn, causes the pineal gland in the body to decrease melatonin production, which is the opposite of what we want to happen at night. Blue light and electronic devices also stimulate the brain, causing heightened emotional arousal, which makes it more difficult to sleep. Blue = boo - especially when it comes to sleep.

As my training is as a Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist, I am fully aware of the dual components of the brain and body that need to be calm in order to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. When we experience emotional and physical arousal from electronic devices, our body will increase the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) and decrease the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). This is a recipe for a sleep disaster and can lead to significant sleep problems such as insomnia. This is also why the most effective treatment for insomnia is CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). Included in CBT-I treatment are suggestions for improved sleep hygiene, which involve removing electronic devices from the bedroom or using blue light blocking products when using electronic devices at night. Something that isn’t as easy as it seems in the current tech-obsessed world. 

Besides natural light, your circadian rhythm and melatonin production is also guided by your body temperature. You want your body temperature to decrease in order for melatonin production to increase. When you get out of a hot shower, your body temperature is going to drop and your melatonin production is going to increase. Therefore, another natural way to increase melatonin production for better sleep is to take a hot shower before bed.

When you are done with your shower, it is helpful to engage in a brief, consistent, and relaxing bedtime routine. This will help calm down your brain and body, which as I mentioned above, are the two components that need to remain relaxed in order to fall asleep without issue. If you take your shower and then you go into a bright room and go on your phone, that’s counterproductive. Before you get into the shower, prepare your bedroom to wind down and set up your sleep environment to promote sleep. Close the blinds, dim the lights, charge your electronic devices in another room or have your blue light blocking products (such as those created by Ocushield) available, turn the temperature down in your bedroom, turn on relaxing music or white noise, and have a book waiting for you to read. Some other relaxing bedtime activities I recommend are journaling, yoga stretches, meditation and mindfulness practices, and deep breathing.

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that I am always asked for my “top tips” for healthy sleep. I’d like to end by offering you my top 5 tips for healthy sleep:It is important to set an appropriate and consistent sleep schedule. Adults, on average, need 8 hours of nightly sleep. Sleep times and wake up times should be consistent on a daily basis, with weekend sleep times and wake-up times fluctuating at most one hour from mid-week sleep times and wake up times. The body thrives on consistency and consistent sleep schedules help for more restful sleep.

You should get at least one hour of sunlight per day and daily exercise should end at least 2 hours before bed. All caffeine consumption should end after lunch, and eating small meals throughout the day and avoiding a heavy dinner helps with promoting healthy sleep as well. One hour before bed, set an alarm to signal that sleep time is approaching. From this point on, lights should be dimmed in the home, soothing music or white noise can be played, and all electronics should be turned off and charged outside of the bedroom. If you must use your electronic devices before bed, it’s essential to use blue light blocking products.You should implement a brief and consistent bedtime routine in a cool bedroom (the average bedroom temperature should be 64 degrees fahrenheit / 17 degrees celcius). A bedtime routine signals to the brain that it is time for sleep. The brain controls the body in relation to sleep, therefore, when the brain is calm the body will follow suit. Some recommendations for pre-sleep routine activities are journaling, meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga stretches, reading (not on an electronic device), and listening to relaxing music.Recognize and accept the importance of sleep in your life. Make a list of your top five priorities in life. If sleep is not on your list, realize that sleep affects everything in your daily life and must be added to your daily priority hierarchy. Once you prioritize sleep, it will be easier to make the the daily behavioral changes and commitment that will lead to healthy sleep.

The good news is that there are so many small changes that you can make to your daily lifestyle habits that could have significant positive effects on your sleep. Once you accept the importance of sleep in your life, and you start to prioritize healthy sleep, you will be motivated to make these changes that will lead to longer and more peaceful nights of sleep. Stay well and well-rested!

Bonus tip: Nutrition and your sleep:

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Current Version
March 15, 2022

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