Writer: Karla Walsh
This is likely the most uncertain time of our lives, with a health crisis akin to the 1918 pandemic, an economic situation that perilously recalls the Great Depression, and civil unrest like we haven’t seen since 1968.
With all this change, it’s tough to feel assured about anything—and easy to feel anxious, which can lead to insomnia, says Stephen Grant, an internal medicine and sleep medicine physician and the medical director of MercyOne Clive Sleep Center.
Even before the pandemic, sleep deprivation was a problem. Compared with the early 1940s, nearly four times as many of us are getting less than six hours of sleep per night, a recent Gallup Poll found, with Americans between ages 25 and 55 the most likely to fall short on sleep.
While it might seem time-efficient to complete just one more work task or stay up to read that final chapter, making this a habit is not doing your body any favors, says Melisa Coaker, an internal and sleep medicine doctor and the medical director of DSM Sleep Specialists in Clive.
“Sleep-tracking watches have enlightened people’s interest in their sleep, and it’s a critical component of your overall health,” she says. “It goes together with eating, hydration, physical activity and mental wellness. Sleep will help each of the other individual components to make you your best version of you.”
If you don’t rest enough—even for just one night but especially chronically—you’re at higher risk for cognitive impairment, difficulty with concentration, chronic diseases and weight gain. Coaker says. You start racking up “sleep debt,” which is tough to pay back.
“It’s like a bank account—if you take out every day and don’t put any back in, you’ll eventually bounce a check,” she says. “The average person generally needs seven to eight and a half hours per night. You develop insufficient sleep syndrome if you’re not getting enough rest and have impairment during the day and experience feelings of tiredness or [irritability].”
After just one night of poor sleep, your body produces hunger hormones that make you crave more salty, sugar-packed and carb-rich foods. Other stress hormones are pumped out that lead to more fat storage in the abdomen area, Coaker says.
The long-term impacts of sleep debt go a lot deeper than your poor disposition and pants size. A meta-analysis in the journal Sleep found that too little sleep is linked to a shorter life span, and other research has linked too few z’s to increased risk for car accidents, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and more.
But when we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid does the important work of “washing out” toxins from the brain, says Andrew D. Nish, an integrative medicine doctor and medical director of the John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines. “Think of it like a street sweeper that comes at night after the metabolically active brain makes a mess all day.”
“Sleep affects virtually every organ and cell in your body,” Coaker adds. “Many processes and cells in the body are dependent on it, and restoration occurs during sleep.”
Forming Good Sleep Habits
Since “no amount of caffeine will replace sleep like sleep,” Coaker says, you have to start shifting your schedule and strategies for better sleep hygiene.
“The most pressing issue and most stressful things that you need to do should be at the beginning of your day, then start slowing down at the end of the workday,” she says. “You should be physically tired then, and get less and less active as the day progresses. Then you can go to bed feeling like you gave it your all.”
For many who work desk jobs, that means aiming to check the most cognitively taxing tasks off first, then moving to more administrative duties. After work, find ways to decompress. A few additional favorites of Coaker and Grant:
Ease off the caffeine. If possible, cut back on coffee or tea after 2 p.m.
Meditate. “Even five to 10 minutes after a stressful day is a great way to destress,” Coaker says.
Move your body. Try yoga or go for a walk for a calming evening option.
Count your blessings. Jot down three things you’re grateful for to appreciate all that’s going right in your world.
Turn off the news. After briefly catching up on the latest current events, watch a lighthearted TV show or read to wind down.
Only use your bedroom for what it’s designed for. “Don’t use your bed as a sanctuary and watch TV, read or do anything else in bed. Use it just for sleep and sex,” Coaker says. “The more time you spend in bed not sleeping, the harder it is to sleep well. You decondition your body from sleeping right away in bed that way.”
Go to bed at a consistent time. This will train your body and brain to know when to turn in, Grant says.
And at least once a week, aim to do anything that makes you feel like you’re treating yourself. “It doesn’t take a lot of time or money,” Coaker says, who dedicates Sunday as a “light day” to prepare food for the week and watch a few shows she enjoys. “We all need a break between work, life and ourselves.”
The Ultimate Bedtime Routine
So many of us wind down just before tucking in by scrolling through Instagram once more or watching one last episode of our latest Netflix binge. Both of those, and other common just-before-bed habits, might be sabotaging your sleep, says Melisa Coaker, M.D., the medical director of DSM Sleep Specialists in Clive. Consider these snooze-better do’s and don’ts:
Do create a worry list or a to-do list in the early evening. “Get any stresses out on paper,” Coaker recommends, so they’re not rattling around in your head as you try to turn in.
Don’t nap too much. If you sleep too much during the day, you won’t feel as tired when it’s time to really slip under the sheets, says Stephen Grant, M.D., the medical director of MercyOne Clive Sleep Center.
Do distance yourself from light sources and noisemakers. “Your bedroom should be a quiet, cool and comfortable environment,” Coaker says. “Don’t look at your email right before bed and keep your cellphone out of the bedroom, if possible.” Or at least silence any notifications and flip it over so it’s not flashing and dinging with alerts at all hours.
Don’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime. One drink with dinner should be fine, since the average body can metabolize one standard drink in an hour, Coaker says. But just have one, and stick with water or decaf tea for the hour or two before going to bed.
Do get out of bed if you find that you can’t fall asleep. Move to another room and do something relaxing. Then when you feel tired and ready, attempt to sleep in your bed again, Grant says.
Don’t put the clock right next to the bed facing you. Instead, flip the clock away so it’s not staring you in the face if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night. “Clock-watching is very common and makes you think of all the things you have to do the next day and how you’ll never be able to do them well if you don’t sleep,” Coaker says.
The Best Snacks for Sleep
Eating a small nutrient-dense snack before bed can give your body the energy it needs to take care of metabolic functions while you are resting, as well as fight off any cases of the hangries come 3 a.m. or first thing in the morning, says Erin Thole-Summers, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition consultant in West Des Moines.
Aim for a snack of about 150 to 250 calories, she says, and include a mix of fiber-rich carbs and protein. The following pairings, in particular, contain calming and rejuvenating qualities.
1 slice whole-grain toast +
2 tablespoons hummus
6 ounces (3/4 cup) plain Greek yogurt +
1 small sliced banana
6 ounces (3/4 cup) 2% cottage cheese +
1/2 cup pitted tart cherries
2 medium kiwi fruit +
1 medium apple +
1 ounce of cheese