[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
January is a dark, cold time of year, but maybe this is why it’s such a good time to review personal health and habits.
One of the more common questions we can ask ourselves is why we might not be sleeping well.
It seems as if January should be a fine month for hibernation, but for all of our daytime fatigue, many of us aren’t able to fall asleep easily at night.
What’s up with that?
If you’re tired all the time but have trouble falling asleep, read on
Below are six legitimate reasons why you suffer this paradox of sleep, as well as ideas and tips for overcoming these challenges so that, the moment your head hits the pillow, you can be well on your way to a long night of slumber. It's worth noting that if you can take care of those problems with falling asleep at night, you are more likely to regain your daytime energy and alertness, and who doesn't strive for that?
It’s everywhere: in smartphones, laptop screens, e-book readers. Any kind of backlit electronic device emits blue spectrum light.
And it’s more widespread than this. LED lighting is cheap, bright and long-lasting, making it appealing for economic reasons. Cities are now turning to LED lighting for streetlamps. People are beginning to install LED bulbs in their homes, plug in LED nightlights, and read their books using LED booklights.
LED is bright, for sure. It also comes in a wide assortment of colors, including cooler or “bright white” tones, which are high in blue spectrum light.
What’s the big deal about blue spectrum light?
When blue spectrum light enters the eyes, it reaches the part of the brain which signals the body to awaken or to prepare for sleep (the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN). When the SCN perceives blue light, it signals the pineal gland to stop releasing melatonin. Melatonin is our “sleep hormone.” Without it, we can’t fall asleep.
During the day, or while you are driving at night, or while at work, this is okay. But if you are exposed to blue light via your electronics, a bedside lamp, a reading light, or a nightlight, you are basically shutting down your brain’s drive to sleep. Even if you’re extremely sleepy, you will struggle to fall asleep.
This is, in fact, the reason why workers in overnight jobs are exposed to bright blue spectrum light while on the job: to keep them from falling asleep.
Blue spectrum light: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- Room darkening shades to block ambient blue light (frequently, LED) coming from outside your sleeping space
- Removing your electronics from your bedroom at bedtime
- Charge your phone in my bathroom: this prevents staring at the bright screen while in bed and forces you to get out of bed in the morning to turn off the alarm
- Stop using handheld electronics about an hour before bed to facilitate the healthy release of melatonin from your pineal gland
- Wear blue-blocking eyewear (with an orange filter) after the sun goes down to help prevent exposure to blue spectrum light while watching TV, playing video games, or reading from handheld devices
- Swap out cool or bright white LED bulbs in your home for warmer versions, which use far less blue spectrum light
- If you really must insist on interacting with electronic screens up until bedtime, use built-in blue light filtering apps or physically place blue-blocking filters over the screens
- There are now some reading lights for bedtime book lovers that come equipped with blue light filters
Caffeine is a stimulant. We all know this. Indeed, we all reach for coffee or tea in the morning not only for the taste, aroma, and promise of warmth, but for its added pick-me-up.
However, as a stimulant, caffeine needs time to be metabolized. It’s “half-life” (the period in which half of it ceases to be stimulating) is around five hours. But even after five hours, there’s still traces of caffeine in your system until it’s fully excreted.
If, after 3pm, you drink caffeinated beverages (or eat the latest in caffeinated foods, which includes more than just chocolate), you can be sure it will disrupt your system after you go to bed.
Why? Because caffeine is a stimulant, it’s excretion from the body leads to a withdrawal effect. Withdrawal sends stress hormones into the bloodstream, which cause arousals and awakenings.
Caffeine: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- Avoiding all caffeine products after 3pm
- Turning to non-caffeine beverages for afternoon energizers (such as brewed chicory)
- Believe it or not, water can correct dehydration, a major cause of afternoon sleepiness
- Substituting decaffeinated products for caffeinated ones—they may still have traces of caffeine but will be mostly metabolized by bedtime
When we exercise, our heart rate increases, our body temperature rises, and hormones that support alertness flood the bloodstream. It can take a couple of hours for the body to process these hormones, and our core temperature needs to cool off at night to induce sleep—two good reasons why you shouldn’t engage in a gym workout right before bed.
But the gym isn’t the only place where exercise takes place. Doing a deep clean of your house right before bed will leave you wide awake and wired, for instance. So will a brisk walk to the store in the cold. Neither is a hot shower or a dip in the sauna or the hot tub recommended, owing to their thermal influence over the body’s core temperature.
Exercise: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- Engaging in physical activity early in the morning, as this is an excellent way to reset and support your circadian rhythms
- Drinking cold water at bedtime to help reduce your core temperature (it doesn’t need to be a lot, just make sure it’s cold)
- Taking warm baths or showers (versus hot ones) to promote relaxation at bedtime
- Schedule chores and errands for daylight hours whenever possible
This is the insomniac’s bane of existence. The thoughts that don’t shut off at night can delay sleep indefinitely and lead to disastrous consequences. Chronic insomnia leads to high blood pressure, mood disorders, heart problems, diabetes, obesity and much more.
Racing mind: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- Keeping a bedside journal where you can write down the day’s anxieties, thoughts, gratitudes… anything that allows your brain to let go of stray thoughts so you can fall asleep
- Learning yogic breathing exercises, which force you to focus on the breath rather than the thoughts racing through your mind
- Practicing forms of relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery
- Listening to soft music, gentle sounds or a white noise machine, which gives your brain something else to focus on besides the day’s thoughts
- Think happy thoughts! It’s much easier to relax when you aren’t worried and don’t focus on unfinished business: daydreaming at bedtime can certainly lead to night dreaming!
Wait… aren’t naps good for us?
Yes, if they’re brief and planned. A midafternoon “slump” is common and can be corrected by a quick snooze of up to 30 minutes after you’ve eaten lunch.
However, longer naps that happen when you least plan for them signal the possibility of an underlying health condition. Even worse, if you take a three-hour nap in the afternoon, and you go to bed at a decent hour (say, 930pm), you are likely to struggle with falling asleep because that long afternoon nap has shifted your circadian rhythms.
Naps: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- A coffee nap will give you a circadian recharge (the sleeping part) and a physical lift (the caffeine part)
- How to take a coffee nap: Drink a cup of coffee, or tea, then take a nap of up to 30 minutes, using an alarm to ensure you don’t sleep a minute longer
- Avoid naps if they are long and you don’t need them; try going for a brisk walk or do some stretching instead to reinvigorate yourself
- Try to eat a lighter lunch if your meals tend to make you extra sleepy in the afternoon
In the world of chronotherapy, the application of medicines and therapies relies greatly on the time of day of dosing, another aspect reflecting the power of our circadian rhythms, which also have a guiding hand in the metabolic process.
Some medications are better taken in the morning because they have stimulating side effects, while others are better taken in the evening because they can cause drowsiness.
Also, consider drugs such as diuretics, which may inspire more of a need to urinate at night than is practical, or drugs with other side effects, like flushing or vivid dreams or nightmares, which are also disruptive to sleep.
Finally, be aware of drug interactions: while two separate medications may be fine to take on their own, when taken together, they might lead to side effects that can have an impact on alertness or sleep.
Medications: Tips for better sleep and daytime alertness
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you think your medications may be causing adverse effects on your daytime alertness or nighttime sleep
- Consider that vitamins, nutritional supplements, and over-the-counter medications can also have an impact on your sleep or could interact with your prescribed pharmaceuticals
- Alcohol itself is not a medication but it can be a major part of cold remedies. Like caffeine, alcohol, once metabolized, leads to a withdrawal effect which can cause broken sleep at night
- Know your medication side effects, and be sure to bring them up with your doctor
- Don’t confuse medication side effects with the symptoms of an underlying condition: when in doubt, ask your doctor