Ahh, sweet, lovely, elusive sleep. It’s what we all would dream of, if only we could actually fall asleep in the first place.
If you’re someone who can sleep on command anytime, anywhere, and wake fully rested after 10 minutes, then move along. All I have to offer you is my envy.
If, however, you’re like me and have to scratch and claw for every minute of this sweet nectar, read on to learn how to get the best sleep of your life.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T Your Sleep
And not just a little bit. Sleep is essential. It’s a need, not just a want.
Somehow being uber-busy and not having time for sleep has become a badge of honor in our society. This is awful and counterproductive. Getting a good night’s sleep should be what we boast of, not the opposite.
When kids are tired and cranky, we know they’ve missed their nap or are up past their bedtime. We know how valuable sleep is for kids and try to enforce good sleep hygiene, so why don’t we give ourselves this same gift?
Lack of sleep has been shown to cause weight gain by both decreasing willpower for good food choices and by changing the levels of hormones that affect hunger and metabolism.
In addition, drowsy driving may be even more dangerous than drunk driving. You’d never put your family at risk by planning to drive drunk, but many of us plan to drive drowsy on a daily basis. We’re not just endangering ourselves, we’re putting everyone else on the road at risk too.
And what about the danger to the rest of our lives? Consistently getting less than seven to nine hours of sleep leads to fuzzy thinking that can cause short tempers and lead to words and actions we regret. Do you think you’re the employee/mother/daughter/sister/friend you really want to be when you’re tired? I’m certainly not.
Okay, okay. I’ll get off my soapbox. Let’s figure out how to get some sleep.
Why not just pop a magic pill?
Because a perfect one doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, all medications have side effects, even ‘natural’ ones like melatonin.
If you’re desperate for sleep and nothing else has helped, talk with your doctor.
Prescription sleep aids can be helpful for some people, but please know that the side effects can be devastating. Ambien can cause sleep walking, sleep eating, sleep driving (and crashing), sleep gambling, and sleep fill-in-the-blank, even for people who have taken it uneventfully for years.
Alcohol can be just as bad if not worse, often leading to addiction. Plus, while it may help you fall asleep, it decreases REM sleep so you will still be tired and groggy in the morning.
Bummer, right? So what should we do instead?
Sleep is an All-Day Event
I don’t mean that you should literally sleep all day (at least not every day), just that getting a proper night’s sleep takes prior planning.
One of the hardest, yet most important, contributors to great sleep is a consistent schedule.
I hear you. Life isn’t always consistent. It isn’t always possible to get up and go to bed at the same times every day, but do your best to vary these times by less than an hour.
It might mean watching your favorite show at 7pm the next day rather than at 11pm the day it originally airs. It might mean getting up at 6am and going to bed at 10pm even on the weekends.
When you find yourself up early on a day you don’t have anywhere to be, consider that time a gift to yourself and do whatever you want: read a book, catch up on chores, plan your next vacation. Savor the feeling of found time.
Or maybe you work in the restaurant industry or are a die-hard night owl ready to commit to an 11am-3am life. Whatever floats your boat is fine, as long as you stick to it. Don’t try to cram extra hours into your day with early morning breakfast dates; this would be like asking anyone else to wake up in the middle of the night and meet you for coffee at 2am. Give yourself the courtesy that you give to others.
If you work a variety of shifts, talk with your scheduler about rolling them forward or at least never rolling them backward. For example, if you work 8am-4pm one day, try to start at or after 8am the following day rather than moving to a 6am or 7am start time.
Your body has to know your expectations in order to meet them. Give it a routine and watch it thrive.
Caffeine is for Special Occasions
I like to call them mornings. The great part is that they happen every day!
If you love coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverages, you can enjoy them and still sleep like a baby. You just have to–you guessed it– plan ahead.
Caffeine can make you jittery and keep you from falling asleep. It can make you dehydrated and can (both from being a diuretic as well as making your bladder more sensitive) make you pee so often people will ask if you’re pregnant.
For most people, though, there’s no harm in a caffeine-containing pick-me-up in the morning. Enjoy every drop!
Then stop. At noon. Or one, or at the very least four to six hours before your bedtime. Everyone’s metabolism is different and you’ll soon find your limit, both in amount and timing.
On the residency interview trail I drank so much caffeine that my receptors were saturated. I would frequently interview in one city, drive into the wee hours to get to the next location, then get up early to do it all again the next day. Another can (or two-liter bottle) of soda didn’t wake me up or give me the shakes, so I thought I was immune to caffeine’s effects. I lived at a steady state of caffeination and the only time I recognized any ill effects was when I started to go into withdrawal.
It was only when, years later, I fully detoxed from soda that I discovered how peaceful it is to sleep without caffeine lurking in my system.
With caffeine, I could usually still fall asleep okay, but I would toss and turn and wake every few hours. There was always at least one trip to the bathroom every night. I thought that this fitful, interrupted sleep was as good as it would get for me.
Without caffeine, I reached a deep, peaceful slumber from the moment I closed my eyes until the sun woke me in the morning. It was incredible.
I do regret that the soda detox lasted only a few months, but until I kick the habit again I at least try to limit my evening caffeine consumption.
Set the Stage
Good sleep is a production, and as such it requires proper costumes, set, and props.
Pajamas should be comfortable and are a matter of personal preference. I’m an active sleeper so I aim for attire that is loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough to withstand a bit of tossing and turning without becoming a twisted jumble.
But pajamas are just the tip of the iceberg. You spend a third of your life in bed, so don’t scrimp on one!
Make sure your mattress is long enough that you can stretch fully, even if it means springing (pun intended) for a California King.
Next, find a firmness that supports your back. While softer mattresses often feel wonderful for the two-minute trial at the store, firmer ones tend to feel better over the long haul. Some companies like Tuft & Needle and Casper offer a free 100-night trial, so look around for one that’s right for you.
Sheets are like icing on the mattress and should make you feel like you’re getting a treat every time you crawl into bed. Some people like silk for summer and flannel for winter, and some like cotton year-round. There’s no wrong choice as long as you feel good in them.
Blankets can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like. We use the same comforter year-round and add blankets underneath as needed in the winter because we can have temperature swings from the 20s to the 70s in January. When I lived in places that were predictably cold I had down comforters that were downright dreamy.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends a bedroom temperature of 65 degrees for optimal sleep, but the only way I can tolerate this is with an external heat source. One of my favorite gifts of all time was a magical mattress warmer similar to this one. It transforms a cold, uninviting rectangle into a snug, cozy sanctuary on cold winter nights. The best part is that each side has a separate thermostat.
Finally, make sure you have the right accessories. These are especially important if you work night shifts and are trying to sleep while the evil day star** and other people are out.
The idea is to create a sleeping cave, and there are two popular methods. The first and simplest is to put a small mattress in a walk-in windowless closet. The second is to employ blackout curtains like these. Darker colors seem to work better.
A fan can add not only a cool breeze but also white noise. Pandora, Songza, CDs, and other sources of your choice can provide soothing sounds of nature or other white noise to help mask the annoyance of your neighbor’s dog barking or your significant other snoring.
If those don’t drown out the distractions, try these amazing earplugs that even come in a style specifically made for women. They effectively silence screaming babies and alarm clocks, though, so make sure to have a backup plan for waking up when needed.
Unplug and Unwind
You did it! You made it through another day. Good work! Now prepare to relax and recharge with a bedtime routine you’ll come to cherish.
For these last minutes of your day, it’s best to go old school analog. No Facebook. No television.The light from our favorite devices can actually inhibit sleep, so give yourself an hour-long electronics holiday before closing your eyes. I promise, you will survive without them.
What will you do for an entire hour without TV, email, or social media? The possibilities are lovely and endless.
- Pack your lunch for tomorrow and prep some overnight oats for the morning.
- Lay out what you’ll wear tomorrow so you can get ready faster and avoid decision fatigue.
- Write in your journal.
- Read a novel with absolutely no literary merit.
- If you tend to have restless legs at night, take a 10-minute walk, climb the stairs a few times, or do chair steps until your legs lose their twitchiness.
- Make a list of your first three tasks for the morning so you will be able to focus and not get lost in the internet.
- Wash your face, floss, brush your teeth, etc.
- Recap your day with your significant other.
You’re almost done!
The last two steps are probably unnecessary because you’re going to sleep like a baby, but just in case:
- Turn your alarm clock around. This keeps the light out of your eyes and keeps you from waking up and worrying about the time. If you wake in the dark without a clock, it’s easier to go back to sleep. If your alarm hasn’t gone off, you’re free to relax and drift back to your dreams.
- Place a pen and notepad on your nightstand. If a brilliant idea strikes you at 2am, jot it down. You can go back to sleep and it will be waiting for you in the morning.
What sleep methods do you choose? Let me know what has worked to help you get those zzzs.
** “Evil day star” naming credit goes to my cousin, who burns the midnight oil. I happen to adore the sun, but we agree to disagree.
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