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7 Ways to Gain Better Control of Your Sleep Habits

Original article published by Ladders, May 21, 2020 on TheLadders.com

By Lindsay Tigar

If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, you’re exhausted right about now. Even though—technically speaking—we’re leading a more sedentary lifestyle right now, the constant burden of stress and uncertainty can make us feel more tired than usual. Though it’s a common thread we share, it’s not a healthy one. In fact, the collective lack of rest is worrisome for medical professionals like Dr. Seema Sarin, the director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health. “These are trying times for all of us, and one of the first things to suffer from unusual schedules, a constant stream of stressful information, and ongoing uncertainty is our sleep.”

With heightened stress, anxiety and worry, weird schedules, unhealthy eating habits, and more screen time than ever, counting sheep could feel like a pipedream these days. However, the Sleep Foundation still recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep for adults. If you’re not within this range, follow these expert-guided tips to gaining between control of your sleep ASAP:

Address and manage your stress

If you find yourself unraveling when the lights go out, cycling through one worry after another, you’re not managing your stress effectively. Caring for our mental health is just as important as our physical, which is why science educator and sleep advocate Vanessa Hill recommends trying various methods to cope with anxiety. There are many avenues to take—from meditation and reading to a relaxing bath—so experiment with a few. If you don’t address and find strategies for coping with your overwhelming feelings, they’ll keep you from the sleep you need.

Stick to a schedule

It’s been a while since your parents forced you to go to sleep at a particular time. And yes, you are a grown adult and able to make smart decisions for yourself. But, if you go to sleep at 10 p.m. one night, at 2 a.m. the next, and so on, you aren’t making your health a priority. As juvenile as it may feel, chiropractor Dr. Derrell Blackburn, D.C. recommends creating a sleep routine that you stick to. This means giving your body adequate time to wind down, heading into bed and waking up at the same time daily. “Keep a routine sleep schedule and be consistent with it,” he continues. “The less fluctuation, the easier the body will be able to adapt and better sleep. The best sleep habits are consistent, meaning going to bed and getting up at the same time daily.”

Avoid working in your bedroom

These days, your ‘office’ can be anywhere in your home. And sometimes, you move around: taking calls from your patio or backyard, sitting on the couch to get through emails (and sort of watch TV), and maybe, grabbing your laptop and crawling into bed. As tempting as it is to stay under the covers all day, Hill says it’s better to preserve your bedroom for sleep. And only sleep. She recommends setting up comfortable workspaces in other areas of your home. And yes, that’s true even if you’re in a studio apartment or have roommates, Hill says you should partition your space and leave your bed just for sleeping. “This will help strengthen your mental association between your bed and good sleep, and will stop any unforeseen naps creeping into your afternoon,” she adds.

Find ways to boost your happiness

Though you can’t grab a drink at a local watering hole with your friend or attend your favorite workout class, there are ways to boost your endorphins at home. And in return, improve your mood. Sleep Geek expert Tara Youngblood says using natural dopamine and oxytocin as a way to fight stress—and thus, rest more soundly—is an effective tactic. This can be through hugging your partner, your roommates, your kids, or even your pets. Another way? By breathing! “At least a minute of breathing can counter stress. Every time you go to the bathroom, take one extra minute, and breathe. Even if you only remember once per day, it is still a success,” she adds.

Also, co-founder of Liveli, a brain health supplement brand, James Brennan is here to remind us to go ahead and get up. When we exercise—even in small amounts—we release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. All of these are crucial items that play an important role in regulating our mood and making us more relaxed. “Exercise has also been linked to getting more sound and restful sleep, especially deep sleep, which is considered the most physically restful phase of the sleep cycle,” he continues. “It’s also known to increase the period you sleep for, which most of us could always do with more of.”

Seek sunlight during the day

Consider moving your at-home set-up closer to the sunlight if you aren’t sitting by a window during working hours. Dr. Sarin says long-wave ultraviolet light—like those emitted from the sun—train your body to be awake. The more you expose yourself throughout the day, the easier it’ll be to signal to your brain it’s time to rest once the sunsets.

Disconnect from social media

In March of 2020, screen time spiked to more than 13 hours per day for the average adult. Think about that: that’s more than half of your time! Being ever-connected may make us feel less lonely, but Dr. Blackburn says it sends us into a state of ‘hyperarousal,’ where our brains and bodies operate as if we’re on alert. “With more people shut-in at home, screen time is up, increasing blue light exposure, which messes with the production of your brain’s melatonin, the hormone that helps get you to sleep,” he continues. Try to cut off contact with your phone, computer and TV at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed.

Go easy on the booze and eat well

When you’re stressed, reaching for a glass of vino and a bag of chips is common. But just because we are in a pandemic doesn’t mean our healthy habits should be forgotten. As Brennan explains, alcohol reduces rapid eye movement (REM), a vital component of the cycle that typically occurs 90 minutes before sleep. “The more you drink, the worse it gets,” he continues. “REM is considered to be a restorative phase of sleep, so cutting back, or, better yet, nixing alcohol altogether, can make a huge difference to the quality of your shuteye.”

And if you’re making—yet another—banana bread and having it as a midnight treat, you’re only making your rest harder to come by. Since sugar raises your energy levels and then drops them, you may be able to sleep, but it won’t be a restful one, Dr. Blackburn explains.

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