When patients come to us with insomnia, we can recommend a range of interventions from detoxification to supplement protocols. But often, changing a few behaviors can make a big impact on our sleep quality. In this post, I’ll explore the lifestyle factors that contribute to proper sleep hygiene and give you some simple tips for improving sleep.
We refer to sleep-promoting behaviors as sleep hygiene—just as a clean environment promotes health, a set of “clean” behaviors before bed and throughout the day might just unlock the restful night you’re seeking. In fact, we consider sleeping and dreaming a ‘mental detox’ and critically important for Fully Functional® health.
We often think of the hours before bed as the most important for sleep, but our daytime behaviors are important too.
Not surprisingly, what we eat can greatly impact our sleep hygiene. Let’s start with the obvious: any indigestion, including heartburn or bloating, can make falling and staying asleep difficult. Working to optimize digestion with a digestive enzyme like our Fully Functional Health® Digestive Enzymes or a blend of Betaine HCL and Pepsin (I like the addition of pancreatic enzymes in BioGest from Thorne Research) can help immensely.
Adrenal insufficiency can also contribute to disrupted sleep, and we find it’s one of the most common causes of an inability to stay asleep during the night. What you might think of as waking up in the night to use the bathroom may actually be the result of a blood sugar spike and crash.
While sorting out your body’s stress response and restoring adrenal sufficiency is the best way to improve this aspect of sleep in the long term, a short-term solution is to eat a small meal of protein and fat before bed. Contrary to popular belief, eating before bed may actually help us stabilize blood sugar, avoid a spike-and-crash cycle and maintain deep sleep.¹
It’s also important to take careful stock of your caffeine consumption. Caffeine is a stimulant that causes cortisol spikes even in people who consume it regularly. It also suppresses the chemical adenosine, which builds up during the day to signal when we’re ready for sleep. While it’s always a good idea to cut off caffeine consumption in the afternoon, it may be equally important to cut it out entirely if you are struggling with adrenal dysfunction.
Likewise, alcohol consumption may interfere with sleep quality, even though in the short term you may feel sleepier after a few drinks. Harvard Medical School’s Healthy Sleep recommends limiting alcohol and cutting it off completely for several hours before bed.
Our sleep and wake cycles are dictated by our circadian rhythms.² This internal clock dictates when we feel sleepy and when we’re more alert, and can be affected by our interactions with natural and artificial light. If we rise with the sun, spend time outside, and avoid artificial light after sunset, we’ll be sleepy at night and alert in the morning.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t rise with the sun, eat dinner by candlelight or even go to bed at a reasonable hour. We combine these behaviors with caffeine and alcohol, which further disrupt our adrenal function, and then wonder why we feel tired in the morning and wired at night. Yikes!
Sleeping and waking at the same time each day, preferably close to sunrise and sunset, is the best way to reset our natural rhythms. Spending time outside during the day sends the correct signals to photoreceptors in our eyes. A short walk outside after breakfast or on our lunch break might be enough.
At night, we can promote melatonin production by keeping our eyes off screens (yes, that includes our cell phones) after sunset. The blue light frequencies emitted by these screens mimic the sun’s natural light and send the wrong signals to our brains. If eliminating screen time isn’t possible, we can find some relief by wearing blue-blocking glasses or installing an application like f.lux on our desktop computers.
Keeping lights low, or installing red light bulbs, can also be a helpful solution. These tips are especially important if you’re having trouble falling asleep. Circadian rhythm training can also be helpful for those with alternative schedules.³ Shift workers who need to stay awake during the night should be careful to avoid sunlight exposure during the day and wear blue light blocking glasses if they do go outside during the day.
We tell our patients that the bedroom should be for sex and sleep only. Make sure to get rid of the TV and remove cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. In fact, we don’t even suggest reading in bed; find a couch or chair instead. Creating a bedtime routine is important.
When we’re ready to hit the hay, our first instinct is likely to climb into bed, turn out the light and seek sleep as quickly as possible. But employing a few simple tweaks to our physical environment first can yield big results in sleep quantity and quality.
First, lowering the thermostat regulates our body temperature and promotes deeper sleep. Most experts believe a temperature around 65° is ideal. And before you object to the increase in your electric bill, know you can’t fake this with a lighter blanket. In fact, studies show a heavy blanket—therapeutic weighted blankets typically weigh 5-10% of a person’s body weight—can combat insomnia.
Next, make sure your bedroom environment is truly dark. Outside street lamps, blinking electronic lights, or even the light from an alarm clock or charging device can send “wake” signals to our brains. Install light-blocking curtains and cover electronic lights in the bedroom. Better yet, charge your devices outside your bedroom to avoid temptation (and EMFs!).
Finally, turn to your bedding. Mattresses, furniture, sheets, and comforters are all sources of chemical buildup and endocrine disruptors, and can off-gas considerably, especially when they’re new. Safer options include organic cotton bedding, natural wood furniture, and mattresses like the non-toxic Intellibed. We sometimes sleep on our BioMats to promote healing during sleep!
Before you turn to sleep aids for relief from your insomnia, consider your bedroom environment. Make some of the above changes and notice how quickly they will have a positive impact.
Soaking in a bath with magnesium salts and a little lavender essential oil is very relaxing and often enough to help you unwind and prepare for a fantastic night’s sleep.
There are likely tweaks, from meal timing to temperature, that will make a considerable difference in your ability to fall asleep and stay that way.
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The Center for Fully Functional Health® is led by a team of award-winning, internationally recognized physicians, committed to providing personalized, life-changing care.