Gone are the days of our days being regulated solely by the sun. Now we are routinely charging through our days with lights all around us until we fall into bed and douse all light. The problem with most of our nightly routines – it dramatically affects our sleep. And when our sleep is affected, everything else in our life is as well.
Before we go any further, let’s answer the question I know you’re wondering, “How much sleep do you need each night?”
First, some foundation. Research has found that we sleep in 90 minute cycles and each cycle has a progression from level 1 to level 5 sleep. Level 1 is actually more like rest or relaxation (you may not actually be asleep but you are resting). Level 5 is the REM sleep (which is the most important type of sleep).
In each sleep cycle you will progress from lighter sleep to deeper sleep, then back up again. This process is repeated with each 90 minute cycle, only deeper each time. So the later cycles of sleep will get more REM sleep each time.
The reason REM sleep is so important – it cleans the brain. REM sleep to the brain is the same the defragmentation of a computer’s hard drive. The more REM sleep you get, the better memory, performance, alertness, etc. you will experience.
So, to answer the previous question: since we sleep in 90 minute cycles, the optimum number of cycles each night … 6. In case you’re bad at math, that’s 9 hours of sleep each night.
While 9 hours a night may not be possible, it is important to plan out your sleep according to the cycles. If you can’t get 9 hours, plan for 7 1/2 – but shoot for 9 if you want the most benefit!
Here’s a few tips that can help your sleep, and then in turn, your marriage.
1. Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, including weekends.
Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a “circadian clock” in our brain and the body’s need to balance both sleep time and wake time. A regular waking time in the morning strengthens the circadian function and can help with sleep onset at night. That is also why it is important to keep a regular bedtime and wake-time, even on the weekends when there is the temptation to sleep-in.
2. Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine such as soaking in a hot bath or hot tub and then reading a book or listening to soothing music.
A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep. Avoid activities before bedtime like working, paying bills, engaging in competitive games or family problem-solving.
Some studies suggest that soaking in hot water (such as a hot tub or bath) before retiring to bed can ease the transition into deeper sleep, but it should be done early enough that you are no longer sweating or over-heated. If you are unable to avoid tension and stress, it may be helpful to learn relaxation therapy from a trained professional. Finally, avoid exposure to bright lights before bedtime because it signals the neurons that help control the sleep-wake cycle that it is time to awaken, not to sleep. About an hour or so before bed, dim all the lights in the house – this is also great to do before your kid’s bedtime.
By the way, looking at the TV or computer right before bedtime is a no-no because the pixels in the screen trigger your brain to be more alert rather than relaxed. The same can be said of your smartphone and the digital clock on your nightstand (turn the clock face away from your direct line of sight).
3. Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep – cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions. Also make your bedroom reflective of the value you place on sleep. Check your room for noise or other distractions, including a spouse’s sleep disruptions such as snoring, light, and a dry or hot environment. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise,” humidifiers, fans and other devices.
4. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy – about 9 or 10 years for most good quality mattresses. Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep as well as free of allergens that might affect you. It’s also a good idea to remove objects that might cause you to slip or fall if you have to get up during the night.
5. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex.
It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine. For example, if looking at a bedroom clock makes you anxious about how much time you have before you must get up, move the clock out of sight. Do not engage in activities that cause you anxiety and prevent you from sleeping.
Also it is a good idea to not use your bed as a laundry folding or bill sorting station. The bed is for sleep and sex and even family story time – that’s it.
6. Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bed.
Eating or drinking too much may make you less comfortable when settling down for bed. It is best to avoid a heavy meal too close to bedtime. Also, spicy foods may cause heartburn, which leads to difficulty falling asleep and discomfort during the night.
7. Exercise regularly. It is best to complete your workout at least a few hours before bedtime.
In general, exercising regularly makes it easier to fall asleep and contributes to sounder sleep. However, exercising sporadically or right before going to bed will make falling asleep more difficult. In addition to making you more alert, your body temperature rises during exercise, and takes as much as 6 hours to drop. A cooler body temperature is associated with sleep onset… so finish your exercise at least 3 hours before bed. Late afternoon exercise is the perfect way to help you fall asleep at night.
8. Avoid caffeine (e.g. coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate) close to bedtime.
Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it can produce an alerting effect. Caffeine products, such as coffee, tea, colas and chocolate, remain in the body on average from 3 to 5 hours, but they can affect some people up to 12 hours later. Even if you do not think caffeine affects you, it may be disrupting and changing the quality of your sleep. Avoiding caffeine within 6-8 hours of going to bed can help improve sleep quality.
9. Avoid nicotine (e.g. cigarettes, tobacco products) close to bedtime.
Nicotine is also a stimulant. Smoking before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep. When smokers go to sleep, they experience withdrawal symptoms from nicotine, which also cause sleep problems. Nicotine can cause difficulty falling asleep, problems waking in the morning, and may also cause nightmares. Difficulty sleeping is just one more reason to quit smoking.
10. Avoid alcohol close to bedtime.
Although many people think of alcohol as a sedative, it actually disrupts sleep, causing nighttime awakenings. Consuming alcohol leads to a night of less restful sleep.
If you have sleep problems…
Use a sleep diary and talk to your doctor. Note what type of sleep problem is affecting your sleep or if you are sleepy when you wish to be awake and alert. Try these tips and record your sleep and sleep-related activities in a sleep diary. If problems continue, discuss the sleep diary with your doctor. There may be an underlying cause and you will want to be properly diagnosed. Your doctor will help treat the problem or may refer you to a sleep specialist.