In our modern world, we value productivity and being constantly busy. We never want to appear to others as being lazy and not hard working. The pressure to work longer hours, keep our children involved in lots of extra curricular activities and catch our favorite television show at the end of a busy day all lead to poor sleep habits. Poor sleep can lead to obesity and chronic inflammation in our body.
Today, one third of Americans admit to having trouble sleeping. Fifty one percent admit to having trouble a few nights per week, and a whopping forty three percent complain of daytime sleepiness that impacts their life. In 2010, prescription sleep medications generated more than 5 billion dollars in sales. MRI studies of the brain activity of sleep deprived versus well-rested individuals clearly show us what happens in the brain. They found that lack of sleep leads to increased activity in the reward center of the brain when the study group looked at pictures of high calorie foods while decreasing the activity in the area of the brain that controls behavior. Clearly, this explains why when we are sleep deprived we crave high calorie food and find it difficult to resist the urge to eat those comfort foods. So what has changed in our society over the years that have created this problem? Let’s look at two possibilities and some techniques to try to correct the issue.
Recently, I read a book that discusses the concept of time compression syndrome. The idea is that we commit to too many things in a given time frame than can be reasonably done. Our to-do list is jammed back every day. If we don’t get everything scratched off the list we can just let it flow over to the next day. We suddenly find that we will never catch up. We also have entered a world of never being “disconnected”. Smart phones, laptops and now tablets allow us to constantly be available and engaged with the world outside. These “traps”, in my opinion, contribute to our inability to sleep. We go to bed but our mind never shuts down. We toss and turn thinking about that long list and how we can’t forget anything!
One idea, to help our mind “relax”, is to keep a small notebook at your bedside. Part of your bedtime routine can be to jot down anything that is pressing in your mind at the end of the day. It is like unloading your brain. You will have it on paper so your mind can relax and forget about it for now because it’s safe. Secondly, develop a bedtime routine where you start winding down 1 or 2 hours before your regular bedtime. You can’t keep running right up to the last minute and expect to jump into bed and fall asleep. It just doesn’t work that way.
Instead about 2 hours before bed begin limiting your exposure to electronics and bright lights. First you might just turn down the lights in your home to mimic what our ancestors did many years ago. After dinner, they sat around the campfire or by candlelight talking, telling stories or just sitting quietly. When was the last time you experienced silence? It’s difficult at first because we are constantly surrounded by noise but you will get use to it if you practice. Then about an hour before, lay down your smartphone, close the laptop, turn off the TV and really get ready to shut things down for the day. Here is where you would want to “unload” your mind of all those pressing thoughts into your notebook. Take the time to relax your body also by stretching or meditating. A nice hot bath works as well. Lastly, try to get to bed around the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This helps with our natural circadian rhythm for sleep.
On average, we need roughly 7-8 hours of sleep nightly for the best health. If you find you are in that group of Americans who are sleep deprived try implementing one of the above techniques to get yourself back on track. Let your mind and body know that it is time for bed and you might start to sleep better.