Why Sleep Matters and How to Improve It

I am sure you have heard it over and over again how important it is to get a good night’s sleep.  It’s right up there with eating well and exercising right?  In this article I hope to add new perspectives as to why bedtime rest is important and what you can do to support better nighttime habits.  As a psychotherapist, this has always been a question I ask my patients because sleep is so interconnected with our emotional, mental and physical health.

So first things first, what are some habits or factors that are known to interfere with quality sleep?  

Stress and Anxiety Management

Having a hectic daily schedule, being stuck in traffic, and running up against a deadline at work are just some daily experiences which add to a person’s overall stress.

When we are highly stressed and anxious, that has a habit of revving up the nervous system so that we are wired and on edge day into night.

When we are in this chronically stressed state, it’s becomes so much harder to fall asleep and stay asleep because the stress response is in overdrive.  If this sounds like you, then you might notice how your mind keeps racing when trying to get ready for bed. You lie in bed wide awake thinking about your to-do lists. Quieting the mind feels impossible.

Chronic Pain and Health Conditions Impact Sleep

Also it is common for those with chronic pain and illness to have a hard time sleeping because the pain and illness symptoms do not magically go away at night.  The reality is that the pain and illness symptoms are known to disrupt sleep.

The person has interrupted sleep cycles and probably wakes up one or more times during the night. Once they are awake, it can be impossible for them to fall back asleep.

Medication, Caffeine, Smoking and Alcohol‘s Impact on Sleep

Some medications are known to have side effects which can impact a person’s ability to sleep well. Disrupted sleep due to medications could be temporary or long lasting.  Everyone’s experiences are different and unique. Some medications can cause a loss of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

** Please note that any changes to medication is best discussed and overseen by your prescribing doctor.**

Caffeine, a known stimulant, can be found in coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate.  Aside from it being linked to causing insomnia, it also can cause irritability, anxiety, headaches, nervousness and dizziness. So the more caffeine consumed, means that sleep quality can become worse.

Similarly, smoking and alcohol consumption can also cause a loss of REM sleep.  In fact, the more alcohol consumed before bedtime, the more that REM sleep is impacted.

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Why do I need REM sleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, experiencing REM sleep is essential in promoting learning, improving memory and supporting mood.  In other words, not getting adequate REM sleep can negatively impact physical and emotional health.  

Additionally, long-term lack of sleep, has been shown to negatively affect long term memory.

Other negative effects include:

  • Reduced coping skills
  • Migraines
  • Weight difficulties

Ways to Support Better Sleep

Taking part in activities that bring you joy and help to decrease stress levels is a great place to start.  Incorporating a daily deep breathing practice, writing practice, coloring, reading, and walks are some ways to support better sleep. Also spending time with friends and family who are loving and supportive, is helpful in bringing down stress and anxiety levels.

Establish an Afternoon Routine

Setting up an afternoon routine to allow you to unwind after a busy day is key.  Going outdoors, sitting at a park, playing with the kids or even doing some cooking are just a few ideas.  

Establishing some sort of routine in this way, helps the body and mind transition from work mode to personal time mode, allowing you to unwind, relax and be present with your loved ones.  

Get Specific About a Bedtime Routine

If you currently find yourself running ragged staying busy late into the evenings, then taking a good look at your current routine makes sense.  Specifically, creating a new evening routine on how you spend your time one to two hours before bedtime is important.

It is during this window of time that the mind and body benefit best from engaging in activities which are relaxing and calming.  This might mean listening to relaxing music, reading a book (that is not suspenseful or stress inducing). 

Many people enjoy watching tv at night. What helps to stay in a calm and relaxed state though is to watch programs that will not increase stress levels.  Staying away from action shows and movies, political programs or anything else that tends to increase stress and anxiety is ideal.

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Protect Yourself from Blue Light

One caveat to this though is that tv’s phones, tablets, computers, fluorescent lighting and LED lights emit a blue light which disrupts sleep health. 

What researchers have learned, is that the blue light disrupts melatonin production, because the blue light sends a signal to the brain to produce less melatonin.  When the brain is signaled to produce less melatonin, the mind and body suffer because melatonin levels are supposed to be at their highest at night to support quality sleep.

To read more about blue light and its impact on sleep, please go here.  

Below I put together an outline covering top tips on sleep to help you have a quick guide to refer to when needed.

Top Sleep Tips Overview

One to Two Hours Before Bedtime

  • Engage in a quiet activity like reading, writing, breathing exercises, and meditation. 

These are great ways to process feelings from the day so that you are feeling less stressed and anxious. Experiencing worry or anger will demand more energy, making it harder to get your mind and body get ready for sleep.

  • Wear blue light blocking glasses one hour before going to sleep

Wearing orange tinted glasses at night to block out blue light helps protect your natural melatonin production levels. Blue light affects your sleep because it interferes with melatonin production which is needed in order to get you into a sleep state. 

  • Take a bath 

Taking a bath will help ease your mind, relax muscles and promote deep breathing. 

  • Avoid participating in activities that are activating, like watching an action movie, or reading a suspenseful novel. 

Engaging in physically and psychologically stressful activities will cause the body to release stress hormones that are associated with increased alertness. 

  This in turn activates the mind and body, thus making it harder to fall asleep.  

More Rest and Nighttime Routine Tips

  •    Limit TV, computer and cellphone use 

Try to limit TV and cellphone usage. If you cannot, then you can install apps on your phones that reduce the blue light wavelength being emitted from electronic devices. They do not block out all lights, but they do help in reducing sleep interfering light frequencies that send signals to the brain to stay awake.  

  • Use aromatherapy scents that promote calmness, body relaxation and support sleep.  Some of the most common aromas with these properties include lavender, vanilla, vetiver, bergamont, and ylang ylang.
  • Listen to relaxing music

There are many mindfulness phone apps that have sleep playlists and meditation tracks focused on sleep, anxiety and stress support.

  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, such as nicotine, in the late afternoon to evening 

Avoid consuming caffeine at least 5 hours before bedtime is what experts recommend.  This also applies to tobacco products because they contain known stimulants. 

  • Avoid drinking alcohol before going to sleep

Limiting alcohol consumption to one or two drinks a day at most, and not drinking within four hours of bedtime is recommended by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  They state that some people may find that alcohol initially improves their sleep, but that a few hours after its consumption, it can act as a stimulant, therefore disrupting sleep cycles.  

Top Tips Just Before Bedtime

Keep the room cooler to gain optimal sleep. Keeping your room temperature between 60 and 67 degrees should give your body the appropriate temperature to sleep comfortably.

  • Try to use black out curtains and keep them closed so that if your arm is outstretched in front of you, you cannot see your hand, or so that the outline of your hand is barely visible. Make sure your room is pitch black. Ensuring that there is no light coming through your windows or doors will help preserve and protect melatonin production which is at its highest levels at night and is needed for optimal sleep.
  • Consider using eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise” machines, humidifiers, fans, and other devices to reduce noise and light disruption. Cancelling  ambient noise and light wherever possible will allow the mind and body to relax and transition to sleep mode.  

Remove laptops, cellphones, tablets, and other electronics from the bedroom.

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule whenever possible.  Establishing this routine helps the body get accustomed to the bedtime and wake time schedule.
  • Use your bed only for sleep or sex

If you use your bed for other activities aside from sleep and sex, then your mind and body can become programmed to associate it with those other tasks.  This includes watching tv, doing work on your computer and talking on the phone about work while in bed.  These are activities which can increase stress and activate the mind and body, which again is not ideal when trying to support better sleep habits.

Take it One Step at a Time

Whenever it comes to making lifestyle changes, it can be a daunting task.  So implementing one change at a time can help so that adding in these approaches is not an overwhelming experience.  

What also can help is thinking about all the benefits that are possible when sleep quality improves.  
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Below are some of the benefits of sleep

  • Improves mood 
  • Supports better mental health 
  • Reduces stress
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Getting sick less often.  Quality sleep supports and strengthens the immune system.
  • Aids in healing and restoration.  This means that chronic pain symptoms can be alleviated due to tissue and cell repair that occurs during sleep. 
  • Think more clearly, have improved memory and experience better learning potential.   
  • Quicker reflexes and focus.
  • Improved ability to process emotions and have more positive emotional reactions. 
  • Supports heart health
  • Improved performance in school and at work

I hope you found this information helpful so that you feel motivated to add in some of these changes. We all deserve to find ways to support our health to improve, mood and physical health.

Life is hectic but we do not have to bring that into our homes to continue that pattern.

Daniela Paolone

Daniela Paolone is a Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Westlake Village Counseling serving residents of California and Wyoming. She helps those working through pain, illness, depression and anxiety using a secure online counseling platform ensuring client confidentiality. Using education, helpful resources, unconditional support and understanding, she strives to help people transform their pain into power so they can live their best lives!

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