Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Woman awake in bed

Sleep, Sleep Medicine and Stress. Part 6

by James Porter March 18, 2021

This is the sixth of a seven-part series on stress and sleep. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping during the pandemic, you are not alone. Insomnia was already reaching epidemic proportions BEFORE Covid. Now it’s gotten worse. According to a survey published in Consumer Reports 28% of Americans reported having trouble falling or staying asleep since the Pandemic hit.

Ten things you can do to get a better night’s sleep

As we have discussed in earlier installments lack of sleep can adversely affect your health in many ways: It can cause forgetfulness, poor judgment (particularly about your need for sleep) and increase the odds of you experiencing weight gain, depression, and having an accident (particularly a potentially deadly car accident). In fact, the National Sleep Foundation is warning drivers to drive very carefully this week because of Daylight Savings Time, which started at 2 AM this past Sunday morning in 48 states. Just losing that one hour of sleep on Sunday morning increases your odds of getting into a fatal car crash ALL WEEK long. Now you can see why getting enough sleep every night is so important.

Here are five things you can do to help your self get a better night’s sleep. (The remaining 5 will be part of our next and final installment.)

1. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day.

As I wrote last week, this is the advice I chose to ignore for decades. When I finally started going to bed at the same time every night, I started sleeping better. In the past, I’d fight off tiredness that usually hit me around 9PM. If I managed to make it past 10 PM without falling asleep in my chair, it would sometimes be really hard to fall asleep later. When I finally got in bed, say around 11:30, I’d have to read for at least an hour to return to the level of sleepiness I’d ALREADY experienced hours before. Now I go to be bed at 9PM on most nights, which is right when I start feeling tired. I usually fall asleep within minutes.

2. Meditation

I’ve learned how to use meditation to put myself back to sleep in two ways. If I do accidentally fall asleep on the sofa, watching TV, when I wake up, I go to bed right away. I used to have to read – sometimes for quite a while – to regain the sleepiness I felt when I fell asleep on the sofa. But now if that happens, I get in bed and begin meditating lying down, without reading a book or checking my phone which would only serve to awaken me further. The meditation restores that sleepy feeling, and I usually will fall asleep within 5 or 10 minutes.

 If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can also use my meditation practice to quiet my thinking mind long enough to let me relax and fall back asleep. Admittedly, at my age, this middle of the night wakefulness can take some time to remedy. Because I’ve gone to bed early, I don’t get uptight about whatever time it might take to fall back asleep.

Sometimes it’s easier just to just read for about an hour and then turn off the light and meditate until I fall back asleep when I wake up in the middle of the night. Remember, tiredness is caused by the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system being activated. You can learn to self-regulate your nervous system with meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques. All of which, can be done in bed. Here I’m using meditation to activate that “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) response. When I notice myself yawning at least two or three times in a row, I turn out the light and begin to meditate. Usually, I’m asleep in minutes.

3. Track your sleep

I started this series of installments by talking about how I still have difficulty sleeping from time to time, and I’ve learned a lot from tracking my sleep with my new Fitbit that I bought for $89. In just the few weeks I’ve been working on this series of blogs on sleep and insomnia, I’ve already seen some improvements. A pattern I see emerging is: One night I’ll get around six hours of sleep and the next night I’ll sleep just over seven. While I’d prefer to sleep 7 to 8 hours on both nights, I’m delighted with this pattern for now, since it represents a major improvement over my sleep patterns of just a few months ago, where I was only sleeping about 5 hours on most nights (All of which you can see on your phone Fitbit app.) Tracking the actual hours has helped me to see this is a somewhat reliable pattern. In other words, I’m comfortable in the knowledge (proven by tracking) that if I have one bad night it’s almost always going to be followed by a good night. (That reduces the stress on the bad nights.)

4. Watch your diet.

Limit caffeine intake to two cups of coffee or other caffeinated drinks (like energy drinks) and try to consume those drinks before noon. (Caffeine stays in the bloodstream for up to 8 hours after you drink your last cup.) Also try to limit your calorie intake at dinner. You are better off eating a big meal earlier in the day than later. Healthy carbs like whole grains, fruits and vegetables and minimal sugar will exert less of a load on your digestive system and make it easier to sleep at night.  Starting in January my wife and I decided to eliminate white sugar, (all sodas, cakes, deserts, etc.) white bread, and alcohol from our diet for 4 weeks and I’m sleeping much better. We’ve extended the dietary restrictions through February and now March just because we are seeing some really great results. (We are losing weight too, but that’s not the primary goal. The primary goal is simply to eat healthy.) 

5. Turn down the temperature

Our body temperature tends to drop at night as our metabolism slows down as well. On the website Sleepline there’s an interesting article about thermoregulation. For an ideal sleep, (if you sleep in pajamas and under the covers) you want to keep the temperature of your bedroom at night to be about 65 degrees.

In our next and final installment we’ll share five more tips for getting a good night’s sleep.

James Porter
James Porter