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Sleep Your Way to a Better Day

Sleep. It’s not my favorite topic because I’m a woman in her mid-40s, and sleep isn't always easy to come by. But it’s an important topic. Less than 7 hours of sleep per night on a chronic basis increases risk for Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, stroke, and depression. Those are scary things to think about, and it’s easy to throw in the towel and think “I’m doomed,” when we struggle with our sleep. You’re not doomed.*

I don’t focus on the bigger potential impact when I’m struggling with sleep because it causes a lot of stress, which isn't the least bit conducive to sleep. But I do try to notice the day to day impact a rough night of sleep or two creates so that I'm incentivized to priortize good sleep. When I’m getting quality sleep--I do best with 8 hours--I’m reaching for fewer sugary and snacky foods the next day. I’m able to move more and sit less because I actually have energy. My workouts are of higher quality, and I have better recovery post-workout. (The workout is just the set-up for change. Quality nutrition and recovery the same day are where the magic happens.) I’m better able to stay on task/focus, and therefore my output for work is both of higher quantity and quality.  Finally, I can handle what life throws at me better: I'm less anxious, less down, and the kids and the hubs don't have to take cover.

When you’re not sleeping well, the first thing to address is sleep hygiene. Are you doing the things that make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep? Remember these magic numbers: 10-4-3-2-0...

10 Caffeine:  8-10 is the generally quoted number of hours before bedtime you should stop consuming caffeine. How sensitive you are to caffeine varies from person to person, but try cutting back the time at which you drink your last cup for a week or so and see what happens. After some experimenting, I’ve found that even a low-caffeine drink at dinner time can make it hard to fall asleep. But I’m good to go with a coffee at 2:30 pm: I’m still easily asleep by 10 pm as long as I haven’t had too many cups throughout the day.

4 Alcohol: Alcohol disrupts sleep, period. It may help you fall asleep, but the quality of your sleep throughout the night is greatly diminished (more nighttime wakings, less quality REM sleep, snoring, etc). Consider stopping drinking 4 hours before bedtime. Even better: Cut back on your overall alcohol intake. There's no nutritional benefit to drinking alcohol.

3 Late night snacks: Many people will benefit tremendously by not eating within 3 hours before going to bed. But if your blood sugar tends to drop too low in the middle of the night, then a small healthy snack a little closer to bedtime might help. Experiment with this and see what happens.

2 Screens: Turn off phones and computers 2 hours before bedtime. Checking your email before bed or solving the latest Wordle is not only exposing you to blue light (which blocks melatonin), it also causes your brain to wake up in order to interact with what you’re seeing on the screen. A show on the TV is a better choice than your computer or phone because there’s less interaction and the blue light is further away from your eyes. But no screens at all is the best choice.

0 Snooze: Don't hit that snooze button! Falling asleep at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning--7 days a week!--is conducive to good sleep. Sure, I stay up on rare occasions for social purposes (what's the point of being healthy if you're socially isolated and miserable?), but most days I'm in bed by 9:15, asleep by 9:45 and up at 5:45.

Have great sleep hygiene and still struggling with sleep? Talk to your doctor or therapist. There are so many helps you can take advantage of, from meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce stress, HRT (for perimenopausal and menopausal women), and sleep medication (there are options that allow you to still cycle through all stages of sleep). I waited well over a year before I sought outside help for my sleep issues--even though I had good sleep hygeine. I wish I had talked to someone earlier.

*Parents of young kids who won't sleep: I'm not an expert on sleep for littles, but I do want to say that I see you and I know your pain. My kids were terrible sleepers, and I had a solid 7-8 years of being woken up multiple times a night. (They are not the norm and had other issues that needed addressing.) Hang in there; it will pass. And if something seems beyond normal, seek help.

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