Winter is here and the colder temperatures and shorter days can often mean a lingering feeling of exhaustion. Whether it be the lack of sunlight, your winter hibernation habits, the stress of the holidays or coping with a global pandemic, this season can take a toll on the best of us. While the temptation is even greater this year to throw away your healthy habits, it’s more important than ever to make your sleep routine work for you instead of against you.
We know there is nothing more tempting (and, quite frankly, as enjoyable) as binge-watching the latest must-see TV series late into the night, but the healthy habits and nighttime routines outlined below will be wiser choices in the long run. These will leave you better rested, refreshed and ready to tackle your short winter days. And who wouldn’t enjoy more of that this year?
The Importance Of Sleep
As anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter can tell you, your body just doesn’t function the same way with a lack of sleep. Sleep plays an important role in regulating your metabolism, emotions, performance, memory, brain function, processing and learning.
Sleep is the closest thing we have to a reset button. It allows your body to grow, digest and repair after all the demands you put on it throughout the day. Not only does it give you a chance to reset and wake up ready to go again, but a lack of sleep can actually be harmful to your long-term health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting less than seven hours a night can increase your risk of developing some chronic conditions. These include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and mental disorders.
If you’ve trained your body to run on less than seven hours of sleep, you might not notice the effects that your sleep routine is having on your physical and mental health. It's only when you start to incorporate more sleep into your routine that you notice an improvement in your mood and alertness.
The Four Keys To A Good Night’s Sleep
Since we know how important sleep is to our day-to-day mood and long-term health, the question becomes: How do I get better sleep?
To have higher-quality sleep and greater health, there are four elements you should be focusing on to build better sleep hygiene:
- A sleep-inducing environment
- A consistent sleep schedule
- Healthy habits during the day
- A sleep-focused nighttime routine
A Sleep-Inducing Environment
Your bedroom plays a pretty important role in how quickly you fall asleep and how soundly you sleep throughout the night. Regular disruptions like loud noises, bright lights or uncomfortable bedding can work against your attempts to get some zzzs.
- Comfortable mattress, sheets and pillow: If you find yourself with neck or back pain after sleeping, it might be time to invest in a new mattress or pillow. Or if you find yourself waking up throughout the night because you are too hot or cold, consider switching up your sheets and comforter until you find that perfect match.
- Adjust the temperature: Sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit is the recommended temperature for restful sleep. But at the end of the day, this comes down to individual preference, so test out different temperatures until you find a sweet spot.
- Block out the light: Depending on your schedule, you might not be ready to wake up when the sun is beginning to rise. Invest in blackout curtains or adjust your bed to be outside the range of that morning light.
- Remove disruptive noises: To the extent that it is possible (parents of young children excluded!), make sure the room where you are sleeping is free from distracting noises or play white noise to drown it out.
A Consistent Sleep Schedule
When you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, you create a routine for your body and your mind to follow. The more of a habit you get into with your sleep schedule, the easier it will be for your body and your mind to fall into a rhythm.
- Schedule a full seven-to-eight hours: By setting a routine and sticking to it, you can ensure that you are getting your full seven-to-eight hours of sleep. You can even start to adjust the other elements of your schedule around your sleep schedule.
- Don’t focus on perfection: In reality, a perfect sleep schedule is not always possible. So instead of trying to aim for a well-maintained sleep schedule every single day, focus on your average. Yes, there will be late nights or early mornings but these should be the exception as opposed to the rule.
- Make sleep a priority: Very rarely does skipping sleep to catch up on the next episode of a TV show, squeeze in a workout or give yourself more time to finish a project ever really pay off in the long run. While these moments are sometimes unavoidable, try to focus on sleep as you would eating or hydrating.
Healthy Habits During The Day
When it comes to good sleep habits, the focus is usually on the nighttime routine. Setting yourself up for a well-rested sleep actually starts with the activities that you do (or don’t do) during the day.
- Avoid the bed: As so many of us work from home during the pandemic, it can be tempting to curl up in bed with a warm blanket and your laptop and crank out some emails or a project. However, this can actually be hurting your chances of falling asleep later. It’s best to train your brain to associate your bed with sleep so that when your head hits the pillow it knows exactly what comes next.
- Cut out caffeine: The caffeine in your coffee or tea is a stimulant. This means it can trigger feelings of restlessness and alertness, which aren't helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. By cutting out caffeine or opting for a lower-caffeine alternative like MUD\WTR (we had to do it), you can put an end to the wired feeling that keeps you awake all night.
- Get more sunlight: In the winter, the average person gets less sunlight during the day than they would during other parts of the year. Your brain relies on the sun to manage its internal clock, which signals when it's time to sleep. This means that the more you can get outside during the day—by taking a walk during lunchtime, for instance—the easier it will be to fall asleep at night.
- Don’t forget to exercise: During the winter it can be tempting to go into hibernation mode. But your body needs exercise just as much in the winter as it does in the other months of the year. A healthy amount of exercise makes it easier to fall asleep and enjoy long hours of peaceful rest.
A Sleep-Focused Nighttime Routine
What do you do right before you go to bed? Are those activities helping you fall asleep or making it harder to fall asleep? The actions you take at the end of the day can mean the difference between restful sleep or tossing and turning. It’s easy to fall into bad routines or habits, but luckily it’s possible to change our behaviors and create a healthy routine that feels like second nature.
- Build in some buffer time: Moving immediately from a stressful activity (like work or a project) to sleep will make it harder for your brain to make the switch. That's why it's ideal to leave some buffer time between the end of your day and when you hit the hay. This is going to look different for everyone. The goal is to find a relaxing activity that you enjoy to wind down from your day.
- Avoid screens: As you are getting ready for bed, try to avoid all screens, including your phone, for at least an hour before your head hits the pillow. The bright and harsh lights on your devices create a lot of mental stimulation that is hard to turn off. So instead of scrolling through TikTok before you hit the lights, try a screen-free activity like reading or journaling.
- Practice meditation or mindfulness: Try a 10-minute meditation, breathing exercise, mindfulness activity or stretching routine. These types of activities help to reduce stress and get your body in a relaxed state that makes it easier to fall asleep.
- Do the same thing every night: All these tips are easier to put in place if they are part of a regular routine. After all, your body and your brain love a good routine. By performing the same actions every night before you go to bed it will feel less like work and more like autopilot.
Still Having Trouble Falling Asleep?
If you are still having a hard time sleeping after trying some of the above strategies, it might be time to talk to a medical professional. Or it might be smart to try some tough love as soon as you notice you’re having trouble falling asleep.
- Don’t toss and turn: If you’ve been laying in bed for 30 minutes with no sleep in sight, don’t let yourself continue to toss and turn and get frustrated. Instead, get up and stretch, read, meditate, journal, draw or perform another calming activity before trying to fall asleep again. If you spend many nights tossing and turning in your bed, your mind will start to associate sleep time with the anxiety of falling asleep. This will take practice but once you start training your brain that lying in bed means sleep and not frustrating anxiety, the easier rest will come in the future.
- Talk to a doctor: If nothing seems to work, it might be time to talk to a doctor to see what's up. You could be suffering from insomnia, seasonal affective disorder or other sleep disorders like sleep apnea. This could mean you need additional treatment along with a smart sleep routine. A doctor will be able to recommend the right path forward for you if this is the case.
Practice Patience And Take Small Steps
A successful sleep routine is not an all-or-nothing approach. There are a lot of strategies for getting better sleep and what works for one person might not work for another. It’s important to test out different routines (and be patient with yourself as you do) until you find the right one for you.
And don’t forget to take small steps as you figure it out. If you try to change your whole schedule all at once, your body and your mind are going to take a while to adjust. Give yourself the space to figure out what works for you, and talk to a medical professional for extra guidance if needed.