As with everything lifestyle is a key factor in our ability to get good, restorative sleep. I talked a bit about stress which is the most common cause of sleep disturbance. But how we deal with stress has just as much impact on our ability to get good sleep as does the stress itself.
Food, alcohol, cigarettes, television, computers and video games are among the most commonly used tools for stress management in modern society. After a long, difficult day we want to decompress and these things, each in their own way, serve as a diversion from the worries and problems of our lives. Unfortunately, these behaviors have a cost in terms of our health. And over time most people find that they tend to become less effective at relieving the stress we experience. This often leads to increasing the ‘dosage’ or combining them in various ways for greater impact: beer and snacking in front of the television, for example. Or smoking and drinking. Many of my patients mindlessly munch chips or candy while they surf the net.
Over time these compound behaviours become habits–fixed elements of our lifestyles. And habits have consequences. Cellular stress, weight gain, nerve damage, and sleep disturbance are the inevitable results of chronic use of these stress management tools. It would be better to de-stress through exercise or participation in some sort of mind or soul-enriching activity such as meditation. But this is unrealistic for most of us, especially after we have given so much of our energy away at work or while taking care of the kids all day. What can we do?
There is no simple answer to this question. No one formula fits into the lives or meets the needs of every person. But the general idea, I think, is to find a way to decompress which is constructive and health-raising, rather than destructive and health-diminishing, and then to practice this nightly until it becomes a habit.
Once a habit is established it is fairly easy to maintain. In fact, once we create a behavioral habit, it is difficult not to do it! Those of who made the shift from being a non-exerciser to a habitual exerciser know what I mean when I say that, when I go a couple of days without any exercise my body actually craves it. I feel restless and anxious if I am sedentary for too long. Those of us who have made the shift from starch and sugar-based snack foods to vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables know what I mean when I say that sometimes when I am traveling and eating delicious exotic foods, what I actually crave is a bowl full of bright colored berries, or some dark-green broccoli sauteed in olive oil and garlic.
The same can be said of a health pre-bedtime routine. My wife and I have developed one which works for us. Some of my patients have used this routine as a starting place for developing their own nightly ritual. Whether you like any or all of what we like is not the point. Have a look and get a sense for what we are doing and why we like it. Then try to imagine what would give you a similar benefit. In order for me to get my best rest, I need to wind down. I need to slow my mind, let go of my worries, and focus on something which helps me to feel good about myself and my life. Here’s what I do each night:
1) Soon after dinner I brush and floss my teeth to perfection. Having a clean mouth keeps me from wanting to snack again later in the evening. I have a small glass of mineral water and that is the last of anything liquid for the evening.
2) I change into the most comfortable clothes that I have. This changes based on the time of the year.
3) I spend 4 minutes using the Kore Power Trainer. One minute working on my left side, on minute on my front abs, one minute on my lower back, and one minute on my right side. This maintains my strong core muscles and gives me a feeling of satisfaction from having done something really good for myself.
4) My wife and I grab our stretch sticks and we stretch out to music. I like the music from my childhood: classic rock, Miles Davis, or sometimes something more quiet, like a Chopin nocturne. The idea is to play music which makes us feel good. Our stretch routine takes about 3-5 minutes.
5) We get into bed and read or watch a show. We do not watch news at night, nor do we watch movies or programs which show graphic violence. I am particularly sensitive to personal forms of violence, such as torture, and do not want any images of that kind in my mind when I am trying to fall asleep. We do not read the news or anything political before bed. I like books, my wife likes her iPad. But all electronics are turned off at least half an hour before it is time to go to sleep.
6) We are both busy and evening is our time to chat and re-connect. We leave potentially stressful topics for the daytime or, if they are pressing, we will try to talk about it after dinner, before we do our stretching. We have a rule that if either of us is feeling upset or too tired to focus during our evening chats, we can put whatever subject is being discussed on-hold until the next day. Sometimes I am simply too tired to do much talking. I talk a lot during the day as it is (don’t laugh too hard). So instead I read from a book that is mentally demanding but not something which stimulates my imagination too much. Late night reading for me is more about classics and non-fiction, rather than fast paced novels which grip my mind with plot twists and cliff-hangers.
7) Ear plugs are a must for me before my head goes down. I use wax plugs which block most of the noise but not so much that I would sleep through a hurricane (or my alarm).
When we follow our routine, we both tend to sleep much better. During periods of sleep disturbance I take two Best-Rest capsules 30 minutes before sleep time and that almost always does the trick. When I go through patches of disturbed sleep, I use Best-Rest for one week at two capsules each night, then cut it to one capsule per night for 3 nights before stopping. Sometimes I’m good for many months, sometimes I find myself waking up unrefreshed or experiencing insomnia again a few weeks later. It is good to know that I have something that helps without any side-effects. I do not have to just tough it out and wait for my sleep to return to normal.
Try to develop your own routine. Remember that without sufficient restorative sleep, we do not burn fat, heal wounds, fight disease, or function physically or mentally at our best. Sleep is one of the five pillars of health.