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Sleep Rituals: Training The Body And The Mind

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Does this sound familiar:

The kids are finally down, and you look at the clock. Hmmm... just about 2 hours before I am supposed to get in bed. What can I get done before total exhaustion hits?

Sleep is a very strange behavior. Many people think of it as a battery re-charge, some as a vacation, and still others as a waste of time. Which one are you? How do you value your sleep? When it is not on your list of priorities that can increase your health, energy, and well being, why would you bother with it? Many people value sleep, but they have such a hard time getting it, they just give up and accept that they will be sleep deprived forever.

I would argue that great sleep starts with a reasonable attitude toward sleep. How much do you think you need, and how do you think you may be able to get it? Some nights you will get more, and some less. There are many mysteries to sleep but here are a few things that are known that we can all use to our advantage to get better rest:

  1. Your body has a biological clock. This clock tells you when to wake and when to sleep. It is called a circadian rhythm and if it is out of sync you get that feeling of being "so tired but I can't sleep" or you fall asleep at 6 p.m. on the couch, wake at 2 a.m. and wonder what happened. If you can get in bed, on a regular schedule, sleep should be easier.
  2. You sleep in cycles. As your brain cycles through the different sleep stages (1-4 and REM) the pattern repeats itself (on average 5 times a night) and each cycle takes about 90 minutes. So sleeping for about five 90 minute cycles (7.5 hours) will allow you to feel reasonably rested. Setting your "getting ready for" bedtime about 8 to 8.5 hours before you need to wake up, should allow for about the right amount of rest.
  3. Sleep is like hunger. The need to satisfy your sleep drive grows throughout the day (when you are not asleep) and as the drive increases, you get sleepier and sleepier. Ever get so hungry that you think your stomach will eat itself, and then your hunger simply goes away? The same can happen for sleep: it's called your second wind. So there appears to be some type of optimal window for sleep.
  4. Sleep is not an on/off switch. You simply cannot just get in bed, turn off the light and be asleep. UNLESS-you are already so sleep deprived that your body is totally exhausted. So just like you need to stretch out or warm up before exercising, before sleep you should also do something to help you "warm up" and get ready.

So what does all this mean? Your body must be ready for sleep. And you should sleep when your body tells you to.

These days, it's far too easy to push bedtime aside with countless distractions, including those from the television, computer, telephone, belated responses to email and text messages, the messy kitchen, the dirty laundry, restless children, or even an engrossing mystery book.

But sleep is not a luxury that you can push aside or save for later. Sleep is critical.

Having more energy is among the top five requests people make at their doctor's office each year. More energy allows us to do more, be more effective and efficient in what we are doing, and enjoy it all when it is done! What better way to obtain energy than from its natural source...SLEEP?

In my last post I answered many of the common questions we all have about sleep and gave some tips to help you sleep. In this post, the focus is on the pre-bedtime (aka warm-up) routine. Getting your body and mind ready for bed.

Once you know your bedtime, and your sleep window, it is time to get ready for bed. You can warm up for sleep with my Power Down Hour™ - here are the basics:

  • One hour before you are going to try and sleep break up your time accordingly:
  • 20 minutes to finish up your last task of the night - set a stop watch or timer, have a friend call you, do something to know when that 20 minutes is up.
  • 20 minutes for hygiene: all in a dimly lit bathroom: remove makeup, wash your face, brush your teeth, even take a hot bath or shower.
  • 20 minutes of something to relax your body (if you are tense and that is an issue for you when falling asleep) or your mind ( if you cannot turn off your brain at night).

This routine accomplishes several different goals.

First, if done regularly you are working with your circadian rhythm and going to bed regularly.

Second, if done with enough time it allows for you to have the opportunity to get your 5 cycles.

Third, it should land about the same time as your "window" of opportunity for sleep.

Finally, it allows you to slowly pull your foot off the gas, and slowly push on the brake to allow you to cruise into sleep.

Now the first two 20 minute steps are fairly simple (some would say not easy), but the last one is where many of my patients want some help, so let's also think about several different ways to relax your body and your mind.

Your Body:

We know that by the end of the day, the body has been used and abused, and generally on edge, so here are some of the many things you can do:

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: starting at the top of your head, tense and then relax each of your muscle groups moving down your body to the tip of your toes, allowing yourself to learn what it feels like to actually relax. This is great to do while in bed in the dark.
  • Yoga: there are many yoga stretches that can have a very relaxing effect on the body.
  • A Hot Bath: data has shown that a hot bath before bed can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try some lavender aromatherapy in your bath.
  • Sex: many of my patients swear by it, claiming that after orgasm they sleep very well (watch out because many say the opposite).
  • Deep Breathing: this can slow your heart rate down and allow you to fall asleep more quickly. Also great to do while in the dark in bed.

Your Mind:

We also know that an active mind while trying to fall asleep can prevent you from getting good quality sleep. So here are some ideas to consider:

  • Meditation: You do not have to be a meditation master to learn how to quiet your mind, there are many books and tapes to help with this.
  • A Worry Journal: Write down what is bothering you with at least one solution (which may be to think about the problem at lunch the next day) next to each worry. Fold the paper in half and put it away for the night.
  • Distraction: Maybe it is a good fiction book, a short TV show, or video.
  • Listening to Music: nature sounds, your favorite instrumental, or even white noise.

Everyone's personal sleep routine will be a bit different. And you can break the rules if they help you to sleep better. Some people need a television to lull them to sleep because they have become conditioned to fall asleep in front of it (just make sure you use a timer so that it turns off after you are asleep).

And for some people, exercise right before bed can actually be very sleep-friendly. Don't be afraid to experiment and go with your instincts as to what makes for a good night for you. Most of us will be able learn quickly what's good for us when it comes to getting a good night's sleep.

The secret to sleep is already within you. You just have to pay attention to what you're doing in those precious hours before bedtime, and capitalize on the habits that will tuck you soundly into bed.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor™

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