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Tips for Getting Sleep

Scientific answers to common sleep questions.

Woman in bed after getting sleep

Most people know getting sleep is important, yet many of us fall short on a daily (or nightly) basis. That’s because it’s easy for sleep to get disrupted by the waterfall of life: work, kids, stress, screens, illness, travel, the pandemic, and the list goes on, with variance for each individual (Deshong 2022).

Still, sleep hygiene is a topic worth covering with clients. It’s a key component of recovery, and it can impact performance in myriad ways. Fortunately, science holds clues and answers to common sleep questions. Here, you’ll find answers and solutions to the mysteries of sleep, plus questions you can ask and tips you can offer when guiding others on their sleep quest.

Are Blue-Light-Blocking Glasses Effective Before Bed?

Experts recommend turning off screens and bright lights 1 hour before bedtime, and blue-light-blocking glasses have come to the rescue. While some of these products do prevent blue light from entering the eyes (Hester et al. 2021), they don’t seem to be well regulated.

“Most commercially available blue light-filtering glasses, and special coatings added to prescription lenses, aren’t standardized. So you have no way of knowing which wavelengths are being blocked, and whether this affects only visual function, or important non-visual functions such as alertness and the circadian clock” (Corliss 2021).

We might also be missing the point: It’s not just about the light. The eustress and distress we absorb from social media and drama TV cannot be blocked by lenses, and stress can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system when we want to be entering parasympathetic pathways before bed.

What to ask: When using these glasses with screens, how fast do you fall asleep? Are you staying asleep and getting good-quality sleep on those nights? Do you feel rested the next day? Are screens soothing or stressing you?

What to suggest: In addition to finishing screen time 1 hour before bedtime, clients should adopt a bedtime routine that includes relaxing activities such as

  • gentle stretching
  • taking a shower or bath
  • journaling
  • listening to a relaxing playlist or audiobook
  • knitting
  • doing a jigsaw puzzle

Identifying activities that are relaxing helps people make a swap instead of feeling like something is being taken away.

See also: Sleep Deprivation: You Are How You Sleep

Is Melatonin a Helpful Sleep Aid?

Melatonin is not just a supplement, it’s a sleep hormone produced inside the human body by the pineal gland. Melatonin is released in the evening as light fades away to darkness. Matthew Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep (Scribner 2018), writes, “Melatonin simply provides the official instruction to commence the event of sleep, but does not participate in the sleep race itself.” Melatonin signals the brain to be in sleep mode, and secretion stops with the introduction of light in the morning. (Using bright devices before bed suppresses melatonin.)

With a regular sleep routine, a melatonin supplement is unnecessary, although it may be beneficial in a handful of scenarios and in the short term: Examples include for circadian rhythm disorders, when traveling across time zones (especially when going west), for night shift workers and with the elderly population.

It’s important to work with a physician when consuming melatonin supplements to ensure the brand being consumed is of adequate quality. Erland & Saxena (2017) have found that the content in the bottle does not always match the label, meaning there might be a lower or higher dose of melatonin, as well as other additives such as serotonin. Supplementing with melatonin might also cause the release of natural melatonin to be weakened.

What to ask: Where is your melatonin supplement coming from? What brand is it? What is your dose? Does it help you fall asleep? Does it help you stay asleep? Are you feeling more rested the day after taking it?

What to suggest: Here are a few ways to support the body’s natural melatonin release and sleep rhythm:

  • Expose the eyes to outside light upon waking and throughout the day.
  • Consume foods containing tryptophan, magnesium, calcium and vitamin B6 (Hines 2019).
  • Dim the household lights after dinner.
  • Turn off screens 1–2 hours before bedtime.

Does Caffeine Cancel Out Not Getting Sleep?

Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep doctor and author of several books, has a straightforward answer: “Drinking coffee first thing in the morning does not wake you up, make you alert or give you an energy boost. All it does, according to science, is raise your tolerance for caffeine so you need to drink more of it to feel any effects at all” (Breus 2016). This is frustrating news, but consistent across sleep literature.

Caffeine binds to the same receptors in the brain as adenosine, a neurotransmitter that causes sleepiness. Because caffeine competes for these receptor sites, it prevents adenosine from binding until the caffeine has cleared. Walker says it’s like sticking your fingers in your ears to block out sound. The tiredness masked by caffeine is still there and so are the consequences of it.

Caffeine can create a cycle because it disrupts sleep, which seems to justify using it again the next day, when all the while the body is being starved of sleep and fooled by caffeine. This is not what any coffee connoisseur wants to hear, so broaching this topic with care is advised!

What to ask: How heavily do you rely on caffeine to “wake up” in the morning? How would you function without caffeine? Would you be willing to reduce your intake slightly?

What to suggest: Habits for sleep-friendly caffeine consumption include the following:

  • Delay caffeine until 1–2 hours after waking to support circadian rhythm, and stop using it after 2 p.m.
  • Substitute caffeinated beverages with cold-pressed juice, water or decaffeinated herbal tea.
  • Meditate, stretch, power nap, drink water or walk outside when daytime sleepiness arises.

What About Using Alcohol to Unwind?

Alcohol can help a person reduce reported stress levels, but only temporarily. Unfortunately, multiple studies show that it also competes with the type of deep sleep that counteracts stress. Put another way: Stress is relieved prior to sleep by drinking alcohol, but the stress relief that sleep offers is then compromised, so it cancels out.

What about in moderation? This is certainly better than too much, but Walker says, “Nightly alcohol will likely disrupt your sleep, and the annoying advice of abstinence is the best, and most honest I can offer.” Oof.

If health and vitality is suffering, this is a habit to contemplate and possibly limit or eliminate from the routine.

What to ask: How well do you sleep on nights that you consume alcohol? How do you feel the next morning and throughout the day? Is it the alcohol that soothes your system or the ritual of drinking it? What else helps you relax before bed?

What to suggest: Here are some swaps for alcohol:

  • sparkling water with citrus
  • decaffeinated herbal tea
  • berries in ice water

See also: The Connection Between Sleep and Gut Health

Is Hitting the Snooze Button Okay?

Person in bed hitting snooze and not getting sleep

When the alarm goes off and it’s a struggle to get out of bed, it could be sleep inertia or it could expose a person’s need for more sleep.

It’s normal to feel sleepy upon waking: This is called sleep inertia, and it’s more intense when the body awakens during deeper stages of sleep.

Ideally, the body wakes on its own, once all sleep stages for the night are complete. Alarm clocks can be a shocking way to wake up and may exacerbate the sensation of inertia, especially if a person has an inconsistent circadian rhythm, which is the day-to-day sleep-wake cycle (Sleepstation 2020). Circadian rhythm is mostly ruled by exposure to light and dark, which used to be in line with nature but is now in the hands of humans.

When the alarm goes off and it’s a struggle to get out of bed, it could be sleep inertia or it could expose a person’s need for more sleep. Especially if the body is able to sleep an extra hour or more on the weekend, it’s a sign of low sleep.

Breus says, “By some estimates, 70% of the population suffers from chrono-misalignment or social jet lag every week.” He recommends getting up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, as well as synchronizing with one’s chronotype, which is the natural inclination of the body to sleep and rise at a certain time. Chronotype is what most people understand as being an early bird versus a night owl.

What to ask: How much trouble do you have getting out of bed in the morning? Is your bedtime later than it needs to be? If so, what is taking the place of sleep? In the absence of work and obligations, are you an early bird or a night owl? What’s your ideal bedtime and rising time?

What to suggest:

  • Go to bed early enough to wake up at the time needed without an alarm.
  • Try a light-based alarm clock or gentle music to wake up.
  • Upon waking, expose yourself to light and try some exercise right away to get the body awake.
  • Find out when your body prefers to sleep and wake by taking Breus’s chronotype quiz at thepowerof whenquiz.com, and align your schedule with it.

Getting Sleep for Wellness

Before you pass along the research, keep this in mind: It can be challenging to talk about sleep with someone who isn’t getting enough, because sleep helps us manage emotions. Starting where it feels right for each person is crucial. Science is important, but so is a person’s relationship with sleep and their own unique body. So pay attention to the things that stand out as comfortable changes for each individual, notice where the resistance is, too, and be curious about it with them, so they can take steps forward instead of hide in the dark.

See also: Sleep Hygiene Is One Key to Health

A Guide to Sleep Journaling

Having clients keep a sleep-and-energy log for a week can help you hone in on what’s happening in their sleep life. Ask them to put all advice aside for 1 week and just notice. Then help them make small changes based on what they observed, with a main goal of consistency and rhythm. You can find a free sleep journal to download at BeverlyHosford.com/sleep, or just keep notes on a piece of paper.

What to Record

  • caffeine, alcohol and sleep aid use
  • meal times
  • bedtime habits and timing
  • times awake at night (number, time, duration)
  • waking time
  • next day’s energy level (morning, midday, evening)

Sleep and Stress

Man reading in bed for sleep

Stress affects sleep, and sleep affects stress. Consider coronasomnia as an example. This term arose in response to the pandemic-related sleep challenges.

“Over the past two years, doctors and sleep scientists have documented a wide range of ways that COVID-19 has changed and disrupted sleep patterns. Around 40% of people have experienced sleeping problems, and studies have detected notable increases in insomnia symptoms in adults and children and adolescents” (Suni 2022).

The pandemic illuminated what stress does to sleep. It disrupts sleep rhythm. Daytime stress trickles into the night and keeps people awake, but some
stress can be mitigated with the practices listed below.

  • Implement 5- to 10-minute breaks during the day to engage in an audio meditation, walk outside, or do breathing exercises or gentle stretching.
  • Prioritize a wind down of 30–60 minutes before bed where lights are dimmed and you choose relaxing activities and music.
  • Maintain a consistent bedtime and rising time for predictable internal rhythms.
  • Try not to stress about sleep.

With a little effort toward reducing stress, night sleep can be improved, which helps reduce daytime stress because (as some experts say) sleep is overnight therapy. From small changes, a positive cycle begins.

Resources: Books on Sleep and Stress

Looking for your next summer read? Consider one or more of these choices, which offer a healthy dose of advice on adjusting your habits to reduce your stress and improve your sleep.

  • The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype—and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More by Michael Breus, PhD (Little, Brown and Company 2016)
  • Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD (Scribner 2017)
  • Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Ambitious Women by Kate Northrup (Hay House 2019)
  • In the FLO: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life by Alissa Vitti (HarperOne 2021)

References

Breus, M. 2016. The Power of When. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Corliss, J. 2021. Can blue light-blocking glasses improve your sleep? Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed May 5, 2022: health.harvard.edu/blog/can-blue-light-blocking-glasses-improve-your-sleep-202110262625.

Deshong, A. 2022. Sleep and stress. Sleep.org. Accessed May 5, 2022: sleep.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-and-stress/.

Erland, L.A.E., & Saxena, P.K. 2017. Melatonin natural health products and supplements: Presence of serotonin and significant variability of melatonin content. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 13 (2), 275–81.

Hester, L., et al. 2021. Evening wear of blue-blocking glasses for sleep and mood disorders: A systematic review. Chronobiology International, 38 (10), 1375–83.

Hines, J. 2019. Food for sleep: Best and worst foods for getting sleep. Alaska Sleep Clinic. Accessed May 5, 2022: alaskasleep.com/blog/foods-for-sleep-list-best-worst-foods-getting-sleep-0.

Sleepstation. 2020. How sound-based alarm clocks affect sleep. Accessed May 5, 2022: sleepstation.org.uk/articles/sleep-tips/best-alarm-clocks/.

Suni, E. 2022. Sleep guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sleep Foundation. Accessed May 5, 2022: sleepfoundation.org/sleep-guidelines-covid-19-isolation.

Walker, M. 2018. Why We Sleep. New York: Scribner.

Beverly Hosford, MA

I love anatomy! I have a skeleton named Andy who comes to all of my presentations and workshops with me. He has his own facebook page and you tube channel. "Ask Andy" I work with clients on injury prevention one to one and also small groups. I also do business coaching for fitness professionals to help them find better balance in their business and greater success.

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