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Reclaim Your Sleep Rhythm

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Sleep Rhythm

How to reset your internal clock and get the rest you need.

When it comes to getting back in sync and renewing vitality, many people focus solely on bedtime and catching some more z’s. And, although I agree that a good night’s rest is essential to our health and well-being, it’s important to understand that it’s not just what you do at night that affects your sleep. I’ve put together some general sleep-friendly tips to help you reclaim your rhythm throughout the day and the night.

Daytime

Wake up right. Alarm clocks interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent sleep from completing naturally, pushing sleep problems into succeeding days. Dawn-simulation devices, which mimic the sunrise by gradually increasing the amount of light in your bedroom, are much more effective at establishing a healthy sleep cycle and gently rousing you from sleep.

Take mindfulness breaks. Close your office door, or find a quiet spot somewhere and get comfortable. Take five-minute breaks throughout your day to focus on your breath and become aware of it.

Get some natural sunlight every day. As sunlight enters our eyes, it regulates and resets our biological clocks, which involves triggering our brains and bodies to release specific chemicals and hormones that are vital to healthy sleep, mood, and aging. Try to get at least half an hour of regular exposure to natural sunlight a day.

Exercise regularly. Exercise is one of the best defenses against insomnia because it increases the amplitude of our daily rhythms and signals the body to promote deeper sleep cycles. The best time to exercise is four to six hours before bedtime, but studies also show that people are more likely to stick to a routine if they exercise first thing in the morning. Try to avoid exercising after 8 p.m., since it may be too stimulating to your body.

Say no to caffeine. Caffeine, even in small doses, blocks sleep neurotransmitters, the calming chemicals your body produces to make you sleepy. If you have a problem with sleep, you must cut out all caffeinated beverages, even your morning cup of coffee.

Try an elimination diet. For two weeks, eliminate sugar, corn syrup, sodas, refined grains, and processed foods. These are metabolic disruptors, which overstress the organs involved in hormone regulation and can seriously affect your sleep cycles. In addition, avoid dairy and gluten products, especially wheat, since these can cause food sensitivities that can affect your sleep cycle, too.

Eat in accordance with your body rhythms. Your digestive-system function peaks at lunchtime, so most of your food should be eaten by then. Your metabolism slows down in the late afternoon, leaving you poorly prepared to digest a large dinner, so make a smaller evening meal your standard. Eat at least three hours before going to sleep. Give your body a chance to recover and rebuild, instead of having to work on digestion while you sleep. What you eat at what time of day also makes a big difference. Prioritize proteins and fats throughout the day — they are essential for steady energy — and include healthy carbohydrates at night since they facilitate relaxation.

Review the medications you are taking. Medications such as antihistamines, diuretics, antipsychotics, antidepressants, decongestants, asthma medications, and some blood pressure medicines can cause sleeplessness. Discuss your medication schedule with your healthcare practitioner if you are struggling with sleep.

Nighttime

Create an electronic sundown. By 10 p.m., stop sitting in front of your computer or TV screen and switch off all other electronic devices. They are too stimulating to the brain and inhibit the release of sleep neurotransmitters.

Prepare for sleep. Dim the lights an hour or more before going to bed, take a warm bath, and listen to calming music or soothing sounds.

Practice a relaxation technique. Many people tell me they can’t switch off their racing minds and therefore have trouble sleeping. Do some breathing exercises, restorative yoga, or meditation to shift your brain into a more relaxed, receptive mode.

Create a regular routine. Going to bed around the same time, even on weekends, is the most important thing you can do to establish good sleep habits. The body clock’s ability to regulate healthy sleep patterns depends on consistency.

Keep the room as dark as possible. Our bodies need complete darkness for production of the important sleep hormone melatonin. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland’s production of sleep hormones. Cover all the lights of any electronic device — alarm clocks, computers, charging indicators on cell phones, etc., or remove them from the bedroom altogether — and use dark shades to cover the windows.

Keep the room cool. Lowering ambient temperature sends a feedback signal to the brain’s sleep center that it’s nighttime, and that it needs to release more sleep hormones. A sleeping temperature of 60 to 65 degrees F is best for most people, even in the winter.

Block out noise. If noise from the street, an upstairs neighbor, pets, or a snoring bed partner is a problem, try using earplugs, an electronic device that makes “white noise,” or a fan to drown out the sound.

Do not rely on sleeping pills. Sleeping pills mask sleep problems and do not resolve the underlying causes of insomnia. Many sleep studies have concluded that long-term use of sleeping pills can do more harm than good. They can be highly addictive, and studies have found them to be potentially dangerous.

Don’t use alcohol to fall asleep. Although alcohol induces sleep initially, as the body breaks it down, it sends the wrong metabolic signals, which can cause you to wake up later on. It usually impairs sleep during the second half of the night, leading to a reduction in your overall rest.

Take nutrients that calm down the nervous system. Instead of sleeping pills or alcohol, try some mellowing supplements or herbs. Magnesium can be helpful, as can calcium and melatonin (see below). The amino acids L-theanine, 5 HTP, taurine, and GABA, and herbs like lemon balm, passionflower, chamomile, magnolia, and valerian root, can also help. Take them about 30 minutes before bedtime.

Try some melatonin. For some people, melatonin can be extremely helpful. The dosage I usually use is anywhere between half a milligram to 3 milligrams right before bedtime. Tablets that dissolve under your tongue are preferable to those you swallow. Please note, however, that melatonin is good for initiating sleep, not maintaining it.

This article originally appeared in “Get Your Groove Back.” Find more tips and information on sleep here.

Frank Lipman, MD, is the founder and director of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. He practices internal medicine using acupuncture, Chinese medicine, functional medicine, meditation and yoga, and is the author of Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again, from which this article was partially adapted.