Quality sleep is slowly becoming recognized as a new vital sign, but why? Sure, a poor night of sleep will make you feel groggy and unproductive, but the negative effects of poor sleep extend further than that.

Quality sleep has been shown to be critical for immune function, cardiovascular health, cognitive function, learning, and memory. Most of those things are easy to brush off and not appreciate “in the now”. However, are you recovering from a finicky injury? Quality sleep has been shown to improve the capacity of your tissues to heal. Experiencing high levels of pain lately? A decrease in sleep quality seems to be responsible for an increased sensitivity to pain. You’ve probably noticed that the word “quality” with regard to sleep has been used quite a bit. That’s because it’s the quality of your sleep that matters most, not necessarily the quantity. 

Sleep is broken down into 4 stages. Phases 1-3 are known as non-REM sleep, and are characterized by slower and synchronized brain wave activity. The final fourth phase is known as REM sleep, and is characterized by very active brain wave activity. It’s during this fourth and final phase of REM where the magic happens. The problem is, many of us are doing things during our days that may be affecting our ability to reach this fourth phase of the sleep cycle. 

Read on for strategies you can start implementing now to make sure you are getting consistent, high quality sleep. 

1.  Be Consistent

The sleep-wake cycle acts as an internal clock and has a profound effect on our ability to sleep. During the day, light exposure stimulates the body’s internal clock to promote increased alertness, so that you can stay awake and active. During nighttime, the body’s internal clock begins the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. 

Without proper signaling from the body’s internal clock, the following can occur: 

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Awakening in the middle of the night
  • Shallower, fragmented, and lower quality sleep. 

A great way to set this clock is by waking up at the same time every single morning. If you decide to stay up a little later than normal one night, it’s important to wake up at the same time in the morning to not throw this internal clock out of whack. In the short term it might be difficult to make this happen, but the long term benefits are worth it.

2.  Avoid Caffeine Intake At Least 5-8 Hours Before Bed 

Caffeine has a half life of about 5 hours, so drinking it anytime within 5 hours of bedtime will have an influence on your system. We all know those people who can drink a pot of coffee right before bed (my father-in-law) and go to sleep just fine. Although they may think they are getting quality sleep, the stimulation from the caffeine can make it difficult to fall into deep sleep and can increase the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night. 

It’s important to note that some people may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine, so we recommend stopping consumption a minimum of 5 hours before bed, if not more.

3.  Avoid Alcohol Within 3 Hours Of Bed Time

There’s nothing wrong with a few drinks of alcohol here and there. However, if you find yourself using alcohol as a tool to wind down after the end of a long day or get to bed quicker, then please consider the information in this post. 

Other than being a time in which active dreams occur, research suggests that this stage also aides in the following: 

  • Memory consolidation
  • Emotional processing
  • Refresh button for the mind – clearing the clutter of the prior day’s information and learning. 

Yes, alcohol has a calming effect, and it can feel like it puts you to sleep faster, but it’s important to note that it will sabotage your ability to enter into the 4th stage of REM that is crucial for many physiological processes.

4.  Reserve Your Bedroom For Sleep and Sex

It’s important to train your brain that if you are in bed, you should be asleep. Try to avoid eating, watching TV, and working while in bed. It’s recommended that if you are unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes, you should get up and leave the room until you become more sleepy. 

Although there are many more strategies to implement for better sleep, these are a few that you can start trying out for yourself right now. Remember, it takes time to develop the skills and discipline necessary for a healthier life. So start with a few manageable ones first, and slowly build on your progress. 

Catherine F. Siengsukon, Mayis Al-dughmi, Suzanne Stevens, Sleep Health Promotion: Practical Information for Physical Therapists, Physical Therapy, Volume 97, Issue 8, August 2017, Pages 826–836, https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/pzx057

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