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5 Steps to Better Sleep

Everyone knows that a good night's sleep is foundational for good health. It is almost impossible to have a great day without having a great night's sleep the night before. Along with nutrition, hydration, and exercise, sleep is absolutely essential for our health and sense of well-being. Unfortunately, insomnia is one of the most common problems I see in my practice every day.

Quality sleep is obviously necessary for feeling good, but it also plays a very important role in several other areas of our lives. Sleep, especially deep sleep, is when memories are imprinted. Sleep is vital in maintaining a healthy immune system and repair and recovery after exercise.

Insomnia in general is quite common, with chronic insomnia affecting one in seven U.S adults. This is largely due to the fact that we generally manipulate our environment in such a way that we no longer rise with the sun and sleep when it gets dark. Modern lifestyles have led to "circadian dysfunction", which means that our brains no longer know when it is time to be awake and when it is time to be asleep. This is exacerbated by our all-too-common habit of excess "screen time": televisions, smartphones, and computers all emit blue light which our brains interpret as daylight.

Modern medicine is pretty good at fixing several problems; poor sleep is not one of them. Sleep is such a primal, ancient need that its roots (and therefore its problems) lie deep in the brain where chemicals either don't work very well, or cause significant side effects. There are things you can do, however, to improve your nightly sleep.

If you suffer from insomnia, read on and I'll give you some well-established tips and biohacks to help you sleep more soundly more often. Many of these ideas are common-sense approaches that we simply need to be reminded of, but taken together they can make a real difference in your quality and quantity of sleep and, subsequently, your energy level and overall health.

5 Sleep Tips

#1. Sleep is for the bed, and the bed is for sleep. Simply put, don't sleep on the couch or in a chair, but do sleep in the bed. Likewise, don't read, eat, play on the phone, or watch TV in the bed. Your body and mind need to know, in no uncertain terms, that when you lie down in the bed, it is time to go to sleep.

#2. Develop and stick to a bedtime routine. Again, we need to make it clear to our bodies when we expect it to fall asleep. So develop a routine (for example drink an herbal decaffeinated tea, wash your face, brush your teeth and then go to bed), and follow that routine every night before retiring to bed.

#3. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Our bodies crave routines. We function better when there are no surprises. When we stick to a regular sleep schedule, our bodies and brains come to expect sleep at certain times and wakefulness at certain times. It's like training a baby to sleep well. Following a set schedule just makes sense.

#4. Limit caffeine, especially after lunch. This is one of those common-sense recommendations. Caffeine in moderate amounts is perfectly safe in the morning hours, but the later in the day it gets, the less caffeine we should have.

#5. Use light to your advantage. This may be the most powerful of all "bio-hacks" to improve sleep. Before the electric light bulb, the presence of light signaled daytime and the absence of light signaled nighttime. Our eyes and even our skin have cells that are specially designed to sense light. When we are exposed to light (especially the blue light emitted by TV, computer and smartphone screens) our brains naturally think that it is daytime and therefore wakefulness takes over. As light fades in the evening, wakefulness gives way to sleepiness. So it is really important to expose yourself to the brightest light in your home (or better yet, get outside on a sunny day) as early in the day as possible. Ideally this happens immediately upon awakening. Likewise, as the day turns into evening, it is vital that light is minimized (especially blue light). It's a good practice to eliminate all "screen time" at least a few hours before trying to sleep. Instead of watching TV or playing on your phone, read a book before bed to encourage healthy sleep.

So there you have it. Five steps that, when taken together, can make a real difference in the quality of your sleep. While these tips can't cure all insomnia problems, they can and usually do help to improve sleep dramatically. We spend a third of our lives in bed, so pay attention to the details to get the best sleep possible.