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Get more from your sleeping time

Posted Feb 22 2013 8:00am

They walk amongst us. Many of the people you see around you might not be functioning fully. They’re dragging themselves through the day, feeling perpetually under par, perhaps succumbing too easily to passing infectious microbes, and generally not enjoying life very much.  That’s because many people these days are perpetually sleep deprived from a modern lifestyle.  You might even count yourself amongst them. If you suspect that part of your fatigue stems from lack of sleep, I’d like to offer you a method to try before you reach for another stimulant to keep you going.

We’re genetically designed to sleep during the dark hours. The optic nerve behind your eyes sends messages to a specific part of your brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, about how much light is around. (The suprachiasmatic nucleus sets your individual body clock for sleep and other biorhythms.) When light diminishes after the sun goes down, your brain knows to secrete melatonin to help you wind down, and your adrenal glands reduce their secretion of cortisol (the hormone that keeps you awake and alert). Light is the key here. So ideally, you then go to sleep, and when the sun comes up that suprachiasmatic nucleus secretes instructions to reduce melatonin secretion and increase cortisol secretion so you wake up.

Problem is, though, modern lifestyles can get in the way of natural rhythms. We have artificial light sources from electric bulbs and bright screens to keep us awake, entertaining distractions through the internet and TV, as well as pressure to get just a little more done before going to bed. In the morning, it’s more often the alarm clock that will wake you, not your natural circadian rhythms. The result can be genuine sleep time that’s just too brief to allow for the important bodily and psychological rest and rejuvenation that happens when you sleep.

Here’s the way to get more from your sleep. First, allow wind down time. Get away from that bright TV or internet screen. Dim the lights if you can. Go through a wind down routine that reminds your body it’s sleeping time. Some people do a little stretching, others take a shower, or make a hot drink, or listen to calming music. Some find that exercising in the afternoons burns off enough cortisol to enable them to relax; others find it too stimulating. Whatever method makes a difference is the right one for you. You’ll notice that the more often you practice this routine, the faster and more easily you can get to sleep.

Of course you need to make sure you don’t skimp on the sleep hours too. Most of us really do need eight hours. Give it a try for a few weeks, see whether you have more energy and enjoy life more.

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