Love them or hate them, it’s that time of year: resolution time or what I like to call it REST-O-LUTION time. I like the spirit of renewal, reflection, and progress that comes with the new year, and gets embodied in resolutions. I always make a few, and I encourage my patients to think about the turn of a calendar year as a time to renew and improve their commitment to healthy sleep.
Here are my suggestions for how to make worthwhile REST-O-LUTIONS that will stick. Each of these goals is manageable, realistic, and will deliver a big return for your sleep and your waking life.
Address the sleep issue you’ve been ignoring
Everyone has one. That part of your sleep routine that isn’t working, but hasn’t yet gotten the attention it deserves. (Even sleep doctors have them! Mine continues to be getting enough high-quality rest on a plane with my crazy travel schedule.) Maybe you haven’t dealt with your sleep issue because you’re busy and distracted, or maybe you think it’s not a serious enough problem to warrant your attention.
For millions of adults in the US and around the world, those un-addressed sleep issues involve undiagnosed sleep disorders. Common sleep disorders, including chronic insomnia and restless leg syndrome, go undiagnosed, robbing people of the rest they need. As many as 80% of moderate and severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea don’t get diagnosed, leading to a whole range of health complications, reduced quality of life, and compromised performance.
Not every unaddressed sleep issue traces back to one of these major sleep disorders—but all sleep problems warrant attention. Neglected sleep environments—including ancient mattresses that lead to uncomfortable sleep, light and other stimuli in the bedroom—are common ones. I just recently wrote about how eye problems can impact sleep, specifically about how surprisingly common it is for people to have trouble sleeping with their eyes closed. Excessive sweating at night is another issue that often gets overlooked, despite how disruptive it is for nightly rest. Dehydration, stress, and chronic pain are all root causes of sleep problems that tend to go unattended.
Make a commitment at the start of this year to follow up on the sleep problem that is stopping you from getting the rest you need and deserve. Here are some of the symptoms I see go un-addressed all the time:
- Restless sleeping with lots of awakenings throughout the night
- Snoring or other breathing troubles
- Disruptive dreams
- A wired brain at night
- Needing to get up to go the bathroom often
- Feeling fatigued throughout the day
- Waking in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep
Whatever your issue is—whether it’s on this list or not—talk with your doctor and seek out a sleep specialist to get it resolved. Your whole year will be changed for the better. If you a looking for a sleep doc or center check out www.sleepcenters.org
Don’t just know your chronotype. Do something with it.
I’m guessing a lot of regular readers have taken my bio time quiz, and you know whether you’re a Lion, a Bear, a Wolf or a Dolphin. If you haven’t, go do it now! www.chronoquiz.com.)
But I’ll bet many of you haven’t yet taken the next step: to look closely at the timing of activities in your daily life and make some adjustments to life more in sync with your bio clock, based on your individual chronobiology.
The knowledge of chronotype itself is valuable, and can trigger subtle changes on its own. But it’s when you put that knowledge into deliberate action that you’ll see the most powerful impact on your health, performance and well-being. There’s almost nothing you undertake in your waking life that isn’t affected by your chronotype, from your sex life to your diet to your ability to be a top performer in your career. Living in better alignment with your chronotype can help you do everything better AND enjoy everything more. The research keeps accumulating, delivering more scientific detail and insight about how bio time affects health, mood and behavior.
Some of the recent research that’s particularly interesting?
This review of scientific studies found that athletic performance is strongly linked to chronotype—meaning the time of day you choose to work out matters, in terms of how hard you can push yourself and how quickly and well you can recover. Another recent study found that different chronotypes prefer different sports, as evidenced in elite athletes. This makes complete sense, given how different chronotypes respond to physical challenges and training schedules, as well as to the social dynamics of team versus individual sports.
A brand-new research review confirms that chronotype exerts significant influence over eating habits (that’s both what we eat and when we eat), with a big link to weight loss.
Pick one part of your life you want to improve, and look at how bio time can help you.
Want to liven up your sex life and deepen intimacy? Planning for sex at bedtime is the worst time for every chronotype. The daily desire rhythm actually peaks in the morning, and each chronotype has optimal times for sex in the morning and evening that don’t involve waiting until bedtime.
Interested in bringing more creativity to your life? Start using the times of day when your chronotype is not at peak alertness. These are the “moments of groggy greatness” you can start to capture when you’re paying attention to bio time.
Thinking about adding strength training to your workout routine? There’s a best time to train for every chronotype (afternoons and evenings), based on rhythms of muscle strength, muscle growth, and tolerance for pain.
There’s so much to know about bio time and how to harness it to improve your life, I wrote a whole book about it: The Power of When.
Pick ONE way to optimize your sleep
So, you feel like you’re sleeping pretty well, getting the level of rest that leaves you feeling energized and refreshed throughout the day. You can’t pinpoint a specific problem with your sleep. Great! That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, to deepen the quality of your sleep and strengthen your sleep routine, with the goal of living longer, healthier and happier. Addressing even very modest deficits in sleep can have a big impact on physiological and psychological health. One example? New research from 2019 showed that even mild sleep deprivation may negatively affect gut health, which in turn has a major impact on immunity, metabolic health, mood and cognition. There’s also recent research showing a complex relationship between sleep, gut health, and cognitive health in older adults.
These are some of the “sleep hacks” that my patients are most interested in these days:
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. It may not work for everyone, but for some people ASMR triggers deep physical and psychological relaxation through sound and imagery. Scientific studies are just emerging about the effects of ASMR on sleep and mental health, but early research shows it can have measurable reductions to stress, increasing calm and lowering heart rate. Studies have shown that bedtime is the single most popular time for people to use ASMR. Some really interesting research from 2019 shows that the combination of ASMR and binaural beats (another auditory tool I’ve talked about before) can improve sleep quality.
Intermittent fasting. Wow, you guys are really interested in IF for weight control and sleep! I get a lot of questions about fasting these days. A promising strategy for managing weight and cardiometabolic health, intermittent fasting has been shown to strengthen circadian rhythms and help keep bio clocks more in sync. I am now an intermittent faster myself and it is AMAZING for energy!
And keep in mind the simple, “old fashioned” sleep hacks that stand the test of time: a warm shower or bath 90 minutes before bed, relaxing aromatherapy in the bedroom, using nature sounds or white noise at night are all simple strategies that can make good sleep even better.
Make at least ONE new connection between your diet and your sleep
A lot of us are thinking about diet upgrades at this time of year. Why not pay particular attention to new eating habits that specifically benefit sleep. If weight loss is your goal, sleeping better is one huge component in making that successful. If your sleep is poor quality, irregular, or in too short supply, losing weight will be very difficult.
Maybe you’ll opt to better align your eating routine with your chronotype. Maybe you’ll add more sleep-boosting omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Perhaps you’ll reduce your sugar consumption, which can seriously interfere with your sleep. And don’t overlook salt as a dietary issue for sleep. A 2019 study found that a high-salt diet may lead to more restless sleep.
Perhaps you’ll explore a move toward a more plant-centric diet. Brand new research shows that people who follow animal-based diets are more likely to experience poor sleep and anxiety, stress and depression, compared to people who adhere to plant-based diets. (Another new study shows that plant-based diets are associated with lower risk for depression and obesity.)
No one single diet is going to be right for everyone, and there are a number of individual factors that determine the dietary choices that are right for you. Broadly speaking, Mediterranean-style diets, which emphasize plants, healthy fats, and unprocessed food are strongly linked to better sleep quality and longer sleep times. I wrote not long ago about the impact of vegetarian and vegan diets on sleep.)
Maybe you’ll decide to explore how natural botanical compounds and supplements can help you achieve better rest, and more clarity, calm and focus while you’re awake. Terpenes are biochemical compounds found in hundreds of plants (and plant-based supplements), as well as in essential oils. Terpenes have been shown to benefit sleep, often by activating the brain’s GABA system, which relaxes the mind and body and plays an important role in facilitating sleep on a daily basis. Another supplement that’s gaining a lot of interest for sleep and longevity? NAD, or nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, a coenzyme produced by the body that regulates circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles. I talked about NAD (and my own experience using it), not long ago.
Commit your attention to sleep
You’ve heard me talk about how mindfulness and meditation practices can help you sleep better. This resolution involves being more mindful about sleep itself. This year, commit to paying closer attention to your sleep, on a daily basis. Use the same non-judgmental approach that comes with mindfulness to be more curious and interested in the details of your sleep habits. You’ll learn a lot about your daily rest and about yourself, and you’ll likely discover new ways to tweak and improve your sleep routine, for the benefit of your short and long-term health and happiness.
Happy new year! I hope yours is abundant with healthy sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor
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