Get a Good Night’s Sleep
The news and popular media are full of stories about rich and successful people who claim not to need sleep and who brag about sleeping only four hours per night, as if it were a badge of honor. But chronic sleep deprivation (sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis) increases your risk for many chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke . Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increased risk in Alzheimer’s . And the rich, famous, and powerful aren’t protected (it’s often pointed out by sleep experts that chronically sleep-deprived world leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both had Alzheimer’s disease in their later years) .
There is no getting around it: You need to get enough sleep, and pushing yourself to get by on less comes with a high price that you are eventually going to pay.
So, let’s talk about strategies for setting yourself up for sleep success.
A Cool, Dark Space
Research indicates that you’ll get your best sleep in a cool, dark room. Sleeping with light in the room—for instance, if you fall asleep with the television on or with streetlight glaring in through your window—increases insulin resistance and may increase your risk of developing diabetes . Body temperature naturally drops as part of the process of falling asleep, so sleeping in a cool room (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit) can facilitate the onset of sleep. A colder room (like if you’re trying to save on heat in the winter) or a warmer room (if you’re trying to save on AC in the summer) may interfere with both sleep onset and sleep quality .
Dealing with Insomnia
Acute insomnia happens occasionally: You got bad news or you have a presentation the next day, and your whirling mind keeps you up. Chronic insomnia is a recurrent problem—at least three nights per week over at least a three-month period . Insomnia can affect sleep onset (falling asleep) and sleep maintenance (staying asleep). Between 50 and 70 million Americans have a chronic sleep problem, and the health effects can be significant .
If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, first consider your sleep hygiene. We’ve already discussed a few of these factors: Quit drinking caffeine by mid-day, make sure you exercise earlier in the day, and turn off technology and blue light sources at least one hour prior to bedtime. Relaxation strategies, such as gentle yoga, meditation, and progressive relaxation, can all be helpful prior to bedtime, to help your body physically relax and prepare for sleep . Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven strategy for insomnia, and some sleep clinics and psychologists offer personalized programs to help improve sleep. CBT for Insomnia is an online sleep training program developed at Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center .
Awake at 2 a.m.
When you find yourself awake at 2 a.m., it’s often because your mind is swirling—with fear, with regret, with wants, etc. Winston Churchill once said, “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
Acceptance-based meditation is a helpful strategy in the middle of the night because its primary purpose is to tame the swirling, whirling, wanting, regretful, fearful mind. To do it, just breathe in and out. Don’t try to control your thoughts—just notice them. You’re not picking a mantra or focusing on anything specific, you’re just breathing in and out and paying attention to what you think, feel, and experience—in particular, taking time to notice that what you think, feel, and experience is continually changing. The point of acceptance-based meditation is not to change who you are, but to see and accept all the various aspects of who you are. It takes some of the pressure off to realize that you have fears, guilt, and wants but that you are not your fears, guilt, or wants, because they are always changing. When your mind is swirling in the night, instead of getting stuck in the swirl, just notice it. Breathe in and out. See how one swirl leads to another and how the swirls change and dissipate. Don’t look at the clock. Don’t feel pressured to force yourself back to sleep. Just let go and breathe.
If you only make one change to your day, change your day to get enough sleep. Being well-rested will improve everything else in your life and make it easier for you to make good, health-promoting decisions all day long.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to cope when you have to stay awake through the night.
 CBT for Insomnia
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