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Improving Sleep by Understanding It

It’s a frightening scientific fact that people who are truly sleep deprived are largely unaware of their precarious condition. It is this lack of ability to assess the degree to which their alertness is compromised that has led to the increase in serious accidents attributed to drowsy driving. But somewhere under the level of exhaustion seen in these tragic incidents is where the majority of us fall – in need of more sleep and aware of it, but not sure how to go about getting it. Sleep experts have indicated that there are three basic tenets of sleep, and that making changes to any or all of the three will make a dramatic difference in the way that you perform and feel. These three areas are:

• Intensity • Timing • Duration

Intensity is a term used to describe the quality of your sleep. It refers to how effectively you cycle through the various stages of sleep each night, and most particularly the all-important Rapid Eye Movement and slow wave deep sleep stages. The more time you spend in these two stages of sleep, the more restorative your sleep will be.

Having identified the three basic factors of sleep is only the first step to getting to a better night’s sleep. Having identified the three basic factors of sleep is only the first step to getting to a better night’s sleep.

Timing refers do what time you go to bed at night. Though some think that this is simply a factor in the length of time that you sleep, there is more to it than that. Going to bed on a regular schedule establishes a routine that your body will become acclimated to, and primes it and your brain to start to get drowsy at the same time each day. This will lead to a better quality of sleep, and less difficulty in falling asleep each night.

Duration is the most straightforward of the factors. Health experts agree that the average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, and though it is true that everybody is different, the idea that you are special and get along fine on less sleep is likely to be false. Though you may be functioning, you are not functioning as well as you would with more sleep, and there have been countless studies that prove this. Getting adequate sleep has been linked to improved academic performance, physical performance, improved mood and long term health benefits.

Having identified the three basic factors of sleep is only the first step to getting to a better night’s sleep. The more important step lies in understanding what you can do to improve each one. With reference to intensity, the cycles that the body goes through are largely out of your control. They are determined by your genetics, as well as by the amount of sleep that you need and the amount of energy that you expend during the day. There are things that you can do to promote better sleep, such as regular daily exercise and avoiding foods and activities that have a negative impact on sleep quality though. These would include staying away from caffeine later in the day or alcohol late at night, and avoiding the use of electronic devices within an hour of your bedtime. You can also check with your physician to see whether any medications that you are taking might be interfering with your sleep cycles.

Moving beyond intensity, it is easy to make changes to the other two major sleep factors – all it takes is discipline and motivation. Running on the assumption that you start each day at roughly the same time, the truth is that the biggest change you are likely to make on duration will come with the change you mike to your sleep timing. Starting your bedtime routine earlier will also provide you with longer sleep duration, so the best way to go about changing your nighttime schedule is to begin with the time that you wake up each morning and work backwards. Counting eight hours back from the time that you wake up each morning will provide you with the optimal time that you need to fall asleep, not the time that you need to go to bed. It is very important that you understand the distinction between these two, because even the best sleeper takes an average of 25 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, and if you are the type who likes to read in bed or go through relaxation exercises such as yoga stretches, meditation, deep breathing exercises or pillow talk with your sleep partner, you need to build that into your schedule.

Establishing a nighttime routine that starts earlier in the night may seem difficult at first, particularly if you have been in the habit of staying up late or spending time reading work emails or browsing the internet, but breaking these habits will yield a greatly improved quality and duration of your sleep, and that will mean that you feel better and perform better during the day. In fact, a recently completed study out of Binghamton University has shown that people who sleep fewer hours and who stay up late at night have a greater tendency to feel overwhelmed and to think negative thoughts than is true of those who go to bed earlier and sleep longer. And the same study suggested that having more negative thoughts may be linked to sleep disruptions throughout the night, bringing us back to improving sleep intensity by making changes in our nighttime habits.

If you need help with shifting to an earlier sleep schedule, here are some tips on ways to get out of a late-night habit, and into a better overall sleep pattern.

• Shut out stress and worries by keeping a journal next to your bed. You can use it as a to-do list, or simply a way of clearing your mind of negative thoughts that might keep you from falling asleep. • Set an alarm for when it is time for you to start getting ready for bed so that you can’t put it off. • Keep all of your electronics completely out of the bedroom to eliminate temptation. • Get your exercise earlier in the day to make sure that you are more tired at night. • Establish activities that get your brain ready for bed – put on pajamas, have a cup of tea, read a chapter of a book. • If you’re tired, let yourself go to bed, even if it’s early

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