Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects to improving and maintaining our health is sleep. Especially in our fast-paced world sleep has become an afterthought but it is hugely important. This article is going to help you appreciate the value of good sleep as well as know how to get the most out of your resting hours.

Benefits of Sleep

Our bodies were designed to go through a 24 hour cycle  known as the circadian rhythm. When we take full advantage of the circadian rhythm by sleeping appropriately, research shows that we can enjoy several benefits including:

1)     Improved memory and cognition

2)     Faster healing and recovery

3)     Enhanced weight loss and muscle development

4)     Decreases in stress levels

Here are a few tips that will help you take full advantage of your sleep so you can enjoy all the benefits.

1)    Position Matters

We all have certain positions that we prefer to be in when we sleep. Some of us are side sleepers, others prefer being on their stomachs and others on the back. The most important thing to remember is this- conserve a neutral position. Neutral position is the point at which your joints have the least amount of stress placed on them. Makes sense, right? You want as little stress placed on your body as possible while trying to rest and heal.

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty of what that will look like.

Stomach sleepers– Sadly, this is the worst position to sleep in. The main problem with this position is that maintaining a neutral position is impossible- you will always need to turn your head to one side or the other, which causes an extreme amount of rotation in the neck. Over longer periods of times, patterns of sleeping like this can limit proper range of motion and even change the bony structure of your neck. In other words, it’s time to change the habit now if you want to protect your spine .

The Fix: Change your sleeping position! While this is easier said than done, there are a few tricks you can use to push you in the right direction.

1)     Make the choice to do it and set a reminder- this could be as simple as setting a reminder on your phone or attaching a sticky note to your bed, so you remember to do it.

2)     *Note- I have not personally done this but have heard it was successfully used by patients. Attach a tennis ball (or similar-sized ball to your stomach with duct tape before going to bed. If at night you unconsciously roll onto your stomach, the discomfort will cause you to shift back to a better position.

Side Sleepers– Side sleeping is a better option but requires some extra measures to get into a neutral position. While sleeping on your side, gravity will be pushing down onto the side that is up so that the joints of that side will be pushed down and outside of a neutral range. To prevent this from happening, you’ll want to use extra pillows to preserve the joints of the hip and shoulder.

The Fix:

1)     Place a pillow in between the legs to lift the higher one into a straight position

2)     Ensure the height of the pillow supporting your head is high enough to roughly equal the height of your shoulder so that the neck does not need to bend as the head rests.

3)     Use another pillow for the shoulder girdle by hugging it. This will decrease the pressure placed on the joints of both the high and low shoulders.

Back Sleepers– This is the optimal position to sleep in because it requires the least work to stay in a neutral position. There are certain circumstances, however, that can cause this position to become uncomfortable or painful. Depending on the mattress and the height of your pillow, the natural curves of the spine can undergo excess stress. Luckily there are some easy fixes

The Fix:

  • If you experience discomfort in the low back when laying on your back, this may be due to the low back curvature being overstressed. A commonly successful fix for this is to place a pillow underneath the knees. This will cause your hips and knees to bend flex slightly, which in turn takes pressure off of the low back.
  • Overly large pillows are often used and can cause the neck to flex forward too much. An easy fix for this is to invest in a cervical pillow, which will give your neck the support it needs while still cradling the head.

2)    Avoid Electronics

One of the processes your body undergoes to prepare for sleep is producing a hormone called Melatonin. Melatonin plays a role in signaling your body to fall asleep, as well as supporting the immune system and acting as an antioxidant to protect your body from free radical damage. It is produced by the pineal gland in your brain. The pineal gland is light sensitive– when in darkness the pineal gland is triggered to produce melatonin. In our modern world, we are overexposed to light, and this disrupts our body’s natural cycle of melatonin production which in turn causes our sleep to become less restful.

The best way to deal with this is to limit the amount of light we are exposed to at night. This means dimming the lights at home, and more importantly, avoiding screens. Whether its your TV or your phone, staring at a bright screen can dramatically decrease the amount of melatonin your body produces.

Some of us cannot avoid working late at night. If that sounds like you, there is a simple remedy that can help. Melatonin is diminished mainly by blue light. Using blue light-blocking sunglasses can dramatically increase the amount of melatonin your body is able to produce while using screens .

3)    Food Before Bed

There is a lot of controversy out there as to when you should or should not eat food. Some articles online say that you should wait a few hours after eating to go to bed, while others say there is no problem with eating right before. While each person will probably find that they personally agree with one side or the other (biodiversity in means we will all respond differently to some stuff), there are a few universal truths that we can follow to have a better night sleep.

While it’s our opinion that you should gauge what works best for you as to when to eat, there are foods you should avoid before going to sleep. Highly refined sugary or fatty foods trigger a release of hormones that can cause your body to raise metabolism. Processed sugars, for example, are very quickly processed and absorbed, and that can cause your blood glucose levels to spike which is not ideal for anyone trying to get some good sleep. If you want to eat a snack before bed, lean towards more natural things such as nuts

4)    Prepare Your Mind

Anyone who has ever stressed out about an upcoming event can attest to the fact that stress can keep you from sleeping well. While sometimes it is unavoidable, there are a few things you can do to calm your mind.

Yoga and meditation- Gentle stretching, breathing exercises and meditation have all been shown to put your body in a state of calm. The biggest challenge for most people is simply not knowing how to practice yoga or meditation. Luckily, there are a ton of free resources online now that can guide you through a yoga or meditation session. For meditation, I have found HeadSpace to be a great resource to use. With hundreds of guided meditations, and many specifically to help you relax before bed, it is a phenomenal resource to calm the mind.

5)    Track your sleep

If you are having trouble feeling rested after a full nights sleep, it may be time to do some research. Modern technology now empowers us to measure and track our sleep. Fitbit, Apple Watch and many others now offer the capability to track things like heart rate, time spent in which phase of sleep, and how long you sleep and graph that information in ways that help us to identify patterns that will lead us to understanding what is keeping us from optimizing our sleep.

The information you gather from your device can be powerful but without tracking other information as well, it will not get you very far. Correlating the quality of sleep with the quantitative information of your device will help you recognize what you need to do to get the best nights sleep possible .

  • Time you went to bed
  • Time you woke up
  • Temperature of the room
  • Position you slept in
  • Relaxation before bed?
  • Food/drink before bed? When?
  • Electronics?

As you track the information and correlate it with the info you automatically have logged by your device, you can start to identify patterns that will improve or impede your sleep. Use those to create the ideal situation to optimize the amount of sleep you get each night!