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Part 2: Sleep: Optimizing Rest in the Real World



Sleep continues to be our most underutilized health-promoting behavior, and sleep loss remains a public epidemic, according to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We talked before about why we should be prioritizing better sleep habits. If you need a refresher, check out our previous blog post here. What we don’t always realize, however, is how our choices throughout the day, and the unavoidable realities of modern life, negatively impact our ability to get good sleep.


Our brain depends upon a complex internal clock, our circadian rhythm, that signals when it is time to be awake and when we should be asleep. Environmental factors such as daylight and ambient temperature, and internal processes, like the release of melatonin and the generation of sleep pressure, signal our brain to begin pulling us from wakefulness and into the wonderful world of sleep. Unfortunately, much of our modern lives conflict with this intuitive system, leaving many of us sleep deprived. Below we’ll explore some ways we can take control and promote better sleep in our homes.


Turn Down the Lights

The advent of electric light changed the sleep game entirely. In nature, our brains relied upon the rising and setting of the sun to determine when to be awake and when to go to sleep. As the sun set, our brains began releasing melatonin, alerting our bodies that the time to sleep was approaching. Now, we are always surrounded by light and our internal clocks have been turned back two to three hours. Even once the lights are out, we stay on our screens, inches away from the blue-light our eyes are most sensitive to. Dimming the lights and avoiding screens for a couple hours before bedtime is ideal. Otherwise, use blue-light blocking settings or glasses to reduce the impact of screen use on your circadian rhythm.


Keep it Cool

Many of our homes are climate-controlled, maintaining a constant room temperature throughout the day. However, a slight decrease in core temperature is necessary for our bodies to initiate and maintain sleep. A cool room helps pull your brain and body towards sleep. Temperature-sensitive cells in the brain pick up on core temperature changes, adding to the message from setting sunlight that it is time to sleep. The release of melatonin, specifically, is controlled by the loss of daylight and the drop in temperature that coincides with sunset. If you’ve ever stuck your foot or leg out from under the covers at night, or noticed your child sleeping this way, this is the body attempting to release heat through your extremities to maintain optimal sleep temperature. Turn down your thermostat at night, and wear cool, loose clothing to bed to promote sleep. Experts suggest that the optimal room temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.


Caffeinate with Caution

Our brains produce a chemical called adenosine that builds up during the day, creating what we call “sleep pressure” that peaks at bedtime. Caffeine, the most widely used stimulant, mutes our sleep signal by binding to adenosine receptors in the brain. Caffeine tricks us into feeling awake and alert, while our adenosine levels continue to rise. The problem, however, is that when the caffeine wears off, our brain is hit with all of the adenosine that has built up over the day, resulting in what is often called a “caffeine crash.” Caffeine also lingers in the body for a long time. It takes approximately 5 to 7 hours to break down half of the caffeine we’ve consumed. So, if you drink a cup of coffee at 2pm, you may still have 50% of the caffeine content in your body at 9pm. Additionally, many people enjoy a cup of decaf coffee in the evening, not realizing that “decaffeinated” does not mean “caffeine free.” Decaffeinated products may contain anywhere from 3 to 10% of the caffeine found in a cup of regular coffee.


Skip the Nightcap

Some people believe that alcohol helps them fall asleep, and sleep soundly throughout the night. Adults may indulge in a nightcap to help them unwind and relax before bed. However, alcohol is a sedative, sedating the brain out of wakefulness, which is not the same as entering a stage of sleep. Brainwave activity during this state is more similar to being under anesthesia than it is to being asleep. Consequently, the state of unconsciousness brought about by alcohol does not provide the cognitive, physical, or emotional benefits associated with sleep. Alcohol also fragments sleep, resulting in brief awakenings throughout the night, often imperceptible to the sleeper. As sleep is not continuous, it fails to be restorative. Alcohol also suppresses the generation of REM sleep. Individuals who drink even moderate amounts of alcohol in the afternoon may inadvertently deprive themselves of this critical sleep stage, resulting in difficulties with learning and memory.


Despite the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of good sleep, our society is not adequately designed to optimize this powerful tool. Unified work start times, early school start times, evening activities, after hours work obligations, and homework have us waking up early and going to bed late. While these things are often beyond our control, taking control of our home environment and practicing good sleep hygiene is something we can do to promote our physical and mental health. Anticipating changes that will impact our sleep, like daylight saving time, switching shifts at work, and traveling, gives us the opportunity to adapt our sleep gradually and save ourselves from the consequences of sleep deprivation.


Daylight Saving Time

Daylight saving time is almost here, which means more sunlight in the evening hours. The time change can be a difficult adjustment, especially in terms of sleep. Here are some ways you can make sure you are ready for the change:


  • Gradually adjust your sleep and wake times. Shift your bedtime 15 minutes earlier each night for a few nights before daylight savings.

  • Keep your bedroom dark with blackout curtains or shades. This lets your brain know that it is still nighttime and to continue producing melatonin.

  • Step outside or eat breakfast near a window after you wake up. Sunlight will help your body’s internal clock reset. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

  • If you feel tired after the time change, take a short nap in the afternoon to expel some sleepiness. Avoid napping too close to bedtime.

  • Don’t pack your schedule around daylight savings. Give yourself some time to adjust before you commit to extra hours at work or new activities after school.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can interfere with your sleep-wake cycle and make it more difficult to adjust to the time change.

  • As always, practice good sleep hygiene (see our previous post for tips on this).


If you or someone you love is struggling with sleep problems or related emotional concerns, WBMA is here to help. Call us at (301) 576-6044 or email us at hello@wbma.cc to schedule a consult today!

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Rebecca Liberty, MA, MBS, MS

Psychology Associate

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