There’s one thing you need to do today to start improving your health: get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep has been on my list of the top ways to improve your health for 9 years. In fact, it held the #1 spot for 8 out of those 9 years, until this year when I bumped it to #2 in favor of movement.
If you’re like a lot of people, your quality of sleep starts slipping as the summer season hits. But today, I’ll show you how to make sure you’re getting enough sleep this time of year. Before I explain the three factors hindering your sleep this summer, let me explain why sleep is so important…
Scientists don’t know why we sleep… but the benefits are well-known.
Current theories suggest that sleeping relaxes your brain cells, causing them to shrink, which, in turn, allows waste products to seep through the extra cellular space and exit the brain faster.
Not getting the right amount of sleep causes a number of health problems. Your immune system will not be as functional, leaving you more likely to develop colds or chronic diseases. Over time, not getting enough quality sleep increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Not getting enough sleep has also been linked to aging your skin, leading to Alzheimer’s, and lowering your sex drive.
Scientists do know how we fall asleep – it happens through a chemical process in our brains. Your internal “thermostat” is located in a part of your brain called the hypothalamus. This region secretes a hormone that effectively lowers your core body temperature and promotes sleep.
The thermostat corresponds with your body’s natural 24-hour cycle, called your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm relies on cues from your environment to trigger when it’s time to sleep. These include temperature, light, and lifestyle.
In the winter, shorter daylight hours disrupt our sleep cycles as less sunlight throws off our body’s circadian rhythm. But did you know that the long days of summer also mess with your sleep cycle?
The top three causes of summertime insomnia are:
1. Soaring temperatures heating up your bedroom
2. Long days of lots of sunshine
3. Spending too much time socializing
The most common cause of summertime insomnia is soaring temperatures. Hotter air doesn’t just make you uncomfortable… it can also keep you from getting a full night’s sleep.
Every person has a slightly different comfort range, but typically a temperature between 60 and 68 degrees is best for sleeping. Many studies link the body’s temperature regulation with sleep patterns, which is why you become sleepy in colder temperatures.
One of the most crucial parts of the sleep cycle – rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – can suffer during hotter temperatures. That’s because during REM, your body loses its ability to sweat or to shiver. If the room is too warm, your body temperature will rise to match it, bringing you back to a point of almost wakefulness. If it’s too hot, you can even wake up completely, ruining the quality of your sleep.
Thankfully, you can keep cool without breaking the bank. To start, you can install a programmable thermostat to save on energy costs. My research assistant Laura did this last winter. Installing a programmable thermostat can save the average household hundreds of dollars per year. Just set a lower temperature while you’re asleep and put it back up to the 70s or 80s while you’re gone during the day.
For every degree you have it set above 72 degrees Fahrenheit, you can save about 2%. Some energy suppliers also offer dollar discount plans where they actually change your temperature from their headquarters by a certain number of degrees during times of peak usage.
Other ways to stay cool and save money include cleaning and replacing your air filter on a regular basis. Clogged or worn-out filters make it harder for the air to flow through the air conditioning system. You can also do what I do and have an individual unit in your bedroom and turn it on only when sleeping.
Finally, use a ceiling fan to circulate the air. It won’t lower the temperature of the room, but the air movement will help sweat evaporate from your skin, helping you cool down. You can also use fans to help circulate air from an air conditioner, allowing you to reduce the settings on the unit and save on energy costs.
Or do what I do and put a little water on your arms, neck, head, and even legs if you’re having trouble falling asleep. The fan or just natural cooling of your body will put you sound asleep before you can count 30 sheep.
Another main culprit for lost sleep during the summer is light. Summer’s longer days mean more hours of sunlight. The shift may be subtle, but it can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm, particularly in the hypothalamus.
Light-blocking curtains keep sunlight from triggering episodes of wakefulness. Many thicker curtains not only block light, but include thermal panels to help keep the heat out as well. Last summer, my research assistant Amanda purchased some for her living room and says she rarely needs to use her air conditioner while her curtains are closed.
If you’re traveling, do what I do and pack some large paperclips – if a hotel’s curtains gap or don’t block enough light for you, you can pin them together or hang up extra towels for a darker room.
Be sure not to interrupt your sleep with any kind of light. If you need to use the bathroom during the night, don’t turn on any lights. Instead, have a low-light nightlight plugged in to guide your way.
Taking rests or even short naps in the late afternoon can also help with the longer hours of sunlight. Even participating in a quiet, restful activity can help start to relax your body and prepare you for sleep in the evening.
The third big cause of poor summertime sleep is lifestyle. Social contact, late-night eating, and electronic device usage all affect your sleep quality.
The longer days of summer often are filled with more social events, including cookouts, extended happy hours, and evening baseball games. My assistant recently attended a neighborhood little league game and was surprised that it didn’t start until 8:30 p.m. People around her were still eating hot dogs and peanuts and drinking sodas when the game ended two hours later.
Eating close to bedtime causes weight gain and disrupts your sleep cycle. Digestive sugar spikes and the production of stomach acid can also wake you from your sleep. And although it acts as a depressant at first, alcohol causes bouts of wakefulness as your body metabolizes it.
Likewise, soda and coffee can keep you up long after you drink them. Caffeine can stay in the body far longer than you might expect… as long as 14 hours. The effects of coffee usually wear off about three to five hours later, so drinking coffee after dinner could keep you up long into the night.
So do what I do… stop eating and drinking at least two hours before bed.
Also, make sure to avoid caffeine after lunch so it has enough time to leave your body before sleeping. I mainly drink decaf in the afternoon. And most important, maintain a regular bedtime. Having a set schedule will help your body regulate its sleep cycles.
Remember, keep your bedroom a place for relaxation, sex, and sleep. Take the time to relax before bed without your cell phone, tablet, television, or any other electronic device. Electronics emit electromagnetic radiation that disturbs sleep cycles.
Lately, I’ve been researching the top sleep problems in the U.S. I also found other lifestyle choices that can ruin your sleep – and learned how to change them. I’m putting everything into an upcoming special report. I’ve included topics like beating jetlag and adjusting to nontraditional work hours. If you want to make sure you sleep well year-round, be sure to read this report.
P.S. Every year, Dr. Eifrig releases his list of the top ways to improve your health. To access this year’s list, along with the hundreds of other tips to live a healthier, wealthier life, click here.