Getting Better Sleep - A Helpful Article

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BY CAMILLE BAUTISTA-FRYER

 

How to Get Better Sleep, Whether You’re a Night Owl or an Early Bird

A sleep medicine specialist explains why understanding your natural sleep pattern can help you get a better night’s rest.

 

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Whether you’re ready to go when the sun rises or energized late into the night, making sure you’re getting adequate sleep is essential for a healthy lifestyle. And one of the keys to feeling more refreshed may just lie in accepting that you have a natural sleep/wake pattern, also known as your chronotype.

“The same way the heart has a pacemaker, the sleep process has a pacemaker — your sleep rhythm,” says Dr. Ana Krieger, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicine. “It’s important to understand your sleep cycle so you can adjust your life to your chronotype and figure out what you can do to improve your sleep.”

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Krieger, who is also chief of the Division of Sleep Neurology and a professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, to learn more about how to protect and improve the quality of your sleep, no matter what your personal sleep cycle looks like.

Why are some people early birds while others are night owls?
Dr. Krieger:
 Chronotypes, like being an early bird or a night owl, relate to our genetic inclination to sleep at a certain time of the day. We have genes that regulate our sleep cycles and release melatonin at a particular time to help prepare for sleep. This is a complex process that also involves the synchronization of other metabolic processes and hormones, including growth hormones and cortisol, and decreases your body temperature.

For night owls, all of that happens later. So, when people force themselves to go to bed early, they might be unable to sleep simply because the body isn’t ready.

People who go to sleep before 9 p.m. have what we call advanced sleep phase. Others who go to bed after 2 a.m. have what’s called delayed sleep phase. Only a small percentage of the population will be on those two ends: around 4% have delayed sleep phase and 2% or less have advanced sleep phase. Most people usually fall on a spectrum between the two, sleeping between 9 p.m. and midnight.

Being an early bird or night owl may not be a definite diagnosis for some people, as we may identify with different chronotypes at different times in our lives.

There are also behavioral aspects that can create a self-imposed sleep restriction. Work demands, school schedule, or environmental pressures may affect a person’s ability to self-regulate. If someone only gets five or six hours of sleep per night during the week because of their work schedule, they may wake up later on the weekends and perceive that they are a night owl. But that may not be their natural pattern, they could just be catching up with sleep.

“Many think of sleep as the first thing we can steal time from, as if it’s flexible or bonus time. But immune, hormonal, and metabolic regulation is associated with sleep regularity. ”

— Dr. Ana Krieger

Why is it important to understand your personal sleep cycle?
Whatever type you may identify with
, it’s important to understand and maintain that natural pattern as much as possible and live your life within those boundaries to improve your sleep and health.

Many think of sleep as the first thing we can steal time from, as if it’s flexible or bonus time. But immune, hormonal, and metabolic regulation is associated with sleep regularity. It’s the time during which the brain cleanses itself, so we need to prioritize it. The goal is to regularly align your personal and professional activities within the 16 hours around your eight-hour sleep period.

Your body and brain don’t distinguish a Sunday from a Tuesday, or a vacation day from a workday. We’re meant to function at a 24-hour rhythm and part of that rhythm is sleep, and it should always be coming at about the same time. Otherwise, your body rhythm is misaligned, and you’ll experience something that is almost like jet lag.

How can you figure out what your natural sleep pattern is?
Look back on how you grew up. Was it easy to get up for school? Were you up before the alarm and ready to go? Or were you always dragging and snoozing and feeling that you wanted to sleep longer?

You can also better understand your natural sleep pattern by analyzing how and when you sleep when you’re off from work or on vacation. Another suggestion: Track over time what your sleep is like when you’re not around screens and electronics. Our modern way of life has a lot of stimuli from screens, and that can affect sleep regulation.

Can night owls become early birds, or vice versa?
They can. We call it entrainment, or adjusting the cues that your brain follows. It’s important to remember to be consistent each day. Some changes you can make include:

  • Adjusting light and darkness
    If you want to get up earlier, start by adding light in the morning within 20 minutes of waking. If you want to go to bed later, expose yourself to more light in the afternoon to help postpone bedtime.You also want to make sure that you’re exposed to darkness before falling asleep. For optimal sleep, you can’t have light exposure both morning and night, so be mindful of your screen time. The brain doesn’t know how to regulate sleep when you’re on your computer until 3 a.m. and then back looking at a screen as soon as you wake up.
  • Lowering your room temperature
    Our body temperature naturally goes down during sleep and reaches the lowest point a little more than halfway through the night. Lowering your room temperature when you prefer to fall asleep can help align your sleep cycle to a different time and improve its quality.
  • Exercising and eating earlier
    Exercise is great, but if you exercise too late, you may stay up later. Exercise raises your body temperature and gives you a burst of energy that could hinder your ability to fall asleep. The same goes for eating late: You don’t want to have your meals too close to your bedtime goal to avoid the negative impacts of digestion on sleep quality.

What are some ways people can get better sleep with their natural pattern in mind?

  • Keep to an anchor wake-up time
    You can always compromise a little bit on the weekends, but try to maintain the same wake-up time. This trains your body to activate the systems of your brain, increase your body temperature, and release cortisol around the same time. Having an anchor helps you create a sleep rhythm, which your brain can naturally perpetuate.
  • Be mindful when you drink caffeine
    Caffeine can be in your body for nine hours, so it can really affect your ability to fall asleep. If you eat or drink caffeine between 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., it can keep you up until midnight. Pay attention to your intake of foods and beverages with caffeine, like dark chocolate, green tea, or coffee.
  • Reallocate tasks
    Think about the best ways to get things done so that you’re not cramming them into the two hours before you fall asleep. Maybe there are things you’re doing late at night that you can do in the morning. People might say, “I’m too tired in the morning,” but you may be tired because you’re going to bed late. If you can adjust to an earlier time, you may find you’re just as productive when you wake up.
  • Use alarms for going to bed
    I recommend using alarms as reminders. If you want to go to bed at 11:30 p.m., set an alarm for an hour before so you know when to wrap up your activities and signal your body and brain to slow down.

The goal for sleep optimization, whether for an early bird or a night owl, is to figure out how to live your life within these times and respect these rhythms. Changing habits and behaviors may sound like a challenge, but we all have it in our reach.

Ana C. Krieger, M.D., M.P.H., is director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicineas well as a professor of clinical medicine, professor of clinical genetic medicine, and professor of medicine in clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. She is board-certified in sleep medicine by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

 

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