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6 Science-Based Tips for Better Sleep

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By Frieda Paton, M.Cur, RN

One of the pillars of health is getting enough sleep. We understand we’re supposed to get enough sleep, and we actually try. But we also know it’s usually easier said than done. While we’re asleep, our bodies and minds are busy with essential repair and recovery.

You might be experiencing sleeping problems for the first time during the current COVID-19 epidemic. Stress and emotional trauma are known to affect our ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Furthermore, long shifts, working overtime, and even picking up extra shifts, reduce the time that nurses have for rest.

This article looks firstly at the consequences of sleep deprivation and fatigue. We then provide some tips which you can try to sleep better—before you resort to medication.

Effects of sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep affects memory, mental processing, as well as the ability to focus, plan, and regulate emotions. Reduced brain activity after sleep deprivation can actually be observed on brain scans.

One laboratory study showed that cognitive function declines after being awake for 15–17 hours. After not sleeping for 24 hours, cognitive impairment was similar to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.10—thus over the legal limit for driving. In a study on the effects of shift work, 10% of the respondents reported that they had a car accident which they believed was due to fatigue.

Nurse fatigue has been linked to increased medical errors and even accidents like needle stick injuries. It also contributes to burnout. Furthermore, long term sleep deprivation contributes to conditions such as metabolic syndrome, heart disease, reduced immunity, alcohol use disorder, depression, and dementia.

Clearly, sufficient sleep is essential for our own safety as well as that of our patients. The American Nurses Association has even issued a position statement on nurse fatigue. Make getting enough sleep a priority and, as far as possible, arrange your work and personal schedules so that you’re able to get the recommended 7–8 hours of sleep every night.

What if you’re allowing yourself to have enough time to sleep but you still feel extreme heaviness because you still don’t get quality sleep? You might even experience trouble falling asleep or frequent waking up during the night and have a hard time falling asleep again. Based on scientific sleep research, we might just provide the solution you’re looking for.

Tips for improving sleep

1. Establish a fixed sleeping schedule

Each of us has a particular circadian rhythm—sleep-wake cycle—which is regulated by various hormones and neurotransmitters. When the pattern is disrupted, it can cause insomnia.

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Some people are early birds while others are night owls. Determine the schedule that works best for you and then commit to going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.

2. Follow a bedtime routine

Regular rituals for about an hour before you get into bed are a signal to your subconscious to wind down for the day.

First, complete the end of day chores like locking up, putting out the coffee cups for the morning, or filling the dog’s water bowl.

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Then, spend some time doing something that calms your mind and reduces anxiety. A study at Harvard University found that over half of adults with sleeping problems suffer from anxiety as well. Clear your mind by journaling about your day or making your to-do list for the next day. Spend some time meditating or try some other spiritual practices. 

Finally, attend to personal care routines. A warm bath directly before bedtime is very relaxing and definitely helps many people who struggle to fall asleep.

3. Turn off electronics

Avoid bright light, especially the blue light from screens, during the last hour or two before you go to bed. Blue light inhibits the production of melatonin which is a hormone essential for sleep.

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Not working or otherwise stimulating your brain with games, movies, and social media feeds just before bedtime also helps you to relax. Try to avoid your computer monitor, television, and cell phone screens for at least an hour before bedtime, and preferably longer.

4. Create a comfortable sleeping space

Use your bedroom only for sleeping. Make sure the room is neither too hot nor too cold as this can produce restlessness and prevent deep sleep. A temperature between 65 and 75 degrees is ideal.

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Your mattress and pillow must be comfortable. Poor posture while sleeping can cause aches and pains which interfere with your sleeping pattern. Fresh and clean bed linen also helps you to relax and fall asleep faster. 

You can also try some lavender essential oil—either sniffing, rubbing some on your temples, spritzing your pillow, or through a diffuser in your bedroom. A number of studies have shown that lavender actually does help for insomnia by promoting relaxation with measurable reduced heart rate and blood pressure—and increasing deep, slow-wave sleep.

5. Watch what you consume

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Avoid caffeine and alcohol for at least three hours before bedtime. While alcohol can help you to fall asleep faster, it affects melatonin production and prevents you from getting enough deep sleep.

Protein-rich food and fiber stimulate sleep, although you should eat at least three hours before bedtime. Magnesium is important in the production of neurotransmitters responsible for relaxation and deep sleep and insomnia is often caused by a deficiency of this essential mineral.

6. Exercise regularly

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Studies have shown that regular exercise decreases insomnia and also the amount of deep sleep—the most important for restoring the body and mind.

Whether you exercise in the morning or later in the day doesn’t appear to make a difference but you should avoid exercising during the hour or two before bedtime.

Address your sleeping problems

The above tips are natural ways of improving sleep and waking up rested and energized. This evidence-based advice is always preferable to sleep medication which could leave you drowsy the next day and also holds the ever-present danger of addiction.

However, if you continue to experience a sleeping problem you should consult a health care practitioner. You might have an underlying physical or mental health condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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