Getting enough sleep is a pillar of wellness. I mean it—few things are more important than getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep is when your body restores and repairs after the day, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. Lack of sleep, meanwhile, is a primary factor in the development of chronic disease, mental illness, emotional imbalances and chronic stress.
Keeping all that in mind, raise your hand if you feel like you consistently get enough sleep.
If you did, good for you! But if you’re reading this post, you probably kept your hand down. If so, you’re not alone. Many of us either don’t get enough sleep, or lie awake at night, trying and failing to fall asleep.
Insomnia in particular can be extremely frustrating: you want to get enough sleep, but it feels like your mind and body won’t let you. More subtle, but equally damaging to your health in the long run, are the persistent nudges of modern life that encourage you to sleep less and stay awake more. Whatever the cause, if you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s worth doing something about.
Fortunately, there is a lot to be done.
What does a good night’s sleep look like?
First, what does a healthy night’s sleep look like? That’s a great question, because there is no one set answer. A good night’s sleep is whatever your individual body needs to feel rested and recovered.
Some people need the old standard of 8 hours. Others are fine on 7 hours a night. A few rare souls can do well on 5 or 6 hours. Some people need 9 or 10.
With children and teenagers, 9 plus hours a night is a good rule of thumb. As adults, well, the best thing we can do is listen to our bodies. If we’re waking up in the morning feeling pretty good, we’re probably getting enough sleep. If not—take note. Try getting another hour of sleep each night for a week, and see if that makes a difference.
Another important factor to consider is chronotype. This is a relatively new area of research that boils down to the old idea of early birds and night owls. In other words, some people are wired to go to bed early, and wake up early, and some people do better when they can stay up late and sleep in. If you can adjust your daily routines to fit with your chronotype, you’ll likely sleep better.
In addition, good sleep ideally is uninterrupted, and takes place in a peaceful, quiet environment. It helps to turn off the TV, shut the blinds and do whatever else you can to keep your bedroom room as dark and quiet as possible.
Obstacles to sleep
Of course, for many of us, getting enough sleep isn’t as simple as going to bed by 10 pm every night and setting our alarm clocks. There is a lot that gets in the way.
Stress is a major barrier to sleep. The two are intimately and cyclically linked—stress makes it harder to sleep, and lack of sleep contributes to stress. If you’re feeling constantly stressed, you may have a hard time both falling and staying asleep, and the problem can compound over time.
Scheduling is another big concern. If you work a shift job, you often find out only days, even hours in advance that you have to work, and the times are frequently changing. This makes it really hard to sleep, because you might have to go to bed at different times every night in order to keep up with your work demands. If you work a job with set hours, meanwhile, you might still feel hard-pressed to accomplish everything else you want to get done outside of work. Many people end up cutting down on sleep in order to find extra time in the day.
Health conditions like sleep apnea can make getting restful sleep really difficult. People with sleep apnea wake up throughout the night struggling to breathe—but typically, they don’t remember doing so. This is both dangerous on its own, and makes it impossible to feel rested the next morning. Digestive problems can also make it hard to sleep.
While it may seem obvious, caffeine is an obstacle. Who doesn’t enjoy a cup of coffee after dinner from time to time? Unfortunately, caffeine can affect your body for up to 12 hours after you consume it, so bear that in mind if you’re a coffee drinker and having trouble sleeping. Likewise, alcohol and other drugs can get in the way significantly.
Finally, a brief note on screen time. Many of us spend a lot of time on our phones, tablets, laptops and televisions. When we do that within an hour or two before bed, that keeps our brains active and wired at the very time we want to be winding down.
5 tips for getting a good night’s sleep
So, if we want to sleep better, what should we do? If you’re struggling with chronic insomnia, or consistently wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, schedule an appointment with a functional medicine or integrative health physician. They can help pinpoint any physiological issues or health problems that may be interfering with your sleep. A psychotherapist can also be really helpful, especially if your insomnia is stress-related.
But there is also a lot you can do on your own to improve your quality and duration of sleep. Here are 5 places to start:
1. Turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime. This helps give your mind time to unwind and slow down. It also keeps you from being exposed to the stimulating blue light that most screens emit, which can throw off your circadian rhythms.
As a corollary, if you can, spend a half-hour or so in the morning sunlight. The particular wavelength of morning sunlight can help stabilize your circadian rhythms.
2. Make a conscious effort to lower your stress. Many people find it helpful to create a nightly relaxation ritual around bedtime—take a shower or a bath, light a candle, read a book, talk with your partner. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as it helps you begin to relax and let go of the day’s events.
It’s also important to do what you can to lower your overall stress level. Be open to opportunities to lower your stress at work, surround yourself with supportive relationships, meditate, eat a whole, natural foods diet, and do something every day to help another person. If you’re having a hard time, talk to someone you trust about it.
3. Honor your chronotype. This can be a tough one for night owls, because our society rewards early risers. But do what you can to build your life around a sleep schedule that works for you. This may take time—if your job or your school starts at a certain time, there’s probably not much you can do about that right way. But be mindful of your chronotype, and make choices that reflect what you need. Over time, that can pay off.
4. Exercise. Not only important to your general health, exercise helps you burn off extra energy that may be keeping you awake. It can also boost your mood, and help get you out of your head and into your body, which can be especially useful if stressful thoughts are keeping you up at night. It’s usually recommended to do any particularly vigorous exercise earlier in the day, so that the endorphins don’t keep you up at night.
5. Try a nightly gratitude practice. Spend a few minutes at the end of each day thinking about what in your life you’re grateful for. You can write it down, or simply let the thoughts float through your mind. This can help you finish the day in a more peaceful state of mind.
This article originally appeared on NatashaThomasMD.com