A good night’s sleep can help you feel refreshed, and your body is more likely to function as it should. (Photo by Nappy.Co/Sleeping in bed)
Dr. Ramona Palmerio-Roberts, Executive Director, Caron Outpatient Treatment Center (Photo/caron.org)

By Dr. Ramona Roberts, CCTP-II, CCS
Executive Director
Caron Outpatient Treatment Center

Lose weight. Stop smoking. Balance a budget. Get organized.

They’re all great New Year’s resolutions that take a lot of hard work and dedication, but do you want to feel tired, groggy, and irritable while you’re making the effort to keep them? 

Sleep hygiene is a great area for self-improvement in the New Year and beyond.  Approximately one half of Americans report feeling sleepy most days of the week and one third of adults say on most nights, they get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. 

So, why is sleep so important? Here’s a quick lesson in Sleep Function 101 to help you understand.

There’s a structure deep inside your brain called the hypothalamus that serves as your body’s control center and keeps you in a balanced, stable state called homeostasis. The hypothalamus receives messages from nerve cells throughout your body if anything (good or bad) disrupts your homeostasis. 

To bring your body back to that balanced state, it responds by sending signals to your autonomic nervous system (which controls essential bodily functions like your temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure) and to your endocrine system (which releases hormones). 

A small part of your hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which serves as the central pacemaker of your body’s circadian rhythm, or your internal sleep/wake pattern over a 24-hour period. Your SCN takes cues from retinal proteins (which react to light) to tell your body to be awake.  If it does not receive these cues, it signals your pineal gland to start producing melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall asleep.

Once you’re asleep, your body goes into a restorative mode. You’re relaxed, and homeostasis is less likely to be disrupted.  Healing begins on a cellular level from any physical or mental stress you’ve experienced throughout the day.  

If you sleep well, you should feel refreshed, and your body is more likely to function as it should.  Your immune system is recharged and more prepared to stave off infection. Your metabolism is better regulated to help manage your weight.  You have a lower risk of developing serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease.  Even fertility is linked to healthy sleep patterns.

On a cognitive level, you are more productive; you can concentrate and think logically.  You’re more creative and communicate clearly.  Your motor skills, coordination, short term memory and mood are also greatly impacted when you’ve had enough rest.

Ending screentime one to two hours before your bedtime is one way to get your sleep schedule back on track. (Photo by Unsplash/C.SHII)

Sleep also plays an important role in mental health. When you’re sleep deprived, it’s much harder to use coping skills and manage stress.  Lack of sleep can worsen existing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and in some cases, can increase risk of suicide.

After explaining all of this to my students or patients I’ve worked with, I’ll always have someone say – “All of that is really interesting, Dr. Roberts…but I can’t sleep!”

At one point or another, we’ve all experienced trouble sleeping. A good night’s sleep rests on many factors, but the key is easing yourself into a good routine.

First, let’s shed a little light on the situation. 

Prior to Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb in the late 1800s, sunset meant a time to wind down and prepare for bed. Their only light sources came from the faint glow of a candle or a roaring fireplace. It was common for a person’s sleep cycle to be in sync with the sun’s progression as they fell asleep when the moon rose and awoke with the gleam of the sun peeking over the horizon.

In a world that is much more illuminated today, our circadian rhythm may be completely out of whack and we’re getting less sleep. We are exposed to light for longer periods of time from working longer hours, having ample lighting in homes and businesses, and the constant exposure to the blue light emitted from our computers, TVs and laptops.  

If you go to bed and shut off the lights, your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) can get confused with this abrupt change in light and the cues to the pineal gland to release melatonin can be affected.  It’s no wonder we can’t sleep! 

This is where a healthy sleep routine comes in. One of the most important factors is getting your circadian rhythm back on course.  Here are some ideas:

  • As soon as you wake up, open the shades and turn on the lights. 
  • Avoid sleeping in and taking naps longer than 30 minutes.
  • In the evening, keep the lighting around you dim. This tells your brain that it’s almost bedtime.
  • End screentime one to two hours before bedtime – yes, this includes your phone!  Charging your phone away from your bedside can help you break habitual checking.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in your brain is crucial to keeping your circadian rhythm in balance. The SCN reacts to light in your environment– or the lack of it– by sending cues to either perk up or release melatonin to wind your body down. (Photo by Biology Dictionary)

If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, consider the following:

  • Make your bed an inviting place to sleep. Invest in comfortable bedding, spray your pillows with lavender oil, and clean your bedsheets often. Make your bed every morning.
  • Our brains are always looking for stimulation, especially if we’re feeling restless.  Have something audible to focus on and instill calm, such as a white noise machine, soothing music, or an app (like Calm) that plays relaxation sounds, meditations, and bedtime stories instead of scrolling social media or watching TV.
  • Don’t take your worries to bed.  Give yourself 5-10 minutes during the day to write them down and process them. You can also keep a notepad next to your bed in case a thought pops up as you’re drifting to sleep – but don’t allow yourself to think about it until the next day.
  • End your day with gratitude. Think of something internally you’re grateful for, which could be as simple as just making it through the day. Then think of something externally, such as a blessing someone else has been given.

If you continue to struggle with sleep, visit www.sleepfoundation.org for some additional tips and tools. I wish you all the best – and sweet dreams – in 2023!

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