by Dr. Robert Rosenberg, medical adviser to SoClean
Many of us are making New Year’s resolutions in hopes of being healthier, happier and more productive in 2020. But did you know that, with a few extra tweaks, those commitments you were going to make anyway can also help you improve your circadian rhythm and get a better night’s sleep? Good sleep, of course, leads to all sorts of other positive effects—so if you’re strategic, you can create a virtuous circle benefiting your health, mood, relationships, work and overall well-being.
Here’s how to make the resolutions you had in mind pull double-duty:
1. Food. Healthy eating is one of Americans’ most popular New Year’s resolutions. According to a survey from Inc. magazine, 71 percent of resolvers in 2019 had this one on their lists. The potential benefits are huge, including reduced disease risk, weight loss and better mood.
Tweak for sleep: When removing the bad stuff from your diet, pay special attention to sugar and alcohol. Sugary foods can cause surges of insulin, leading to a hormonal cascade that can wake you up and make it difficult to get back to sleep. You should also avoid heavy drinking too close to bedtime. As the alcohol’s effects wear off, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, which also wakes you up.
2. Exercise. Among the many (many, many) studied benefits of vigorous exercise are improved body composition, better mood, clearer thinking, more controlled blood sugar and reduced disease risk. You don’t need to do it every day; the Mayo Clinic recommends 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
Tweak for sleep: Exercise is great for sleep, but schedule it for the morning or early afternoon hours. Working out raises body temperature and production of the hormone cortisol, so it could interfere with your ability to fall asleep if done within three hours of bedtime.
3. Walking. Similar to vigorous exercise, walking has huge mental and physical health benefits, and experts say you should get plenty of both. Plus, it’s just pleasant!
Tweak for sleep: Take one of your daily walks within an hour of waking up, or as soon as the sun comes up. The light from the sun’s rays sends a chemical signal to your brain that it’s daytime and will help strengthen your circadian rhythm—which leads to better sleep that night.
4. Screens. Smartphone addiction is real, and the devices give us an actual “high,” thanks to the brain chemical dopamine. If you’re trying to limit your screen time for the social benefits or to improve your focus, you’re on the right track.
Tweak for sleep: The blue light emitted by computer, television and smartphone screens is similar to the sun’s light, which keeps the brain in a state of arousal. It’s wise to avoid all screens within a few hours of bedtime, and even wiser to keep them out of the bedroom. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, put it out of reach so you won’t be tempted to look at it in the middle of the night, which makes it impossible for some people to get back to sleep.
5. Reading. Many people are taking advantage of sites like Goodreads to set an annual reading goal. That’s a great idea if you want to reduce stress, improve your vocabulary, spark your imagination or just learn more.
Tweak for sleep: Reading helps you wind down, so it’s a great activity to do in the evening before bed. To make it even more relaxing, read in the bathtub; the cooling of your core temperature afterward is one way to “trick” your body into a state of drowsiness. And e-reading devices are great, but like other screens, some of them put out some blue light. So you’ll get the most sleep benefit if you keep your evening reading habit old-school, or at least use a dark mode.
6. Meditation. Studies have shown the tremendous benefits of meditation, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved memory, better focus, and more self-awareness. There are many different types to explore, and even five minutes a day can be helpful.
Tweak for sleep: I recommend a guided progressive muscle relaxation like this one, or the Relaxation Response developed by Dr. Herbert Benson. These produce what we call alpha rhythms, which lead naturally into sleep. Learn these techniques and practice them before bed.