Practical Tips for Better Sleep Habits

Sleep, stress, and the pandemic

As healthcare professionals, our concern for patients doesn’t stop at the end of a shift. That concern carries over into home life as well, and too often our own health takes a backseat to everyone else’s. From diet to activity levels, this additional stress impacts all areas of our lives — including our sleep routines.

In the COVID era, “healthy” doesn’t only mean COVID-free. A holistic vision of health encompasses a well-rested body and a mind that responds thoughtfully, rather than reacts to triggers. Sleep deprivation detracts from both physical and mental health, lowering defenses against internal and external stressors.

Caffeine and other coping mechanisms

Without a solid night’s sleep, we often turn to other sources for energy. For many working in a fast-paced, high-stress healthcare environment, caffeine and sugary snacks are the usual go-to alternatives, with predictable negative health effects.

Lack of sleep increases irritability as well, extracting a social toll from among family, friends, and colleagues and feeding an unhealthy cycle. Worry and concern for patients keeps our minds switched ‘on’ during the ‘off’ times, preventing relaxation and keeping us awake when we should be sleeping.

To encourage relaxation in those moments, we may reach for our phones in an effort to zone out, but these electronic devices hurt our chances for a restful night. Blue light from phone screens interrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, and the information gleaned from an endless doomscroll rarely encourages sweet dreams.

The value of routine

For sleep to be effective, the human body requires a consistent number of hours, optimally at the same time each day. Our brains love patterns, and consistency is critical — even on the weekends. Research shows that even one day off-schedule can impact the quality of sleep for the next several nights.

Here are some practical tips for breaking out of unhealthy habits that contribute to poor sleep patterns.

  • Instead of your nightstand, consider an alternate location for your cell phone charging station. Modern phones consistently search for a signal, emitting energy that can stimulate the brain.
  • Unsurprisingly, emotionally-charged television programs can take an emotional toll. Take a break from upsetting news or true crime shows which are designed to trigger the stress-hormone cortisol and activate the fight-or-flight response.
  • Curb food intake 2-4 hours before bedtime. Your body can’t enter deep levels of sleep if it’s busy digesting.
  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Even one beer or a glass of wine will affect your brain and digestion for 4-6 hours, causing inefficient sleep.
  • Complete analytical activities earlier in the day. These tasks require beta-brainwaves, which tend to trigger a stress response, causing you to use more brain power.
  • Dim the lights. Give your brain time to change gears and prepare for sleep two hours prior to lying down.
  • Still struggling? Try a warm bath or relaxing music before bed, or simply focus your mind on a consistent, calming topic, like what you’re grateful for.