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5 Tips for Optimizing Your Sleep-Wake Cycle by Meredith Broderick, MD

Meredith Broderick, MD

As a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine and behavioral sleep medicine, my work involves evaluating and treating people with sleep disorders but also helping healthy people to optimize their sleep-wake cycles.  

A common difficulty I see people fall into is misdirecting their energy towards ineffective solutions. This works about as well as trying to catch water with bare hands. (Hint – it doesn’t!) The best strategies will direct our energy on the factors we can control.  If we find ourselves thinking or worrying too much about sleep, it is important to remind ourselves that we cannot force sleep.  When we become aware of the worry or the racing thoughts, we can work on relearning better strategies.  A simple writing exercise can make it easier to follow through on new behaviors in later times when it might seem impossible, for instance, while lying awake in bed.  

Try this exercise to help build a framework for a new way of thinking about improving sleep:

  • First, on a blank sheet of paper, draw a large circle. 
  • Inside the circle, write down things you can control (this might include things like exercising regularly, avoiding caffeine, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and allowing an adequate amount of time for sleep). 
  • Now write down the things that are not within your control on the outside of the circle (this might include things like unforeseen stressors, the precise moment one falls sleep, environmental noises, or poor weather). 

Completing this exercise will help you to focus your attention on the factors within your control.  The next time you find yourself pre-occupied by wanting to optimize your sleep, imagine the circle and remind yourself of the things you wrote down inside of the circle and take time to implement those items.  You might even try numbering your priorities with the most important one at the top.  Here are my 5 top tips for optimizing sleep:

  1. Set a consistent wake time.  The time we get out of bed (not just open our eyes but get out of bed) sets into motion a cascade of physiological events that generates an optimal sleep-wake cycle.  
  2. Get outside.  Getting light during the day is one of the most powerful signals to the brain that it is daytime (it helps keep your internal clock in sync!). Even if you have windows, being outside is orders of magnitude brighter than being inside. Lunch time or midday is a great time to get outside. It helps to have the appropriate outerwear so you can get outside rain or shine.  
  3. Discontinue caffeine after lunchtime.  Caffeine prevents the neurotransmitter adenosine which is responsible for helping us to generate sleep drive and deep sleep.  If we consume it too close to bedtime, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, it reduces our sleep quality.  
  4. Get outside and move.  Exercising is one of the best ways to increase deep sleep.  It can be any type of exercise, even walking or stretching.  If you can get outside and exercise as well, bonus points for you!
  5. Allot enough time for sleep.  If we do not allot 8 hours of time in our day to sleep, we will never be able to get it.  It is so easy to fall into the trap of watching one more show on TV or sending one more email, but research shows that if we are well rested, we will be more productive and have more quality hours of wake time during the day.  If you decided on a wake time in tip #1, you could then dial back the clock 8 hours and make that time your bedtime goal.  Some people need a little more and others a little less, but 7-9 hours is best for most of the population.

Using the Attain by Aetna App can be helpful to track your efforts and hold yourself accountable to the goals you wrote down inside of the circle.  Habits like wake times, caffeine intake, alcohol, and allotting 8 hours for sleep are easy to log daily.  By completing this exercise, we are preparing ourselves to respond more constructively at times when it may be more difficult to think this way.  In summary, it is important to differentiate the factors within our control for optimizing sleep from the factors outside of our control.  By recognizing the difference, we can use our energy towards the most impactful actions.  Sweet Dreams!