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Schedule in Flux? Understand and Improve Your Sleep Habits

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Businesses are beginning to bring employees back to the office, schools are opening and closing, and our daily routines are in flux once again. Our sleep is a frequent casualty of these changes, and, in the face of such upheaval, many of us hold on even more dearly to our beloved bedtime routines. Yet, a rigid adherence to a schedule or routine may induce unanticipated stress and hardship. Rather than fight change, we need to learn to accept it. 

Our Sleep Needs Change Daily, Monthly, and Seasonally

Our sleep needs are in constant flux. On a daily basis, the amount of physical and emotional strain we undertake each day affects how much sleep we need at night to recover. This has been illustrated best by wearable devices, like WHOOP, which tracks an individual’s daily strain and can make recommendations for sleeping and waking times. Whether you are sitting in stressful Zoom calls all day or are pressing a one-rep max above your head, these activities take a toll on our body and our brain, which, in turn, affects how much sleep we need to recuperate and be ready for tomorrow.

Women also experience monthly fluctuations in their sleep needs: in a study of 579 American women published this year in the Journal of Sleep research, scientists found significant associations between irregular or heavy menses and shorter, poorer sleep. The pre-menstrual phase is also associated with greater stress on the body, which manifests as higher resting heart rates and lower heart rate variability (HRV).

Finally, exposure to sunlight regulates our circadian clock, which means that those of us living further from the equator are more strongly affected by the changes in daylight in the winter months. In a 2011 study comparing Norwegians versus Ghanians, the Norwegians exhibited markedly different bedtimes and wake times between January and August, whereas the Ghanians were more consistent in their schedules. In general, we tend to sleep a little longer in the winter months, and we acquire this extra sleep by waking up a little later.

Sleep doesn’t help you calm down: you have to calm down to sleep.

We may think, Let me just fall asleep and shut my mind off. However, a racing mind, stress, and worry all prevent us from experiencing sound sleep. In a striking study of stress and sleep published this year, researchers from Concordia University studied how more than 200 mothers of adolescents were coping with stress and how well they slept. They found that chronic stress predicted poor sleep, which then predicted a worse mood and depression. Importantly, they also found that one’s vulnerability to stress-related sleep disturbances could be measured using HRV.

Whether it’s the sun, our monthly cycles, or our daily stresses, our sleep needs will vary, with the optimal amount of sleep ranging between seven to nine hours per night. Here are a few tips to help you regulate your sleep in the face of change:

Tip: Slow down before bed

We should not expect sleep to wash away the day’s woes. Instead, it’s important to take time before bed to reflect on the day, process what happened, and practice stilling our mind. Mindfulness practices increase the activity of our parasympathetic nervous system, which boosts our HRV and leads to sounder sleep. Here are a couple of suggestions to put you in the right frame of mind before bed:

  • Take a Warm Bath: A warm bath at night has been found to increase deep sleep, as well as reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
  • Limit Digital Devices: Avoid digital devices close to bed. Light-emitting devices, from phones to e-readers, have been found to delay the production of melatonin and delay the circadian clock. This means that it takes us longer to fall asleep, and our sleep is not as sound.

Tip: Understand your chronotype

To find your optimal sleeping and waking times, learn about your internal clock, or chronotype. Each individual’s chronotype is determined by their genetic predisposition, as well as their environment – namely, their latitude and their exposure to sunlight. You may be an “early lark”—an early sleeper and an early riser—or you may be a “late owl,” preferring a later bedtime and a later start in the morning, or you may be somewhere in between. 

  • For night owls, curb caffeine intake: Night owls tend to consume more caffeine, which makes it difficult to figure out what their “natural” bedtime might be. For optimal sleep, they should stop drinking caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime: for a night owl who wants to go to sleep at midnight, then they should be having that last sip of coffee by 4 p.m, at the latest. Feeling a mid-day crash at the office? Find an herbal tea that can substitute for that afternoon cup of coffee—or an afternoon walk for a pick-me-up! Even dark chocolate has small doses of caffeine, so it’s important to watch after-dinner desserts.
  • For early larks, eat dinner earlier: In a study of over 6,000 people from Finland, early larks had higher odds of type II diabetes than their night owl counterparts. While we do not know the exact cause of this association, here is one suggestion that can help your metabolism: eat dinner earlier. The after effects of digestion, including acid reflux and bloating, can interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Eating an earlier dinner not only allows the digestive processes to subside but also grants time for the muscles and brain to use up any glucose floating around in the blood, instead of it getting stored away as glycogen or fat for later use—and this may help reduce your risk of untoward health effects, like diabetes, in the long run.

Tip: Learn about sleep and HRV

You can learn more about your personal HRV at Sensei Lāna’i’s Optimal Wellbeing Program, which is an in-depth diagnostic and data-led initiative designed to help guests of Sensei Lanai awaken their “optimal” self through technology and experiential learning. The program includes a WHOOP strap that has a variety of sleep-centric features including tracking sleep stages, disturbances, respiratory rate, setting sleep goals, and more. Each person’s itinerary is completely tailored to their impact points and individual needs, so you’ll learn exactly what works for you, your body, and your sleep routine. 

Need more tips for improving your sleep? Check out 5 Easy Ways to Naturally Get a Better Night’s Sleep and 6 CBD, CBN, and CBG Products to Encourage Better Sleep.

About The Author
Vishal N. Patel, M.D., Ph.D.

Vishal joined Sensei as the director of Wellness Research, building the brand’s knowledge base to create, evaluate, and disseminate evidence-led content and programming to guests. 

Vishal is also responsible for vetting technology and services to ensure they reflect today’s most current standards supported by empirical evidence. He earned his Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) as well as a Ph.D. in Genetics from Case Western Reserve University and a certificate in Ayurveda from Gujarat Ayurveda University in India. Prior to joining Sensei, he worked with nationally renowned healthcare systems, including Geisinger, Baylor Scott & White, and Parkland Hospital, on the design, implementation, and analysis of programs to improve the health of populations. He also worked at three different start-ups, designing, building, and delivering data science solutions to reduce adverse events and costs. Vishal’s expansive background in health and science also extends to academia, having served as a faculty member at his alma mater, as well as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Biomedical Informatics