Getting a good night’s sleep — seven to eight hours — on a regular basis can help you feel rested and ready to go. But when stress levels are high and the to-do list is long, getting quality sleep might seem like an elusive goal.
Here’s a wake-up call: Your body works hard during sleep, restoring and replenishing. Your brain rewires cells to create connections for learning and concentration, and even performs some housekeeping — clearing out toxins that build up while you’re awake. Beyond your brain, sleep affects your heart, lungs, immune system, metabolism and mood. It’s no wonder that poor sleep increases your risk for health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.
Dr. Chirag Patel with Sanford Health specializes in pulmonology and sleep medicine. He says that because the COVID-19 pandemic is constantly on people’s minds, it can lead to more vivid dreams or nightmares.
“Anything that occupies your mind for a large portion of the day can sometimes spill over into nighttime,” Dr. Patel said. “Sometimes you have dreams about the subject; sometimes you may have dreams that are not related to the subject directly but may still be nightmarish or anxiety-inducing.”
Dr. Patel also says that because people are now at home more, they tend to be sleeping more. This allows for more REM sleep — the stage of sleep where dreams occur — which is why vivid dreams may be more prevalent.
Improving your sleep
Activities that you find relaxing, such as exercise, meditation or reading, can benefit the quality of your sleep.
Dr. Patel recommends trying to avoid exposure to constant news.
“I think it’s important to keep in touch with what’s going on, but outside of maybe a few headlines of the day, I think focusing too much energy on that can be detrimental in terms of your mental health,” he said.
While limiting your coronavirus coverage exposure, Dr. Patel stresses the importance of staying safe.
“It’s still very important for everyone to do their part to social distance, go out only when essential, wear face masks and wash your hands,” Dr. Patel said.
Dr. Patel lists certain habits you can form before bedtime that can help you sleep better and hopefully stave off nightmares:
- Turn off the technology. Stay off your phone and away from any screens starting at least an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid anything too stimulating. This includes watching an anxiety-inducing news story or action movie.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake. “One drink is probably fine, but multiple drinks can cause fragmented sleep,” Dr. Patel said.
- Limit your amount of caffeine. Six or seven hours before bedtime is a good time to stop caffeine intake.
- Stop smoking. Smoking can hurt the quantity and quality of your sleep.
- Follow a healthy diet. Dr. Patel recommends more fruits, vegetables and low-sugar foods along with focusing on your baseline diet and adjusting from there.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Even if you’re working from home, Dr. Patel recommends a normal sleep schedule. This includes avoiding afternoon naps if it affects your ability to sleep at night.
Overall, Dr. Patel says the best thing you can do to promote a better night’s sleep is doing what you can to limit your exposure to anxiety. If you’ve taken all the normal precautionary measures and still can’t sleep, however, Dr. Patel says it would be reasonable to talk to your physician.
7 sleep super foods
Along with maintaining a healthy diet overall, eating these foods throughout the day can help you get a better night’s sleep.
- Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt is a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin B12, which are all essential nutrients to sleeping soundly.
- Fish: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel are great sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids — both of which can help improve sleep quality. Not a fish fan? Try other vitamin D-rich foods like egg yolks, or fortified dairy or juice. Studies show that consuming vitamin D with a large meal or fat source can increase absorption. Consuming it early in the day can maximize melatonin production while also boosting daytime mood and energy.
- Bananas: Bananas contain tryptophan, which the body converts to melatonin and serotonin — the brain’s calming hormone.
- Broccoli: Including more fiber in your diet may help you spend more time in restorative sleep — the phases of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep during which your body and mind undergo the most renewal. Choose fiber-filled foods like broccoli and other vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains.
- Orange and red tomatoes: They’re filled with lycopene, which is an important mineral for sleep. It’s most concentrated and available in canned or cooked tomatoes.
- Almonds or walnuts: Go nuts with a handful or two (one-quarter cup is a serving size) for a healthy dose of melatonin and magnesium — a stress-reducing, sleep-promoting essential mineral.
- Kale: It’s loaded with calcium, which helps the brain use tryptophan to make melatonin.
Nighttime snacks to help you snooze
Eating well before you head to bed is equally as important. If you’re craving a small snack before bedtime, stay away from snooze-busting red meat, fried or spicy foods, sugar, coffee and alcohol. Instead, enjoy these better-for-you options — with snooze-supporting ingredients — at least one hour before you turn in:
- Peanut butter on whole wheat toast with sliced banana
- Celery with hummus
- Popcorn (three cups for serving size) sprinkled with Parmesan cheese instead of butter
- Tart cherry juice
- Chamomile tea
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