Sleep is essential to our health. The Center for Disease Control reports that "Insufficient Sleep is A Public Health Epidemic" and contributes to chronic diseases like hypertension, depression, diabetes and obesity. The stakes of poor sleep are huge. Especially when preparing for or recovering from surgery. Dr. David Schulman, the Medical directory of the Emory Clinic Sleep labs says, "If you're chronically sleep deprived, you can't tell when you're sleepy. You lose the ability to detect how tired you are." In another study reported in the New York Times, Maggie Jones writes, "In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are." As if that's not enough, people most likely overestimate how much they sleep, as they tend to report the time spent in bed, not time actually spent asleep. Carving out enough time to sleep is important, but what can you do to optimize your sleep?
Number One: Eat an Earlier, Lighter Dinner
We must take a series of actions that starts well before we get into bed to promote a good night's sleep. For most of us, our largest meal is in the evening, at the end of the day. It's cultural, it's habitual, and based on the fact that we're all busy during the day. Dinner has also become often the only time to connect with friends and family.
BY (Before Yoga), when I worked in corporate America, 3-4 nights a week I'd get to the gym at 6pm, and THEN go meet up at a restaurant around 8pm. By the time I was actually eating it was even 8:30 or 9pm. I'd get home and it was at least 11pm before getting to bed, before an alarm would awaken me around 6am. That's fine, you might think, of seven hours of sleep. It could be on the low end of quantity needed for some, but it's not only the hours we spend asleep, it's also WHAT TIME that sleep takes place, that effects the quality of sleep. So in the example above there are less than two hours to digest a big, heavy meal (about two courses plus a shared dessert). But to digest a meal of this size, our bodies need at least three to four hours.
Eating too late may actually make us feel more awake, when our body is really ready to go to sleep. Eating sugar or drinking caffeinated beverages at ANY time during the day may cause us to miss our body's signals that it's tired. So although we feel may feel awake, at a much deeper level, our bodies are TIRED. Then, when we do go to sleep with a full stomach, a few things happen. Being upright after eating allows the digestive system to move in the right direction, which is downwards, therefore lying down interferes with optimal digestion, not to mention it's uncomfortable. Number two, our body does not have the chance to do the deeper work of rest and repair that should be taking place while we sleep, (especially between the hours of 10pm and 2am), because it's too busy digesting the late dinner.
By becoming more aware about day-to-day ways you can set yourself up to succeed. So ask yourself, how do you feel in the morning after eating a big meal just a couple of hours before bed. How long does it take to fall asleep? Do you awaken in the middle of the night, or stay asleep? How do you feel in the morning, including your joints, your mood and digestion?
The next time you know you'll be home for the entire evening, try an experiment. Have your main meal, like a regular dinner, at lunchtime. In the evening, as early as possible, have a big bowl of soup. You might notice you're less hungry for a large meal in the evening when your appetite has been satisfied by a bigger lunch. After the lighter dinner, notice the quality of your sleep, how your energy is the following morning and throughout the day.
Making a series of small changes makes a big difference in your health and well being, so begin by eating larger lunches and smaller dinners just once or twice a week. As often as you can on other nights, eat dinner just 15 minutes earlier. And consider socializing in other ways than around meals. These days, I'm more likely to meet friends for a walk in the park with our dogs, or take a yoga class together, rather than just meeting for dinner. After all, it's really about the company, not just the food.