Janet Kennedy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and sleep expert with almost two decades of specialized experience treating sleep disorders. We asked her to join us on #worldsleepday to educate us and answer some of our burning sleep questions so we can all rest a little easier.
How do I turn my brain off so I can sleep after a really stressful day?
It’s really important to understand that the brain is working hard all day long, switching between tasks and processing information coming from all directions. Technology has sped our lives up and increased the volume of information we handle at every waking moment. This multi-tasking has become a way of life, but the brain needs to transition into a different mode to be able to sleep well. You can’t just slam on the brakes at the end of the day and expect to sleep well—you have to find a way to downshift first.
To help with this I recommend a couple of things. First, make sure you have some kind of a buffer period between your high-speed day and going to bed. Set an alarm to remind you to put the phone and tablet down at least one hour before bed. Your devices keep you plugged into the day and signal the brain to multi-task. Giving yourself a chance to step away from that activity really helps to signal the body that the day is winding down.
Second, make sure that your bedroom is a refuge. It should be a place where you feel like you can leave the day behind. If you’re working from your bedroom these days, make sure to straighten up your work space at the end of the workday and keep work reminders away from the bed. Make sure your bedtime routine helps you immediately relax. For me, when I put on my Soma Cool Nights PJs it’s the ultimate signal to my brain to start transitioning to sleep.
And then finally, my number one recommendation for a bedtime routine is to read once you get into bed. It’s my go-to recommendation because it is the fastest and easiest way to settle your mind. Instead of focusing on your own racing thoughts—the lists, the tasks, everything you forgot to do or might have done wrong—you can immerse yourself in someone else’s story. The protagonist’s drama will be intriguing, but it won’t trigger your working brain to try to find solutions to everything going on in your life. Reading (preferably fiction) signals to your brain that it doesn’t need to be “on” anymore so your body is able to use its fatigue to pull you into sleep. Your mind can keep you awake, but if you give it a sort of treat to occupy it, the body can take over.
What is the best method for dealing with the constant battle of too hot then too cold?
Body temperature naturally fluctuates during the night so it’s really important to be prepared for that. Our bodies cool down as bedtime approaches and we often pile on clothing and blankets. But then we quickly overheat, waking up hot, sweaty and then freezing because we are wet with sweat. It’s a horrible cycle and it can be very hard to get back to sleep during the night when you wake up this way. Plus, when hormones fluctuate, they add to the temperature regulation problem. Women of all ages experience this, whether it’s PMS, pregnancy, post-partum adjustment, peri-menopause or menopause.
I was struggling with this myself, as a woman in my 40’s, when the folks at Soma contacted me over a year ago. I admit that I was skeptical of Soma’s Cool Nights pajamas because I used to think that I slept best in 100% cotton. But the Cool Nights pajamas fundamentally changed my sleep–I cannot sleep in anything else anymore, nor do I want to. They manage to keep you warm without holding excessive heat next to your body and they also wick moisture away when you do sweat. When it comes to hormones, you can’t necessarily control whether your body temperature is going to fluctuate, but the pajamas are doing the work so that you don’t feel the fluctuations so intensely and that means your sleep won’t be so disrupted.
Temperature fluctuations can also be related to certain medications, even spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine. It’s important to control your sleep environment, making sure that you’re not just piling on the heat so that you’ll wake up hot. Another pro tip: if you tend to be cold when you go to bed put a hot water bottle at your feet. Warming your feet will make your whole body feel better and you won’t have to pile on blankets that might make you overheat later in the night.
I never get the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night and it’s stressing me out, any tips?
Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep. The normal range of sleep needs in adults is between 7-9 hours and there are people on either end of that range as well. Everyone has a set point and trying to get drastically more sleep than you need can create sleep problems like insomnia or fragmented sleep. For example, I need about 7-7.5 hours of sleep. If I try to get 8 hours of sleep, I’m putting pressure on my body to do something it doesn’t want (or need) to do. But if I worry that sleeping less than 8 hours is bad in some way, I get anxious. And what does anxiety do? It creates insomnia. So then, suddenly instead of getting the 7.5 hours that I need I’m getting 5, because I’m rolling around in bed thinking, “why am I not sleeping?”
When you are frustrated about not being able to sleep, the body senses a problem and responds with a fight-or-flight response. Once that happens, you have a surge of adrenaline and your body will not let you sleep. So it’s important to figure out how much sleep you really need. To do that you can keep a sleep diary, which you can do in an app or on paper. Next, commit to waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, for about two weeks. You’ll start to notice that you’re falling asleep around the same time every night. That’s going to tell you how much sleep you need, so if for you that is 7 hours then your range is going to be roughly 6.5-7.5 hours and that’s fine, that’s not going to leave you sleep deprived. When you read those news reports that warn of all of the negative health effects of sleep deprivation, it’s important to remember that there is some magic number that works for everyone. You will be at risk only If YOU are chronically sleep deprived based on how much sleep YOU need.
However, if you feel like you are never rested no matter how much sleep you get or you fall asleep spontaneously at inappropriate times, you should see a doctor. Sleep disorders like Sleep Apnea or Restless Leg Syndrome can cause this kind of fatigue, as can thyroid problems and other medical issues. These medical causes can have serious implications and they really should be evaluated and treated.