Sleep is pretty much my favorite pastime. Over the years, even as other hobbies have come and gone — crocheting, piano playing and terrarium-making among them — snoozing has always been my preferred way to spend downtime.
And despite insomnia running in my family, I’ve always been blessed enough to be able to sleep when I want to, including during bad movies (sorry "Batman v Superman"), airport layovers and morning train rides to work. I’ve always been lucky when it comes to sleep ... until recently. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly during the warmer months of the year, I find it harder and harder to get to sleep and get the rest I need. What gives?
“Longer days certainly make it hard to get to bed on time,” says psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist Dr. Alex Dimitriu. “With a sunset time of 8 [p.m.], it’s easy to be outside later (enjoying the cooler evening), then come home and start the ‘regular’ evening routine. But now everything may be happening two to three hours later than in the winter months, so it’s easy to get to bed too late.”
Add to that busy social and work schedules, technology and stuffy bedrooms due to higher temps, and it’s no wonder that summer can be tough on our sleep schedules. In the middle of the latest heat wave, I set out to find out the snoozing mistakes to avoid in the summer.
HOW MUCH SLEEP IS ENOUGH?
First things first, how much sleep should you actually be getting? We may accept the fact that we're willing to sacrifice a few hours of shuteye to take advantage of more daylight, but how do we know when we've crossed the line into sleep deprivation? "The answer is enough to not feel tired throughout the next day, and not require three orders of Starbucks to avoid being sleepy," Dimitriu says.
The time between noon and 4 p.m. will tell you a lot, he says. It's normal to feel a little sleepy during this time, but people who do not get enough sleep will often feel "significantly sleepy" in this window. The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is also 3-minute test that can point out if you are abnormally sleepy or getting enough Zs.
STICK TO A PRE-SLEEP ROUTINE
The best thing you can do to continue getting some shut-eye is to stick to a pre-sleep routine, says sleep wellness expert Nancy Rothstein of The Sleep Ambassador and host of The Sleep Radio Show. “Most people don’t prepare for sleep,” Rothstein says. “I would say in the half hour or the hour before bed you have to unwind.” Even if your schedule gets a bit erratic in the summer with after work happy hours or outdoor concerts, taking time to do the same routine each evening can help put you in a relaxed mindset before bed.
So, what exactly should you do in that time? Take a shower or bath, chat with your partner, read a book (not on a tech device) or try a mindfulness exercise, Rothstein recommends. “Then you have to look at this as a transition to sleep,” she says. “Whatever it is, your brain and your body really relish that transition.”
MAKE SOME SACRIFICES
Warmer months are an ideal time to get outdoors and perhaps make more plans with family and friends than you tend to during the colder months. But be sure that you are swapping the tech time for fun outdoor activities. “Cut the TV or screen time,” Dimitriu says. “It’s okay to be out with friends later than usual, and to get home at 9 [p.m.] on a weekday.”
What is not the best idea is to then spend 3-4 hours scrolling through Instagram and watching through Netflix like you might in the winter months when you get home earlier. Keep as close as possible to your usual bedtime — and if you’re getting home later because you’re out doing something fun, nix TV time or some usual evening errands, Dimitriu says.
CREATE A SUMMER ‘SLEEP SANCTUARY’
It’s important to create a “sleep sanctuary” for yourself, particularly as the temperature climbs since stuffy rooms are the enemy of shut eye. “For people who don’t have AC, invest in your sleep with a good fan,” Rothstein says. Change your linens to thinner fabric and sleep in lighter, natural fabrics than during winter months. “If you’re waking up sweating, then you have too much bedding or you need to get a fan,” she says.
“What is your body saying to you and are you listening? Your body is going to tell you by sweating or shivering or feeling comfortable.” And what to do about the light streaming through your window? Rothstein recommends buying some blackout curtains to keep the sunshine from disturbing your sleep. For a cheaper alternative, try a sleep mask, she says.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SUMMER MENU
Your summer diet may skew a bit more towards cocktails, cold brew and ice cream, but overdoing it on those goodies may wreak havoc on your sleep. Excessive caffeine can be overly stimulating, alcohol can make you feel drowsy initially but negatively affect sleep quality and sweets can cause crashes, says Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., C.D.N., CEO and founder of The NY Nutrition Group. That doesn’t mean you have to completely eliminate them from your diet, but make them a once in a while indulgence. "Enjoying these seasonal goodies can be fine once in a while but consuming them more often can disrupt your ability to sleep at night," Moskovitz says.
Try reaching for foods that specifically help with melatonin and serotonin production, two neurotransmitters that signal to the brain it's time to rest and rejuvenate, like seafood, nuts, low-fat dairy, tart cherries, whole grains and dark leafy greens, Moskovitz says. Aim for eating at least 3-4 hours before bed to give your body time to fully digest a big meal, or 1-2 hours for a smaller one.
As for me, after hearing what I need to do to get some proper shut eye, I know what the rest of my summer will look like. You can find me with a sleep mask on, AC blasting after no more than one (maybe two?) cocktails, as I do my best imitation of Holly Golightly. Don’t mind the snoring.
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