How to Sleep Better Part Two

Notice when you’re tired IN THE EVENING

Habit two may sound ridiculously obvious, but in fact, there are a number of habitual reasons that we don’t notice when we’re tired at night. Number one is relying on stimulants like sugar and caffeine in the morning and throughout the day in order to fight feelings of fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle; due to not getting enough quantity or quality sleep, we’re tired, and then use sugar and/or caffeine, two substances which give us a false increase in energy, interfering with our ability to notice when we’re tired at night.

Maybe you remember a time when you were a kid (or more recently!), and were so tired you literally couldn’t keep your eyes open any longer. When I was about six I fell fast asleep right at the dinner table in a fine restaurant. (Although I don’t remember at all, my parents are still talking about the incident). As adults, our bodies are really not that different, but if we habitually depend on sugar and caffeine, especially in the afternoon or after a typically late dinner, we might not feel the depth of our fatigue. When eating a late dinner (see How to Sleep Better Part One, Eat an Earlier, Lighter Dinner), we’re often simply too full to go to sleep, so begin to watch TV, get on the computer or start doing something around the house. In turn, that stimulates the brain and the nervous system, and we no longer FEEL tired. Have you ever fallen asleep with the TV on? Were you on the couch or in bed? Basically either way, there’s no doubt that you WERE tired!

Many of my students tell me there’s no way for them to go to bed before 11pm. After dinner is essentially their only time to themselves. Those with young children find after putting them to bed, it’s the main time they get things done. Or perhaps, as Dr. Lissa Rankin MD writes, we are addicted to busyness.

Or even when we do feel tired, we need to do “one extra thing” before going to bed. But in fact, going to sleep earlier will ultimately allow us to wake up earlier. Then we don’t begin the day trying to catch up, because we’re running behind as soon as we open our eyes.

Related to being addicted to busyness, some of us have FOMO. Even before I heard of this formal title (Fear of Missing Out) I suffered from the syndrome for years. Although I felt tired, I’d go out with friends. Even if I was exhausted, I’d watch my favorite TV show rather than watching the recording later. This study points out, lack of sleep has major consequences on health. 

When we eat an earlier, lighter dinner, skip any habitual alcohol, caffeine and sugar, we notice there’s a natural winding down in the evening. This pattern is particularly noticeable in the late Fall and Winter months, when the sun sets in the late afternoon. According to Ayurveda, the early evening is governed by Kapha (6-10pm) the water and earth elements, and has qualities that are heavy, slow, and steady. Early evening is therefore an ideal time to connect to those with whom you live, and with yourself. When you have an earlier, lighter dinner, begin to notice the signs of fatigue your body is sending.

There are many physical, emotional and mental signs your body needs sleep. Any yawning, “tired eyes”, lethargy or aches in the lower extremities. But the mental and emotional states can reflect fatigue first, including irritability and indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating and poor judgment. When I get tired, I cannot continue to talk or engage. In company, this is uncomfortable for myself and those around me, as my body is literally saying loudly, I need to go to sleep, right now. When we habitually force ourselves to stay awake despite these symptoms, we are ignoring the body’s messages. When we stay awake past the point of being tired, we’re borrowing from tomorrow's energy for tonight.

So what would an evening look like as you align with nature’s rhythms? After having an earlier, lighter dinner, enjoy a yoga practice focusing on hip openers or forward bends, or simply put your legs up the wall. Winter evenings are also great to do a full body oil massage (or just the feet) and take a warm shower or bath to promote good quality sleep. 

There will always be consequences from ignoring the body’s incredible wisdom, including fatigue. We might see the effects as soon as the next morning, with trouble awakening, stiffness, or crankiness. It might be a few days later, with a cold or sore throat. It might be years or even decades later, when a serious illness develops. Small changes, like having an earlier, lighter dinner, and listening to your body when it's tired, will not only make you feel better in the short term, but help your future health as well. And when you feel better, EVERYTHING in your life will seem better.