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A topic that’s been on-trend in the entrepreneurial space is how to relax and get enough rest to improve productivity and sustainability as leaders. This increased interest comes as no surprise: A 2019 Rand report citing the global economic effects of sleep deprivation found that the U.S. sustains by far the biggest economic losses (up to $411 billion a year).
Sleep deprivation is linked to lower productivity at work, which results in a significant loss of working days each year. In addition, research shows lost productivity due to “presenteeism” (people showing up for work but operating at subpar levels).
Insufficient sleep is also a top contributor to stress and anxiety symptoms such as exhaustion, brain fog, and moodiness. The resulting irritability causes friction in our relationships, both at work and at home, and it becomes a vicious cycle. As our stress elevates, so do our cortisol levels—which launches us into “fight or flight” mode—and as a result, we struggle to relax into restorative sleep at night. In our desperation to feel well-rested and avoid repeating the cycle again tomorrow, we often seek out simple, quick-fix solutions.
Unfortunately, the most commonly used “remedies” in our culture only perpetuate this cycle. Here, we’ll discuss three common nighttime go-to’s, how their side effects can cause the opposite of your desired outcome, and some alternatives to try for deeper relaxation and sleep tonight.
1. Sleep aids
Some prescription sleep medications like Ativan (lorazepam) and Restoril (temazepam) can lead an individual to become dependent on the drugs in order to sleep. These and others (such as Ambien and Lunesta) can also cause daytime sleepiness, which defeats the core purpose of getting a good night’s rest.
Other prescription drugs such as Xanax and Valium are also used because they induce drowsiness. The problem is that they are anti-anxiety meds and their intended use is unrelated to sleep. These medications can shortchange people on the deep, slow-wave sleep that we need to repair our bodies and brains. Without enough of this phase of sleep, we wake up feeling groggy in the morning.
Then there is the overwhelming assortment of over-the-counter (OTC) options. Some are actually intended as sleep aids while others just happen to include drowsiness as a side effect. Benadryl, Tylenol PM, and Nyquil fall into this category. (I was enlightened, but not too surprised, to find in my research that Nyquil addiction is a thing, and its creators have developed ZzzQuil, which is marketed as a sleep aid.)
While these are generally considered safe for occasional use, there can be issues when people rely on them to get adequate sleep. Much like the anti-anxiety meds, they also cause morning drowsiness or even a feeling of being “hungover.”
Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and any OTC meds that contain it (almost every drugstore sleep aid) can also cause damage to attention and short-term memory as people age, especially with repeated or consistent use.
We all know how stressful life feels on those days where our memory escapes us, our brain feels foggy, or we have trouble focusing. It’s difficult to stay on task or complete projects within a reasonable time frame. We get backlogged and spend the whole day behind schedule. Deadlines may be missed. Instead of resolving these symptoms and their consequences, extended use of sleep aids actually compounds them.
Instead, try one of these natural alternatives: chamomile tea, passionflower tea, valerian root extract, tart cherry juice.
Do you ever pour a glass of wine, beer or liquor specifically to help you relax enough to sleep at night? If so, you’re not alone: about 20% of American adults do this. It’s considered by most to be an effective, low-risk solution.
Drinking alcohol does induce relaxation and drowsiness in most people, but over the course of the night, our overall quantity and quality of sleep are disrupted. If you’ve ever awakened at 3 a.m. after an evening of sipping cocktails and had trouble drifting off again, you have suffered alcohol-induced sleep disruption. The sedative effects of alcohol naturally wear off after just a few hours, leading to what’s called the “metabolic rebound effect” and directly interrupting restorative sleep cycles.
The many consequences of sleep disruption include increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, as well as cognitive, memory, and performance deficits, according to a Nature of Science & Sleep study.
If you’re looking for an alcohol-free stress reliever to help you feel truly nurtured and support your restorative sleep, try a hot mineral-salt bath. Epsom salt baths provide the body’s most effective method of magnesium absorption — through the skin. Magnesium is an essential mineral that promptly and directly releases tense muscles and calms frayed nerves. Aromatherapy enhances this tranquil effect. Sprinkle in a few drops of lavender or sage essential oils, or add any scent that feels soothing for you.
If enjoying a special nightly beverage is an indulgence you’re not willing to give up, then don’t! You can replace your nightcap with one of the sleep-inducing teas mentioned above or even one of the popular booze-free craft botanical cocktails on the market. In addition to the comforting ritual of relaxing with a drink, some of these even include added stress-relief benefits via adaptogens and nootropics (simply put: natural brain boosters and nervous system soothers).
3. Screen time (TV, social media scrolling, etc.)
This is one of the most common nightly rituals of my clients when they come to me. In fact, 90% of Americans regularly use some type of electronics within an hour of bedtime. Whether you’re intentionally engaging in this activity because you truly believe it helps you relax, or it’s just become an autopilot habit, the hard truth is that this practice harms your relaxation more than supporting it.
First of all, blue light from any type of screen suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that influences circadian rhythm and induces sleepiness. This is especially dangerous in the one to two hours before we say good night. One study showed that people who were exposed to blue light through reading on a screen before bed took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep (the dream phase), and had higher alertness before bedtime. It was also found that even after eight hours of sleep, those who read on a light-emitting device felt sleepier and took longer to wake up.
Secondly, watching TV or movies with high-intensity action, drama or violence can trigger emotional or visceral feelings that ignite our natural stress or anxiety responses. Social media exposure or engagement before bedtime can do the same, and none of this contributes to true relaxation in the moment, no matter how mindless and relaxing it may seem. Even when we’re able to calm our pounding heart and racing thoughts enough to finally fall asleep, the quality of our rest can suffer.
A screen-free relaxation method that is sure to help you melt into peaceful slumber is taking a little time to write in a gratitude journal. Intentional focus on what’s gone well today will set you up with a positive mindset that induces mental bliss at bedtime and carries over into the next morning.
You can also try restorative yoga poses to downshift your nervous system at night. (They are highly effective for relieving stress and tension during the workday, as well).
As leaders, it is our responsibility to set an example, and as entrepreneurs, it is especially important to make sure we are taking care of ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s important to pay attention to what we’ve been doing that’s just not working, both in business and in our personal lives. Sometimes “the way it’s always been done” is not a productive or effective approach.
Self-awareness is power, and once we acknowledge the ruts we’ve fallen into, it is much easier to shift ourselves out and onto a new path toward the relaxation and rest we deserve.