March is Sleep Awareness Month, allowing us to look closer at our sleeping patterns and behaviors to optimize or improve them. It’s no secret that Black women aren’t getting enough sleep. According to the CDC’s National 2020 survey, 34.8% of all American adults aren’t getting enough sleep. Results further revealed that 43.5% of Black or African-American individuals had trouble sleeping, compared with 30.7% of white respondents. A study exploring the racial and ethnic differences in sleep disorders found that 27.6% of white women, compared to 16.7% of black women, got seven to eight hours of sleep.
So, why aren’t we catching those needed zs? There are several reasons. According to Chanelle Ramsubick, MD, a psychiatrist, stress and anxiety play a huge role as we must navigate systemic racism, discrimination, and other socio-economic factors daily. “Black women may be more likely to work long hours or multiple jobs, experience racism and sexism from employers, and live in areas with noise and pollution, which increases stress, anxiety, and poor sleep,” she tells ESSENCE.
“When a black woman is stressed or anxious, her mind may be racing with thoughts and worries, making it difficult to quiet her mind and fall asleep,” she adds. “Even if she manages to sleep through the night, stress and anxiety can cause her to sleep less, leaving her feeling unrefreshed in the morning. Poor sleep can, in turn, exacerbate stress and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.”
As you can imagine, not receiving adequate sleep can affect productivity and create detrimental health issues down the road. To have a good night’s rest, it’s recommended by The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society to experience at least seven hours. However, certified sleep expert and coach Angela Holliday-Bell, MD believes your sleep needs should be tailored to your lifestyle. “Sleep need is like shoe size; there is no one size fits all. The average sleep need is seven to eight hours per night, but some people will need a little less, and many will need more,” she says.
Holliday-Bell continues, “It is essential to determine your individual sleep need, which is the amount of sleep you require to function optimally through your day with adequate energy and without the need for supplemental energy boosters such as caffeine, and aim for that number each day. For many, that could end up being closer to nine or even ten hours of sleep.”
Suppose you can’t get at least seven hours of sleep. In that case, your mental health may be negatively impacted, ranging from impaired cognitive function and mood disorders to anxiety and depression. “Sleep deprivation can cause mood swings, irritability, and other emotional disturbances. You may be more easily angered or frustrated when tired, affecting your relationships,” Ramsubick states.
In addition, poor sleep quality can increase the risk of anxiety and depression and add to many physical health problems, including weight gain, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Now that we know why we aren’t getting enough sleep, how can we begin to prioritize rest and center healthy sleep patterns in our lives even when our schedules are hectic? Holliday-Bell believes it starts by viewing sleep as self-care and an investment in your health rather than something that takes away from things you enjoy. “It can also be helpful to think of your bedtime and bedtime routine as your “me” time and a time you can dedicate to yourself in an otherwise hectic day,” she says.
Ramsubick suggests scheduling rest breaks, setting boundaries, and practicing mindfulness to prioritize rest and restoration. For more expert tips on how to improve our sleeping patterns, scroll below.
Medical evaluation: Ramsubick believes speaking with a medical doctor is crucial if you have sleep problems. A physician can help identify the underlying cause of your sleep problem. This is important because various factors, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, can affect your rest. “Accurately identifying the cause of your sleep problem is the first step toward finding an effective treatment. Once the underlying cause of your sleep problem has been identified, a medical doctor can help create a personalized treatment plan. This may include lifestyle changes, such as improving sleep hygiene, changing your diet, or medical treatments like prescription medication or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for sleep apnea,” she says.
Once any medical causes are ruled out, improving our sleeping patterns can involve lifestyle changes, behavioral adjustments, and a sleep-conducive environment.
Schedule rest breaks: Just as you schedule work meetings and appointments, schedule breaks and downtime into your daily calendar. This could be as simple as taking a 10-minute break to stretch or meditate during the day.
Set boundaries: Learning to say no and setting boundaries around your time and energy can help prevent burnout and create space for rest. If your schedule is overwhelming, consider outsourcing or delegating tasks to free up more time for rest and self-care.
Practice mindfulness: Incorporating mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep breathing can help you relax and recharge, even during busy times.
Shift your mindset: Create a mindset shift and view sleep as a form of self-care that you deserve instead of something that is unnecessary or has to be earned. You don’t have to earn rest.
Develop a routine: Wake up at the same time each day. This helps reinforce your circadian rhythm and makes it easier to fall asleep at your desired time and wake up at the expected time.
Curate a bedtime routine: Have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine to help you relax and transition to sleep. This should be between 30 to 60 minutes and include three to four relaxing activities such as a warm bath or shower, listening to soothing music, sleeping meditation, or reading a book.
Limit screen time before bed: The blue light emitted by electronic devices can interfere with sleep. Try to avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. Your body will produce melatonin naturally in the afternoon, which promotes high-quality sleep. However, the artificial lighting from your screens may suppress these levels.
Limit caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine is considered a stimulant that improves alertness. Therefore it should be avoided in the afternoon because it can impact your ability to fall asleep and your body’s ability to enter into a phase of deep sleep.
Get regular exercise: Exercise can help improve sleep quality but try to finish your workout several hours before bedtime. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters that can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.