Getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely essential to our physical health and our emotional well-being. Yet, if you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, you are certainly not alone. Over 100 million Americans reportedly experience some form of insomnia. According to the American Psychological Association, “one of the most significant and overlooked public health problems…is that many adults are chronically sleep deprived, and most people who are sleep deprived don’t even realize it.”
If your shut-eye time has been less than ideal, it may be improved by better sleep habits. Below are some suggestions for setting your body’s natural clock so that you can rest easy, sleep deeply, and wake up refreshed and renewed.
Step outside after you awaken each morning. Exposing yourself to sunlight when you wake up will let your body’s natural clock know that it’s time to start the day. In addition, getting at least two hours of bright sunlight daily increases your body’s production of melatonin, which regulates your sleep-wake cycles. Conversely, turn off the television and computer at least an hour before bedtime, as the bright light emitted from their screens can trick your body into thinking that it’s time to be wide awake. Also, keep your bedroom as dark as possible at night so that light will not interfere with your sleep.
Exercise early and often. A consistent twenty to thirty minute daily workout can contribute to a better night’s sleep. Aerobic exercise has been proven to help you fall asleep faster, spend more hours in deep sleep, and wake up less often during the night. Exercise can also act as a stimulant, so keep in mind that aerobic activity just before you go to bed can make it difficult to fall asleep. Try scheduling your workouts for the morning or early afternoon.
Nix your daytime nap. Napping during the day can throw off your natural body clock, making it more difficult to fall asleep at night. If you feel that a nap is a must, make sure it’s shorter than 30 minutes (15 to 20 minutes is ideal), and schedule your snooze for early in the day.
Monitor medications that may be robbing you of sleep. Most adults take medications for one or more ongoing medical conditions. One of the medications that you take, or a combination of several medicines, might be causing your wakeful nights. Take a list of your medications to your doctor and discuss your sleep problems. The answer to your sleeplessness may be as simple as switching the time of day you take your medicine, lowering your dosage, or changing to another medication.
Avoid alcohol two to three hours before you go to bed. Although a glass of wine can initially help you to fall asleep, the sedative effects wear off as the alcohol is metabolized in your system, causing you to wake up and have trouble falling back to sleep. Research has also shown that alcohol interferes with the body’s internal clock, causing blood pressure to rise and heart rate to race at night, when it’s normally calm.
Watch what you eat late at night. Having a large, heavy meal before bed can cause indigestion and disrupt your sleep cycle. On the other hand, certain bedtime snacks can actually help you fall asleep. Milk, turkey, and peanuts contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your brain produce serotonin, which promotes sleep. If the thought of warm milk doesn’t sound appealing, try a slice of toast with peanut butter. Since tryptophan works most effectively on the brain when you have an empty stomach, it might not be a bad idea to keep some turkey in the fridge for the next time you wake up at 2:30 a.m.
Write out whatever is weighing on your mind. Before you go to bed, jot down the worries or concerns of the day, or the list of to-dos that you weren’t able to tackle. Next to each item, write a brief note on how you plan to deal with it the next day. If some quick mental problem-solving doesn’t provide solutions, tell yourself that you will take twenty minutes in the morning – during your breakfast, morning shower, or commute – to brainstorm ideas. Just knowing that you have an action plan in place will allow you to set aside your worries until the next day, when you’re feeling refreshed from a good night’s sleep.
Create relaxing rituals before bed. Listening to soft music, sipping a hot cup of herbal tea, or taking a bath at the same time each night can become your body’s cue that it’s time to slow down and prepare to welcome sleep. Taking a hot bath can be particularly effective because the onset of sleep is correlated with a drop in internal temperature. So, if you take a bath an hour or so before bedtime, your body temperature will decrease afterwards, signaling sleep.
When it comes to your bed, comfort is key. Test different types of mattresses and try therapeutic pillows that will cradle your neck. Splurge on the most superbly comfortable set of cotton sheets you can find. If a tossing-and-turning spouse interrupts your sleep, you might want to upgrade to a bigger bed.
Make your bedroom a place for sleeping and intimacy only. If you pay your bills or work on your laptop in the bedroom, your mind may have trouble disconnecting from these non-restful activities when it’s time to wind down. Watching television in the bedroom can be over-stimulating, which is not conducive to sleep. It also exposes your body to bright lights that could confuse your internal clock at bedtime.
Keep your bedroom cool and quiet. Make sure your bedroom is well ventilated and at a consistently cool temperature. Lowering the thermostat ensures that your sleep environment is in sync with your body’s internal temperature, which, as mentioned earlier, naturally lowers during the night. Also, keep your bedroom quiet and peaceful by using a fan or white-noise machine to block out noises that might disrupt your sleep.
Hide your alarm clock. Most of us have had nights where we stare at the clock and say to ourselves, “If I fall asleep right now, I’ll get six hours of sleep.” An hour passes as we think, “If I could just fall asleep this instant, I would get five hours of sleep.” A large, digital clock that illuminates the passing of each restless minute will just serve to make you anxious about your sleeplessness. Relieve this needless stress by repositioning your clock so that you can’t see it from your bed. Taking the sleepless-countdown out of your nightly routine will make your body feel relaxed and ready to rest.
When you can’t sleep, get out of bed. If you wake up and cannot get back to sleep within 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing to clear your mind. Try reading, meditating, or knitting, but avoid watching television or surfing the web. When you feel sleepy again, head back to bed. Staying in bed when you can’t fall asleep can cause anxiety, which is not a restful state of mind.
Getting a truly restorative rest is essential for feeling refreshed and alert in the daytime. By adopting some of these sleep habits, you may find that you are free to get your best night’s sleep.