How To Sleep Better: The Insomniac’s Bedtime Story

how to sleep betterIf you suffer from chronic insomnia, the good news is that a few lifestyle changes like a bit more exercise and discipline are often all you need to get on the road to recovery.  There are dozens of tips and routines and tricks for getting a better night’s rest, but there is no one infallible treatment.  Every person reacts differently, so the best thing to do is test as many options as possible to see which is the most effective for you specifically.  Following is a sleep guide, with strategies and advice to help you get started.  If it’s a child you’re worried about, you can learn how to coach your child to sleep with this gentle sleep success workshop. Remember, when in doubt, talk to a doctor. Sleep problems that can’t be cured with simple lifestyle changes are often indicative of more serious problems.

A recent Harvard study found that approximately 75% of people have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week.  The same study claims that if you have a bad week or two every now and then, you’ve got nothing to worry about.  Chronic sleep loss, on the other hand, is surprisingly detrimental to one’s health.  Fortunately, for most people, curing chronic sleep loss is a matter of altering your day-to-day lifestyle.  You don’t need chemotherapy or open-heart surgery; a bit more exercise is a good place to start.  There are dozens of tips and routines and tricks for getting a better night’s rest, but there is no one infallible treatment.  Every person reacts differently, so the best thing to do is test as many options as possible to see what is most effective for you specifically.  Following is a sleep guide, with strategies and advice to help you get started.  If it’s a child you’re worried about, you can learn how to coach your child to sleep with this gentle sleep success workshop.

Don’t Sleep On It

Sleep loss is not something you want to slide to the backburner.  Here are several reasons you should motivate yourself to get a better night’s sleep:

  • A lack of sleep causes the immune system to slow down, thereby increasing your risk for disease.  More specifically, your white blood cells are less active, paving the way for serious illnesses, like cancer.
  • Weight gain: sleep deprivation often leads to weight gain because it alters the way our bodies process food, and it releases more of the hormones that trigger appetite.
  • When you sleep, your brain transcribes everything you learned during the day into your memory.  This is a scientific process called consolidation.  I’m assuming I don’t need to spell out what a lack of sleep causes…  If you’re interested in the science of health, check out this fit-for-life regimen with a focus on the science of exercise.
  • When you’re sleepy, or when you haven’t gotten enough rest, you’re irritable.  Sleep loss affects your mood.  It makes you impatient and destroys your concentration.
  • Last, but certainly not least, sleeplessness can cause serious cardiovascular problems, from hypertension to irregular heartbeats.  Do your heart a favor: keep reading.

A Body In Motion Stays…Asleep

Instead of starting with the easy stuff, let’s get the most difficult remedies out of the way first: exercising regularly and eating healthier.  I know, for some of you, these are the last things you wanted to hear, but if you haven’t given serious consideration to modifying some of your unhealthy lifestyle choices, not might be the time.  The evidence is overwhelming that exercise and a healthy diet are the two most important things a person can do for their health.  And sleeping better, as we already discussed, is as important as anything else.  Even if you aren’t ready to jump head-first into jogging and collard greens, there are a number of immediate, effective changes you can make:

  • Liquids:  It’s important to stay hydrated, but if you drink too many liquids as the evening progresses, you’re going to be taking several bathroom breaks during the night; needless to say, this disrupts your sleep cycle.  You also want to avoid alcohol and caffeine during the late hours.  Believe it or not, alcohol doesn’t help you sleep.  Sure, you might pass out in a jiffy, but the quality of your sleep is impaired, and you’re more likely to wake up halfway through the night.  Caffeine can prevent you from falling asleep even a full twelve hours after consuming it; it is also responsible for more trips to the bathroom.
  • Midnight Snacks (or Feasts):  According to the health experts at Shape Magazine, eating late is a big mistake once bedtime rolls around.  Give yourself at least two or three hours before you plan to go to bed.  It would also be wise to avoid eating foods that give you heartburn, as well as large meals or those that are heavy in fat and that require more time and energy to digest.  If you absolutely must eat something before bed or in the middle of the night, use some common sense: fruits, cereals, granolas, and other small meals are ideal.  Reclaim your well-being with the Five Element way to healthy eating.
  • Lay Off the Cigs:  Nicotine is a stimulant.  It keeps you awake.  Plus, it’s terrible for every part of your body.  The more you smoke, the more your body is going to experience nicotine withdrawals as the night drags on, thereby compounding smoking’s sleep-killing capabilities.
  • As far as exercise goes, more is usually better.  But you don’t have to go crazy.  Even if you can work in thirty minutes a few times a week, you will immediately see the benefits. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Bike to work, if you can.  Do bicep-curls as you take the trash out.  Whatever you have to do to put your body in motion, do it.  Of course, some exercise if specifically designed to promote sleep.  You can learn a variety of simple yet potent yogic techniques to cure insomnia in just four weeks.

Practice Makes Perfect

Actually, when it comes to sleep, “repetition makes perfect.”  One of the keys behind a good night’s sleep is routine.  If you fall asleep and wake up around the same time every night and day, then you will fall into a sleep-groove, if you will.  Even an hour can make a big difference in sleep success.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Bedtime:  You’re never too old to have a bedtime.  If you work regularly, this shouldn’t be too difficult.  Even if you fall asleep later, just make sure you do it at nearly the same time every night.  Try to get in bed in the same fifteen or thirty minute window on a regular basis.
  • The Sun Also Rises:  Getting up at the same time is equally important, and ideally you should be logging a minimum of six to eight hours of sleep.  This is usually easier than falling asleep on time; set an alarm and actually get out of bed when it goes off.  Snoozing once or twice is acceptable, but you should know that the sleep you reclaim during snooze sessions is of a much lower quality than a true, deep sleep.
  • Live By The Nap, Die By The Nap:  Naps can go either way, depending on when and for how long you nap.  Limit your naps to the daytime, and to a maximum duration of thirty minutes.  If you suffer from insomnia, naps are frowned upon for some people.  For whatever reason, they tend to make some insomniacs worse.  But you can always substitute the art of mindful relaxation for a nap.

Set The Mood

Mood is everything. Your bedroom needs a place associated with great sleep, not stress or work or other non-great-sleep related things. Ideally, your bedroom will be quiet (if you get a lot of traffic noise, try earplugs or peaceful recordings, like crashing waves or a summer rain), cool (you’ll sleep better in a cooler room), and comfortable (invest in a good mattress; you spend half your life on it).

All Organic

When it comes to a healthy sleep cycle, melatonin is god.  This is the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle, and there are a number of natural ways to boost your melatonin output, which is controlled by light exposure:

  • Get more natural sunlight. If you work in an office and haven’t quite made your way to the corner office, you’re getting too much artificial light and not enough vitamin D.  Take your breaks outside, eat lunch in a park, walk the dog on the sunny side of the sidewalk.  It might even be as simple as keeping the blinds open.
  • Avoid the T.V.  I know that’s pretty much impossible in some cases, but at least limit the number of hours you watch T.V. after the sun goes down. Bright, back-lit devices confuse the body into producing too little melatonin.  So if you use the television to fall asleep, you’re only hurting yourself.  But alternatives do exist: music, audio guides, reading, etc.  If you need help falling asleep, embrace your mildly adventurous side with gentle yoga to relax, nourish and center your self.
  • On reading in bed:  Don’t read in the dark.  Even if you’re reading from a computer, tablet or Kindle, turn on a dim light to take the strain off your eyes.  And speaking of lights, using low wattage bulbs will help massage your sub-consciousness into sleep (try to get yellow bulbs as well; you can stay environmentally friendly these days with CFLs that replicate the old-fashioned look of LEDs).
  • When it’s lights-out, strive for the darkest room possible. Use a sleep mask if you must. Even a bright electrical alarm clock or the pulsing sleep light on most computers is enough to disrupt a healthy sleep cycle.  On the same note, it might not be a bad idea to install a night-light in the bathroom. That harsh, blinding bathroom light is like dropping an atom bomb on your circadian rhythm.
  • Relax:  Seriously.  Stress is as detrimental as sleep deprivation.  Relaxing will help balance your body and it will definitely help you sleep better.  Don’t let the residual stress from your job ruin your nights, too: dramatically change the way you manage stress in just one weekend.  Deep breathing is a tried and true method for relaxation.  Worrying about things you can’t do anything about until morning is a waste of precious sleeping time.

I’m Awake, Now What?

If you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t panic.  This is completely normal.  The trick is being able to fall back to sleep quickly.  We already covered stress, so save your worries for the morning.  Don’t get frustrated by not being able to fall asleep.  Again, just try to relax and clear your mind.  If you’re still awake after twenty minutes or so, try doing some light activity.  Reading is great; you probably won’t even remember waking up.  Turning on anything with a screen is out of the question.  You want the lights to be dim and soft, not bright and in-your-face.  If you need a snack, we already discussed viable options.  Drinking something soothing, like hot tea, is even better (milk will put you to sleep, too, but depending on what percentage milk fat you prefer, it could be detracting from your sleep quality by over-working your digestive system).

Getting Help

Before you resort to the doctors office, you need to ask yourself, seriously, if you have given the above recommendations a real effort.  You can’t go for a one mile run once, sleep one night, and then run to the doctor for sleeping meds.  There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, so give natural sleep every chance it deserves.  It might take a month or two of devotion to exercise and healthy dieting before you start feeling results.  And the same goes for many of the other tips provided.  If your sleep cycle is off, it will adjust slowly over time and with repetition of good sleeping habits.

Of course, people do exist who need professional help as quickly as possible.  If you’ve been falling asleep randomly in odd situations, then you may suffer from narcolepsy, which demands medical attention as soon as possible. Here are other, more subtle signs that you need to call your doctor right away:

  • Relentless sleep walking
  • Habitual morning headaches
  • Extreme difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Snoring (this is another matter entirely, but snoring can be more damaging than you might imagine)
  • Feelings like bugs are crawling on your arms and legs while you sleep
  • Falling asleep at weird times, such as shortly after waking up
  • Consistently feeling more tired when you wake up than when you fell asleep

As I mentioned above, for the majority of people, the healthiest course of action for sleeping better is by using natural means: exercise, dieting, scheduling, etc.  However, in extreme situations – such as the ones listed above, or, say, if you haven’t slept for a week – see a doctor as soon as possible.  Whichever route you go, act sooner rather than later.  Sleep is so wonderful, nobody should miss out on it.