In our last blog article, we examined the healing effects of sleep. How sleep recharges your brain and rebuilds your body every night. In this article, we’ll focus on strategies for a successful night’s sleep.
1) Minimize light and sounds
Increase your chances of sleeping well by preparing your bedroom beforehand as well as you can. If your window lets in the morning sun, consider black-out blinds or curtains. If there is traffic or neighborhood noise coming from the outside, black-out curtains can also help muffle these sounds. If the noise comes from inside your house, consider an acoustic panel on the door, or a fabric hanging. If these aren’t practical, consider a white noise generator, or even earplugs and a sleeping mask if necessary. Don’t sleep with the lights on! Your circadian rhythms are regulated by a dark night and a bright day. If you mess with that your sleep will suffer.
2) Make your sleep space comfortable
If you haven’t changed your mattress in 7 years, it might be time to look for a new one. You also might be under the impression that you like a mattress that is softer or harder than is actually comfortable for you. Many new mattress companies have become popular in the last decade- explore the options. If that seems too expensive, consider tweaking your mattress by adding a thicker mattress pad, perhaps with memory foam or with built-in cooling technology. Studies have shown that most people prefer cooler sleeping temperatures than they do daytime temperatures. New pillows (they also can come with cooling technology), new sheets with a higher thread count, or made from materials like bamboo can increase your comfort levels. Lower the thermostat at night if you can. If you sleep with a partner, consider a bigger bed, an adjustable bed, or different style pillows for each of you that maximize your personal comfort and help minimize snoring. Keep your sleeping area clean and clutter-free.
3) Minimize your screen time before bed
While it’s tempting to watch tv until you fall asleep, catch up on social media, play a video game, or just watch videos, many studies have demonstrated that the light from your tv, phone or other screens can keep you awake if you don’t allow yourself a couple of hours to wind down without a screen. Any light can throw off your sleep by disturbing your circadian rhythms, but blue light is especially bad. It has been specifically demonstrated to have a substantial effect on your circadian rhythms, which can have some surprising outcomes, like increasing cancer risks. If you can’t sleep and turn to your phone at night, you’ll likely just make your insomnia worse. Turn your phone off at night, or at least turn on no notifications. If all of this sounds unreasonable to you, then at least minimize your screen time later in the evening as much as you can and consider using blue light filters and/or glasses, although the jury is still out on whether they offer any real help with sleep.
4) Exercise during the day- but not within 3 hours of bedtime
Studies have shown that at least moderate exercise during the day primes your body for sleep and results in better deep sleep- which is the cycle during sleep that cellular and physical repairs are made to the body. Regular exercise, even just walking 20 minutes a day can improve your resting heart rate and make sleep come easier. Working out too close to bedtime, however, elevates your heart rate, releases cortisol and adrenaline, and delays your body’s desire to sleep.
5) Don’t eat within 2 hours of going to bed
Likewise, eating before bed- even a snack, but especially a heavy meal, can lengthen the time it takes you to fall asleep, worsen your sleep overall, and possibly wake you in the middle of the night from stomach upset or bowel discomfort. Your body is focusing on digestion, not sleep. Drinking too many liquids right before bed may cause you to get up at night to urinate. Waiting until evening to take some medications can cause the need to urinate deep into the night as well.
6) Don’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime, don’t overindulge, and don’t drink caffeine late in the day.
It’s Saturday night and you decide to relax with a couple of glasses of wine, beer, or your favorite cocktail. Fine, but just know that any alcohol might worsen your sleep if it’s still in your system when you go to bed. Having too much alcohol will disturb your sleep by raising your heart rate, interfering with deep sleep- and therefore the natural healing that goes on at night. Alcohol will leave you feeling less well rested, possibly hung over the next day, and will disturb your circadian rhythms. As the alcohol breaks down while you sleep, your body may react to the acetaldehydes that are the byproducts of the alcohol’s breakdown. This may increase histamines in the body, make your breathing more shallow, raise your body temperature, and make your sleep less restful. If a smaller amount of alcohol relaxes you and helps you to wind down then it may have an overall beneficial effect, but if you have more than recommended (Usually one drink per night for a female, or two for a male depending on body weight) it will almost certainly affect your sleep for the worse. Alcohol can also increase snoring, worsen sleep apnea, and lead to more tossing and turning- keeping not just you awake, but possibly your partner as well. Some people metabolize alcohol- and caffeine- more quickly than others, but for some people, caffeine for instance can cause wakefulness many hours after consuming it. Don’t have coffee, tea, colas, or other caffeinated products in the late afternoon or after unless you know you can clear the caffeine easily. You might find some relief by taking a product with Quercetin, which could help blunt the effect of the histamine.
7) Focus on your Circadian Rhythms
Aside from minimizing your light exposure at night- blue light or otherwise, and avoiding things that disrupt your sleep, focus on the flip side of things as well. Make sure that you enjoy bright light during the day. If you live in a latitude where light in your winter is minimized, invest in some sort of light therapy. Even bright lamps that have bulbs that emit daylight-type light can help. Don’t sit in a dark room all day. If it’s sunny outside, go out for a ½ an hour’s walk. This will at least help remind your body that it is still daylight outside and help get you some exercise that will contribute to your sleep that night. Go to bed at the same time each night (or close to it), and if possible not too late at night. If you are a late-shift worker, then it’s even more important to have real darkness when you sleep and light when you don’t. If you travel internationally, reset your internal clock as quickly as possible to local time. Force yourself to stay up until 10 pm, local time, on your 1st night in a different time zone, and try to get up at a reasonable time the next day- after it has gotten light. Take naps if you like, studies have shown that ½ hour naps are ideal, and not longer than an hour- but anything longer than that can start to erode your ability to sleep at night.
8) If you still have trouble sleeping at night, consider taking a natural supplement
Melatonin is produced naturally in the body and helps regulate our circadian rhythms and therefore our sleep cycles. If your schedules do get thrown off, or something else is keeping you awake, consider supplementing your body’s natural melatonin with a natural dietary supplement of melatonin. Supplementing your body’s own melatonin will increase your levels and studies have shown that can help get your sleep cycles back on track and give you a better night’s rest. Other natural ingredients might help your body relax or decrease racing thoughts. Substances like Magnesium, Ashwagandha, GABA, lavender, valerian, lemon balm, 5HTP, Ginkgo Biloba, and passion fruit are all thought to have a beneficial effect on either physical or mental relaxation or at helping the body regulate stress and tension.
9) Empty your mind and relax before bed
One reason many people have trouble falling asleep is racing thoughts as they lay down in bed. This may manifest itself just as running through the events of the day, or as anxiety. When you don’t allow yourself time to relax your mind and focus inwardly before bed, your mind will seize that time itself while you are in bed. Not only may this keep you awake for a long while, but it can make your bed feel like a place that creates anxiety. Aside from avoiding the blue light that can make falling asleep difficult and disrupt circadian rhythms, another reason for avoiding screen time before bed is to give your time to integrate the day’s events and to calm down before attempting to sleep. Taking a warm shower or bath before bed can not only allow you time to think, but also relax your mind and body. Adding Epsom salts to your bath can relax you even more. Having your partner give you a massage can relax your muscles and mind, as can the endorphins released during sex. If you are anxious or have racing thoughts, consider meditation, which focuses on emptying your mind and calming your racing thoughts and pulse. Many apps exist that can assist you here. What’s important is to build in the time to let your mind calm before going to bed.
10) If all else fails, don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep
If you’ve tried all of these things, and still you lay in bed with anxiety, racing thoughts, or just insomnia, don’t despair! Keep at it! You will most likely find something that works, and when you do, keep it up. If you’ve lain there for hours, then get up and go to another room and do something restful- without screens. Read a book, listen to music, pet your dog, meditate, do a mild mundane task. The key is to leave your room and engage your mind in a way that won’t be stressful. Studies have shown that people with insomnia, particularly those with racing thoughts and/or anxiety, are more likely to sleep if they leave the setting of their bedroom and attempt to re-engage their brains before trying again. These types of insomniacs risk changing their perception of the bedroom as a place of rest and refuge into a place of stress and anxiety. Breaking that mental viewpoint can start by exiting when you can’t sleep and trying again later.
11) Track your sleep
Consider tracking your sleep with a personal device that shows your periods of deep sleep, REM sleep, light sleep, and wakefulness. These devices are not medical devices, but personal tracking devices that can give you excellent sleep feedback. Devices like the Oura Ring, Apple Watch, and Fitbit can track sleep to various degrees, and some can even give feedback about pulse ox during sleep, how fitful your sleep was, and score your sleep against your baseline. These devices may point you to a particular problem that you may be able to resolve by yourself or by going to a professional for intervention. Various sleep apps can also aid in this process. If you don’t need to get up at a particular time the next day, don’t set an alarm. Not only will that have the advantage of at least occasionally allowing sleep trackers to determine how late you’d usually sleep if nothing forced you to get up, but an alarm can sometimes cut into REM sleep- when you dream- which has shown to have importance in memory retrieval and general mental health. This is because your body usually goes into deep sleep early in your sleep period (this is when physical and cellular repairs go on), and REM sleep later in your sleep cycle (where your mental indexing and psychological integration are thought to be carried out).
12) See a professional to rule out a sleep disorder or underlying condition
Still having trouble sleeping or sleep not improving enough? It might be time to see a professional to rule out a sleep disorder or an underlying condition. Sleep apnea, irritable leg syndrome, sciatica, thyroid or other metabolic conditions, pain, misalignment, aching joints from arthritis, depression, cardiac conditions, and many other conditions can interfere with sleep. This can be a spiraling problem unless you get to the root of the problem, since a condition that keeps you from sleeping means that the condition can potentially worsen through lack of sleep, and so on. Going to a sleep specialist for a sleep study if your problem has been narrowed down to a suspected sleep disorder, or to an Integrated Clinic like Progressive Medical Center where many different types of investigations and support therapies are offered can be your best bet. Don’t you owe it to yourself to try every way you can to get the healing sleep you need?