14 Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep
Sleep is very important to all of us. As I tell my patients, it is a quarter to a third of our existence. Something that consumes so much time has got to be important. We are just beginning to understand what happens during sleep and why we need it. Sleep medicine as a field of study is only a few decades old. We don’t have a really good idea of what goes on during our sleep. Medications can make us unconscious, but to what extent are they disrupting natural sleep/wake rhythms in our bodies? It is all the more concerning to presume a medicine to fix the problem.
Our culture loves the quick fix. We want it now. If there was a pill that replaces exercise, give it to me. Broccoli, definitely! I don’t have time to take the scenic route. If I can short circuit a problem, I will. When some medical issue comes up, we first wonder if there is a pill for it. All hail the celluloid capsule!
I write prescriptions for a host of sleeping pills. For all the sleeping pills I write, I can be certain that most people taking them are not engaging in a full range of healthy sleep hygiene habits. Medications can never successfully, nor should be expected to, replace a healthy and balanced lifestyle. If you are regularly having trouble with sleep, the following may be good habits to engage in for 6-8 weeks and see what difference it makes. And even if you don’t feel they make a lick of difference after two months, keep doing them. They are good for you.
1. Routine is very important. Have a similar time to go to bed and wake in the morning. Try not to deviate by more than an hour through the week (listen up you weekend warriors). Our bodies particularly respond to the time we wake in the morning. If we have a consistent time to wake every morning—as well as a time to bed—we are going to feel more rested and alert during the day.
2. Take a hot shower or bath 1-2 hours before going to bed. Raising core body temperature can help induce sleepiness. It also makes you feel more clean and cozy to get in bed.
3. Avoid nicotine before going to bed. Believe it or not, it is a stimulant. It will actually promote more wakefulness or lead to more restless sleep.
4. Avoid alcohol. While it may help with relaxation, it has a tendency to fragment sleep. Excessive alcohol can also lead to waking in the middle of the night. This can be an excessive arousal making it difficult to go back to sleep.
5. Avoid large meals within two or three hours before going to bed. Not only can a large meal lead to increased risk of acid reflux, it can raise blood sugar levels and reduce blood flow to the brain.
6. Exercise 30-40 minutes daily. Good daily cardiovascular exercise can do wonders to help your body’s physiology.
7. Have a ritual around going to bed. Our bodies respond to familiar routines as noted above. Dressing for bed, washing up, brushing teeth and other things can signal subconscious processes we are heading to bed. It is a winding down that will lead to more internal sleep induction.
8. Keep the bedroom dark. Light stimulates wakefulness. This is especially important if you have to get sleep during the daytime due to shift work.
9. Minimize wakeful activities in bed. Don’t let your body get too used to you being wide awake in bed. This is a conditioned association. If you have problems with sleep don’t stay awake in bed for more than 30-60 minutes. Go to a different room to be awake and allow your body to associate the bedroom with sleeping.
10. Do something relaxing before going to bed. This may involve yoga, reading, listening to music or anything else you find helps you feel more calm and relaxed. Try some new things and see how they work for you.
11. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
12. Minimize daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. These are sort of power naps that can help you feel refreshed without impacting your ability to sleep through the night.
13. Keep worries on a worry notebook. If you tend to worry and fret, take some time a while before going to bed to write these things down. Then imagine the worries out of your head and on the paper. They belong to the notebook for the night. You’ll take them back in the morning, if you choose.
14. Very importantly, don’t panic or get upset about losing sleep. While it can be frustrating, you will still function the next day. This has likely happened before and you have gotten through it. The negative emotion is part of the conditioned response described above. The more tense we get around sleep, the harder it will be to sleep.