Do you have trouble falling asleep, or toss and turn in the middle of the night? Awaken too early, or find yourself not feeling refreshed in the morning? You are not alone: millions of people struggle with falling and staying asleep.
Unless you’re suffering from a serious sleep disorder, simply improving your daytime habits and creating a better sleep environment can set the stage for good sleep. By developing a good bedtime routine and designing a plan that works with your individual needs, you can avoid common pitfalls and make simple changes that bring you consistently better sleep.
Better Sleep Tip I: Improving your daytime habits
How can what you do during the day affect your sleep at night? Better sleep starts with good daytime habits, from when (and how often) you exercise to what you eat and drink.
Regular day exercise can help sleep
Regular exercise, aside from many other wonderful health benefits, usually makes it easier to fall asleep and sleep better. You don’t have to be a star athlete to reap the benefits-- as little as twenty to thirty minutes of activity helps. And you don’t need to do all 30 minutes in one session: break it up into five minutes here, ten minutes there. A brisk walk, a bicycle ride or a run is time well spent. However, be sure to schedule your exercise in the morning or early afternoon. Exercising too late in the day actually stimulates the body, raising its temperature. That’s the opposite of what you want near bedtime, because a cooler body temperature is associated with sleep. Don’t feel glued to the couch in the evening, though. Exercise such as relaxation yoga or simple stretching shouldn’t hurt.
Get some light to set your body clock
We all have an internal body clock that helps regulate sleep. This clock is sensitive to light and dark. Light tells your body clock to move to the active daytime phase. When you get up, open the shades or go outside to get some sunlight. If that’s not possible, turn on the lights to make your environment bright.
Napping can interfere with sleep
Perhaps the English had the right idea in having teatime in the late afternoon when you naturally get sleepy. Some people can take a short afternoon nap and still sleep well at night. However, if you are having trouble sleeping at night, try to eliminate napping. If you must nap, do it in the early afternoon, and sleep no longer than about thirty minutes.
Alcohol, caffeine, smoking
- Alcohol reduces overall quality of sleep. Many people think that a nightcap before bed will help them sleep. While it may make you fall asleep faster, alcohol reduces your sleep quality, waking you up later in the night. To avoid this effect, stay away from alcohol in the last few hours before bed.
- Caffeine. You might be surprised to know that caffeine can cause sleep problems up to ten to twelve hours after drinking it! If you rely on coffee, tea or caffeinated soda to keep you going during the day, consider eliminating caffeine after lunch or cutting back your overall intake.
- Smoking. Smoking causes sleep troubles in numerous ways. Nicotine is a stimulant, which disrupts sleep. Additionally, smokers actually experience nicotine withdrawal as the night progresses, making it hard to sleep.
Better Sleep Tip II: Creating a better sleep environment
The key to better sleep might be as simple as making some minor changes to your bedroom. Take a careful look around your sleep environment to see what might be disrupting your sleep.
- Is your bed large enough? Do you have enough room to stretch and turn comfortably in bed, or are you cramped? Having a bedmate makes this even more important- both of you should have plenty of room to stretch out. Consider getting a larger bed if you don’t have enough space.
- Your mattress, pillows and bedding. Waking up with a cramp in your back or a sore neck? You may want to experiment with different levels of mattress firmness and pillows that provide more support. If your mattress is too hard, you can add a foam topper for additional softness. Experiment with different types of pillows – feather, synthetic, and special pillows for side, back or stomach sleepers. Consider your bedding—scratchy sheets might be making you uncomfortable in the middle of the night, or your comforter might not be keeping you warm enough. Consider soft, breathable cotton sheets. Flannel sheets may be cozy for the winter months.
Ideally, to maximize sleep, your room should be quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature and ventilation.
Keep the noise level down. Too much noise- loud outside conversations, televisions blaring, traffic noise - can make it difficult to sleep well. When the source of outside noise can’t be eliminated, sometimes it can be masked. A fan or white noise machine can help block outside noise. Some people enjoy recordings of soothing sounds such as waves, waterfalls or rain. Earplugs may also help, although you want to make sure they don’t block out important noises like an alarm clock if you use one.
- Keep your room dark during sleep hours. Early morning light can send your body clock the wrong signal that it is time to wake up. Or perhaps there is a streetlamp shining right in your window at night. Heavy shades can help block light from windows, or you can try an eye mask to cover your eyes.
- Room temperature and ventilation. Who can sleep in a hot stuffy room? Or for that matter, a cold drafty one? If you can, experiment with the room temperature. Most people sleep best in a slightly cooler room. Make sure that you have adequate ventilation as well - a fan can help keep the air moving. You also might want to check your windows and doors to make sure that drafts are not interfering with sleep.
- Reserve your bed for sleeping. Do you sometimes balance your checkbook propped up on your pillows? Or jot down some notes for tomorrow’s meeting? It might feel relaxing to do tasks like these on a comfortable bed. However, if you associate your bed with events like work or errands, it will only make it harder to wind down at night. Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
Better Sleep Tip III: Preparing for Sleep
Keep a regular bedtime schedule, including weekends
Time of day serves as a powerful cue to your body clock that it is time to sleep and awaken. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and it will be easier and easier to fall asleep. However tempting it may be, try not to break this routine on weekends when you may want to stay up much later or sleep in. Your overall sleep will be better if you don’t.
In setting your bedtime, pay attention to the cues your body is giving you. When do you feel sleepy? Set your bedtime for when you normally feel tired, within reason – you may not want to make your bedtime 2am if you have to work at 8am! If you regularly go to bed when you don’t feel sleepy, not only is it harder to fall asleep, but you may start worrying about not sleeping, which can end up keeping you up longer! If you want to change your bedtime, try doing it in small daily increments, such as 15 minutes earlier or later each day.
Foods that help you sleep
Maybe a rich, hearty dinner, topped off with a big slice of chocolate cake might seem like the perfect way to end the day, but it’s wise not to eat a large meal within two hours of bed. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods as bedtime snacks.
However, a light snack before bed, especially one which contains the amino acid tryptophan, can help promote sleep. When you pair tryptophan-containing foods with carbohydrates, it helps calm the brain and allow you to sleep better. For even better sleep, add some calcium to your dinner or nighttime snack. Calcium helps the brain use and process tryptophan. On the other hand, you might want to avoid eating too much protein before bedtime - protein-rich foods contain tyrosine, an amino acid that stimulates brain activity. Experiment with your food habits to determine your optimum evening meals and snacks.
Some bedtime snacks to help you sleep:
- Glass of warm milk and half a turkey or peanut butter sandwich
- Whole-grain, low-sugar cereal or granola with low-fat milk or yogurt
- A banana and a cup of hot chamomile tea
aily increments, such as 15 minutes earlier or later each day.
Foods that can interfere with sleep
Some food and drinks that can interfere with your sleep, including:
- Too much food, especially fatty, rich food. These take a lot of work for your stomach to digest and may keep you up. Spicy or acidic foods in the evening can cause stomach trouble and heartburn, which worsens as you are laying down
- Too much liquid. Drinking lots of fluid may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.
- Alcohol. Although it may initially make you feel sleepy, alcohol can interfere with sleep and cause frequent awakenings. Also some people are also sensitive to tyrosine, found in certain red wines
- Caffeine. Avoid food and drinks that contain caffeine, and that doesn’t just mean coffee. Hidden sources of caffeine include chocolate, caffeinated sodas, and teas.
If you suspect a food or drink is keeping you up, try eliminating it for a few days to see if sleep improves.
Develop a relaxing bedtime routine
A consistent, relaxing routine before bed sends a signal to your brain that it is time to wind down, making it easier to fall asleep.
Start by keeping a consistent bedtime as much as possible. Then, think about what relaxes you. It might be a warm bath, soft music or some quiet reading. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, visualization or muscle relaxation not only tell your body it is time for sleep but also help relieve anxiety.
Avoid bright light or activities which cause stress and anxiety.
Better Sleep Tip IV: Getting back to sleep, television and sleep medications
Getting back to sleep
It’s normal to wake briefly during the night- a good sleeper won’t even remember it. However, there are times when you may wake during the night and not be able to fall back asleep. You may get more and more frustrated about not being able to sleep, which raises your anxiety level, ironically making it even harder to achieve the sleep you crave!
- Stay relaxed: The key to getting back to bed is continuing to cue your body for sleep. Some relaxation techniques, such as visualization and meditation, can be done without even getting out of bed. The time honored technique of “counting sheep” works by engaging the brain in a repetitive, non-stimulating activity, helping you wind down.
- Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity if you can’t sleep: If you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes, try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity. Keep the lights dim so as not to cue your body clock that it’s time to wake up. A light snack or herbal tea might help relax you, but be careful not to eat so much that your body begins to expect a meal at that time of the day.
Many people use the television to fall asleep or relax at the end of the day. You may even have a television in your bedroom. However, it’s best to get rid of the television, or related activities like video games, for several reasons.
First, television programming is frequently stimulating rather than calming. Late night news or prime time shows frequently have disturbing, violent material. Even non-violent programming can have commercials which are jarring and louder than the actual program. Remember, commercials want to get your attention! Processing this type of material is a stimulating activity, the opposite of what you want to help you sleep.
In addition, the light coming from the TV (or a computer screen) can interfere with the body’s clock, which is sensitive to any light. Television is also noisy, which can disturb sleep if the set is accidentally left on.
- Take the TV out of the bedroom - The optimum setup for better sleep is to have your bedroom reserved for sleeping. So if you watch TV in bed, even if you don’t fall asleep watching it, you are unconsciously associating another activity with the area you use to sleep. It’s best to remove the TV from the bedroom entirely, saving your viewing for the living room or den.
- Trouble falling asleep without the TV - You may be so used to falling asleep with the TV that you have trouble without it. Be patient. It takes time to develop new habits. If you miss the noise, try turning on soft music or a fan. If your favorite show is on late at night, record it for viewing earlier in the day. Although the first few days might be difficult, better sleep pays off in the long run.
Medications and sleep
If only sleeplessness could be completely cured by a simple pill! There are certainly plenty of over-the-counter sleep aids. However, these medications are not meant for long term use. They can cause side effects and even rebound insomnia, where your sleep ends up worse than before. Prescription medications are no magic pill, either. If you must take sleep prescription.
Learning about medical treatment options can help you make an informed choice about treating your sleep problems. Behavioral modifications often make the largest difference in good sleep.
Have you started a new medication lately? Some medications have sleeplessness as a side effect. If you suspect this may be the case, be sure to communicate with your healthcare professional.
Quality sleep is important to your health. Make a commitment to yourself – don’t “rest” until you find the solution to your sleep problems!