Sleep is my biggest enemy. It’s the arch-nemesis of anyone with anxiety, really, but trouble sleeping is a universal issue. Whether you suffer from full-blown insomnia or not, you probably wouldn’t have gotten to this post unless you could relate, so I’m consciously keeping the first instalment fairly broad.
This doesn’t have to scare you.
A lot of the information in these posts comes from obsessive research, usually motivated after hearing some tidbit in an interview, blog, podcast or whatever medium I’m learning with. Usually, when I can’t sleep and I’m not in a particularly anxious stage, it’s because I’m skipping some of my pre-bed practices, or because I’ve done something silly to put myself in that position. For instance, there are days when I decide to torture myself (with secret delight) by drinking my body weight in soda. All the lists in the world won’t help me in those instances, but when it comes to an average day, these tips have been helpful for a grip of people.
It’s (probably not) worth noting that I turned this into a list after initially completing it, and just happened to notice it’s sitting at 10 points. I’ll avoid these predictable numbers in the future, promise!
1. Cool it!
Your body’s temperature drops when you sleep, mainly because it doesn’t have to work so hard when it’s stationary. As a result, a cool (not freezing) environment will help signal to your body that it’s time to get ready to rest. There’s misinformation out there that says you shouldn’t take a warm bath before bed because of this. It can actually help sleep by helping signal it’s time to cool off and get to sleep. You just need to make sure you don’t take the bath immediately prior to when you’re expecting to be asleep. Leave some time to read or do whatever it is you find helps, but 45 minutes to an hour should be given so your body can cool down.
I know you’re rolling your eyes because everybody else on the planet is telling you to exercise more, but it’s true – we’re living fairly sedentary lives in recent history, and evolution has yet to fully catch up. You’ve still got those old hunter-gatherer muscles, and they need a little love now and again to keep your energy levels balanced. Everybody’s different, but if you’re into exercising later, try to keep it at least three hours away from when you want to be in bed so your body has time to adjust.
3. Stretch it out
This is a form of exercise you can even do in bed, but why bother?
For one, stretching helps promote muscle recovery. If you took the earlier advice, you might just have some physical activity to recover from! Primarily, though, it releases endorphins — those awesome, all-natural little shots to your brain that help make you happy and calmer as tension releases. Short version: You’ll feel and sleep better. There are a million methods out there for this, including deeper practices like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, but basic stretches will serve your purposes just fine.
4. Don’t overdo the liquids
This is especially true about alcohol!. If you want that glass of wine as a night cap, you need to keep it at least four hours away from your planned bedtime. As for other liquids, keep the sugary content to a minimum, and taper down your water consumption in the last hour before bed. This can be difficult for those who need to take medications immediately prior to falling asleep so, as always, consult your doctor for more specific instruction if that’s the case. You want to fall asleep and stay that way as best you can to achieve proper rest, and multiple washroom trips will only lead to wasted potential for truly restful sleep. Do take a small glass of water with you to bed if it suits you, though, as it’s helpful to stay a bit hydrated.
5. Reader? Restrict non-fiction to waking hours
Non-fiction, such as self-help books, biographies and documentaries, actually place your brain in a state of forward-thinking. Just as you want to be planning ahead when you should be restoring your body, you want to avoid thinking into the future. You’re trying to keep your body and mind in the present, so it can start to release its tension and enter a resting state. Just be aware of the kind of story you delve into right before bed. Game of Thrones isn’t exactly light reading, but there’s a lot of incredible fiction out there to help your mind drift to sleep in another world without consequence or nervousness.
6. That goes for arguing, too!
Got a spouse? Room mate? Stubborn cat? There’s science behind going to bed angry. You need to agree that your sleeping hours are meant for just that – sleeping, and no matter how miffed either of you are, you’re likely just wasting time trying to declare a winner when you could be agreeing to forget about it and revisit the issue sometime the next day. The added bonus to this is that you’ve usually ‘cooled off’ and will have a more even reaction to the situation after your sleep cycle.
Along the same lines, you need to push your thought process over a balcony Bruce Willis-style. Throw negative thoughts out the window. (Author Edit: Don’t actually throw things – neighbours complain, and I just told you not to exercise this close to bedtime) and remind yourself that you’re in charge of your sleep.
In Part 1, we discussed restricting pre-sleep activities and lowering your body temperature, among other things. Thankfully, there are dozens of other sleep aids out there that might not already be a part of your routine, so we may as well dive right in.
7. Controlled Napping
Studies have shown that napping for 20-40 minutes helps greatly in restoring alertness on those days when you just haven’t gotten the sleep you need. The same tips for night time sleep apply to naps; Block out as much light as possible and make sure you’ve got a comfortable, quiet area to rest. Make sure to avoid longer naps and napping late in the day to keep from causing more sleepiness and disturbing your sleep at night. If you’re careful, napping can be an incredibly useful way to control unwanted drowsiness throughout your day without throwing your body’s sleep rhythm off.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by a pea-sized gland in your brain called the pineal gland. Because the pineal gland is activated in darkness, melatonin is typically at its highest in your body at night, when it regulates your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake cycle) by helping ease you to into sleep. You can boost melatonin production at night by eliminating light sources like backlit devices (phones, tablets and eReaders are major offenders) and generally keeping your bedroom in darkness. Research and anecdotal evidence show that taking a melatonin supplement can help correct problems with your body’s sleep cycle and give you a better night’s rest. They’re readily available at pharmacies, and though its effects are mild, I’ve used it myself to help stay asleep. Always follow the dosage directions on the label and let your doctor know you’re supplementing with melatonin, as incorrect use can lead to undesired drowsiness during the day.
9. Proper Eating
Maintaining a healthy diet is a big part of living a happy, healthy life, and plays a huge role in getting healthy sleep. Lack of nutritious foods will create vitamin deficiencies, which can cause an excess of fatigue among other, worse health problems. In addition to a balanced diet, foods like walnuts and turkey contain tryptophan, which helps in melatonin production and acts as a kind of sleep aid of its own. Be careful not to overload your stomach just before bed and stick to lighter snacks, but you’ll sleep soundly with something healthy and helpful in your stomach.
10. Light Exposure
If melatonin helps you sleep and it’s released when it’s dark, wouldn’t the opposite hold true? It does! Light exposure is important to keeping you awake and alert during the day, as it also helps regulate your circadian rhythm by telling your body that it’s time to be active. The sun’s already doing most of the work for you, so be sure to let it shine in your windows and do your best to spend some time outside each day. This is especially true during the winter, when the sun isn’t quite as strong and there are fewer daylight hours, and many people use light therapy boxes to simulate the sun for them.
Flooding yourself with light during waking hours helps make the day-night cycle much less subtle when combined with earlier tips like shutting off the stimulating glow of that TV or smartphone when you’re approaching bedtime, resulting in a balanced sleep cycle and more restful sleep.
These are just a few of many tips out there to help you get to sleep and stay there. They’ve all helped me at one point or another, and they’ll keep adding up as I personally work on my quality of sleep while trying to help out along the way!