One of the common side effects of living in the twenty-first century is not getting enough sleep. Having a busy schedule, juggling work and family obligations, dealing with a health crisis, and/or coping with emotional disorders like depression or anxiety can be stressful and exhausting. Ironically, when you finally turn out the lights and lay your head on the pillow, you struggle to get a good night’s sleep.
Everyone experiences insomnia or poor sleep at some point in their lives—before a big test or job interview, for instance. Unfortunately, not being able to get good sleep can turn into a regular pattern, with negative consequences for your health and quality of life.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep every night to maintain optimum physical, mental and psychological health; children and teenagers require more than this. Try these anti-insomnia strategies to improve your sleep.
1. Practice good sleep hygiene
Most of us practice personal hygiene (baths or showers, shaving, and clean hair) and dental hygiene (brushing and flossing) on a daily basis, but we are less used to the concept of sleep hygiene—habits that help regulate our sleeping and waking. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:
– Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day
Try this for at least a month—even if your schedule is so erratic that it seems impossible. Make your sleep-wake routine a priority.
– Make your bedroom comfortable and inviting
Your mattress and pillows should feel comfortable. Adjust the temperature, humidity, light and noise levels. For some people, having natural morning light in the room helps maintain a regular waking time.
– Help your mind start winding down
Step away from any emotionally stressful worries or thoughts, and avoid angry or stressful conversations before bedtime. Relaxing yoga exercises can be useful before sleep; save the aerobic exercises for morning or afternoon.
– Avoid stimulants
Most people know that coffee or caffeinated tea will keep you awake, but nicotine is also a stimulant. Alcohol should also be avoided too since it disrupts the body’s natural sleep cycle.
– Eat your last big meal several hours before bedtime
This gives your body time to digest food before you fall asleep.
2. Change your behavior
Good sleep hygiene will help you establish an environment in your bedroom that is most conducive to falling asleep and waking up on a regular schedule. If this is not enough to solve the problem, try these simple behavioral strategies:
– Only use your bed for sleeping
For many people, the bedroom doubles as an entertainment center. For better sleep, avoid reading, eating, watching TV or using your laptop or iPod while you are in bed. These activities stimulate the brain at a time when you want to relax. This behavior change will help you associate getting into bed with sleeping.
– If you can’t fall asleep, get up for 15 minutes
Tossing and turning and trying to force yourself to sleep can make you anxious and upset—it’s part of the insomniac’s cycle. To help break this cycle, get out of bed and indulge in a relaxing, low-stimulus activity. Read a book. Write in your journal. Close your eyes and do some deep breathing. Stay calm.
– Stop worrying
For some people, turning off the light switch at night turns on their worry switch. Chronic worriers can benefit from cognitive behavior tips. For instance, try scheduling a 20-minute period each day for all your worries. Set a timer if necessary and use those 20 minutes to run through all your worries. Then stop.
Remind yourself that you will be able to run through them again tomorrow. If a persistent worry keeps bothering you, write it down so you can worry about it at the next day’s session.
– Start meditating
You may be having trouble falling asleep because your nervous system is hyper-stimulated. Meditation reduces stress, calms the nervous system and improves sleep quality. There are many kinds of meditation practices, but most utilize a method that refocuses your attention. This focus can be your breathing, a sound or counting sheep.
One meditative exercise that is helpful for falling asleep is to concentrate on progressively relaxing parts of your body. Lay down comfortably in bed. Starting with your toes, tighten the muscles in your feet; then release. Move up to your calves, then your thighs. As you tighten and release, make sure you breathe deeply and regularly.
3. Use sleep aids
In addition to good sleep hygiene and behavioral changes, you might find the following sleep aids helpful:
– Use a noise machine
The soothing, repetitive sounds of wind blowing or waves moving on a beach help some people relax and fall asleep. Sound generators can also block out distracting background noises like traffic. You can buy noise machines or CDs, or download MP3 selections from the Internet.
– Take herbal teas or supplements
Chamomile, spearmint, valerian, hops and lavender have traditionally been used as sleep aids. There are many teas that use these ingredients. Valerian capsules and melatonin also induce sleep.
Make sure you consult with your physician before adding any supplements to your diet. There are other medications available such as sleeping pills, (but again make sure you speak with your physician before taking them).
– Have sex
Recent studies show that the hormones released during sex make it easier to fall asleep—so you can add sex to your list of sleep aids.
Getting a good night’s sleep is taken for granted—until you can’t get it. An inadequate amount of sleep has detrimental effects on your mood, health and energy levels. It is possible to get more sleep without using prescription medications.
It may take a while to change your habits and establish a healthier sleep regimen. Be patient and persistent. You will soon start appreciating the benefits of more sleep in all areas of your life.
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