Ahhh… sleep!! It feels so good when we get it. Unfortunately, quality sleep is something that eludes many of us. It seems that more and more of us sleep less and less for countless reasons, and when we do sleep, it is not as rejuvenating as it could be. Rather than go into the reasons for why many of us do not sleep well, below are some tips for improving your sleep habits. Most of us already know what we can do to help us. It is just a matter of putting them to practice.
Before continuing, I want to mention that I fully understand and appreciate that with certain health conditions, especially pain, anxiety, and depression, that solid sleep can be near impossible. I lived this way for many years with a difficult health condition called dystonia. I know what sleepless nights are like all too well.
Make your bedroom more sleep friendly
Make your bedroom reflective of the value you place on sleep. Check your room for noise, light, temperature, and other distractions, including a partner’s sleep disruptions such as snoring. Keep your room temperature less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Use shades that darken the room (blackout blinds), a sleep mask to cover your eyes, earplugs, recordings of soothing sounds, and a fan or other device that creates white noise.
Make sure your bed allows enough room to stretch and turn comfortably. Experiment with different levels of mattress firmness, foam or egg crate toppers, and pillows that provide appropriate support. If you share your bed, make sure there is enough room for two. If you have children or pets, set boundaries for how often they can sleep with you or have them sleep in their own space.
Stick to a sleep schedule
Maintain a regular bedtime and wake time schedule. A regular wake time in the morning strengthens the circadian function and can help with sleep onset at night.
Create a bedtime ritual
Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine each night to tell your body it is time to wind down. This might include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to soothing music. Relaxing activities ease the transition from wakefulness to drowsiness.
Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex
Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. If you only use your bed for sleep and sex, when you go to bed, your body gets a powerful cue: it’s time to either nod off or be romantic.
Pay attention to what you eat and drink
Don’t go to bed hungry or full. Also limit how much you drink before bed to prevent trips to the bathroom. Avoid nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. The stimulating effects of nicotine and caffeine can wreak havoc on quality sleep, and even though alcohol might make you feel tired, it can disrupt sleep.
Include physical activity in your daily routine
Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper sleep. Find a time to exercise that works best for you. Shortly before bed is usually not the best time of day as it can cause you to be too energized to fall asleep.
If you need to make up for a few lost hours, opt for a daytime nap rather than sleeping late. This helps make up for lost hours without disturbing your sleep-wake cycle. I find that a good power nap during the day revitalizes me.
Boost melatonin production
Melatonin is a hormone in the brain that helps regulate other hormones and maintains the body’s circadian rhythm. When it is dark, our body produces more melatonin. When it is light, the production of melatonin drops. When it is time to go to bed, turn off your computer, cell phone, and television. Don’t read from a backlit device (such as an iPad). Read from something that requires a light source such as a bedside lamp. Use a low-wattage bulb so you can avoid bright lights. Light suppresses melatonin production and these devices can stimulate the mind rather than relax it. Some people find melatonin supplements to be helpful.
Increase light exposure during the day
In the morning, let sunlight hit your face. Try to take work breaks outside, exercise outside, and walk during the day instead of at night. Also, let as much light into your home/work space as possible. When sunlight hits our eyes, the optic nerve sends a message to the pineal gland in the brain that tells it to decrease its secretions of melatonin until the sun goes down again. The opposite happens with serotonin, a hormone connected with feelings of happiness and wakefulness. When we are exposed to sun, our brain increases serotonin production. When sunshine touches our skin, the body produces vitamin D, which helps us maintain serotonin levels.
When melatonin and serotonin production are properly balanced, we feel energized during the day and a slowing down during the dark hours. Some find vitamin D supplements helpful for maintaining this hormonal balance, especially during the colder months when we spend more time indoors.
I hope this information leads you to better sleep. Many of these things have significantly improved my quality of sleep. Of course, the type of pillow you use, your bed, sleeping partner, daily stressors, indoor/outdoor noise, etc., all play a factor, but this list is too long for the purposes of this article. If after trying all the above you still have trouble falling asleep, maintaining sleep, awaken earlier than you wish, don’t feel refreshed after sleep, or suffer from excessive sleepiness during the day, please consult your doctor.