Do you ever have trouble sleeping? Trouble falling asleep…and staying asleep? Do you feel tired in the mornings, finding yourself struggling your way through the day with cups of coffee, wondering if it’ll ever get better? Does the diagram below strike a chord with you?
Fortunately, while chronic insomnia may seem like a hopeless situation, there are many things that you can do to help break this seemingly unforgiving cycle. This post will show you some effective methods that you can incorporate into your day…so that you can start gaining back your nights.
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The major player at work here is your hormone called melatonin. Normally, your brain secretes more melatonin when it’s dark—making you sleepy—and less when you are exposed to light—making you feel alert. However, in those with sleeping problems, this balance is frequently disrupted. Therefore, the purpose of using natural light is to help your body improve its regulation of this crucial hormone.
While caffeine is great in that it can help power you through the day, it can be a detriment to your sleep. Caffeine remains elevated in your bloodstream for 6–8 hours after ingestion and can affect sleep quality, even after you stop ‘feeling’ the effects of it. Therefore, though you may be tempted to reach for that afternoon cup o’ joe, I recommend avoiding caffeine after 3 PM.
This also applies to any medications containing caffeine, so be sure to check the label to see if your regular meds contain it.
Sometimes, naps are necessary and invaluable in helping us recharge. However, for those already prone to sleeping troubles, the afternoon snooze may actually be one of the major culprits, as it decreases your natural sleep drive. If you simply cannot eliminate naps, limit them to one 30-minute power nap early in the day (before 4 PM).
Large meals consisting of heavy foods before bedtime activate your digestive system, causing heartburn that can keep you up in the middle of the night. Therefore, try to eat supper earlier in the evening, being mindful to avoid greasy/spicy foods within two hours of going to bed. If you get hungry late at night, have a light snack.
Also, avoid drinking a lot of fluids (including alcohol) an hour before bed, as it can lead to frequent nighttime urination and disturb your sleep. On that note, be aware that alcohol can further worsen your sleep quality by decreasing REM sleep.
Creating a peaceful bedtime routine an hour before bed sends a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down and is essential for people who have trouble sleeping.
A good place to start would be to either do 20 minutes of evening meditation or to take a hot bath with a few drops of a relaxing aromatic oil such as chamomile or lavender. Then, instead of watching TV or doing work-related activities once you climb into bed, dim the lights and listen to soft music or an audiobook while sipping on some chamomile tea.
It may take some time to find what works for you, but once you do, it will be worth it.
While light exposure early in the day is beneficial to your sleep, the “blue light” emitted in large amounts by your smartphone and computer screens worsens it by decreasing your level of melatonin and shortening REM cycles.
If you enjoy reading before bed, choose a book or an e-reader rather than a device with substantial backlight. If you must use your phone or tablet an hour before bedtime, always use a filter that blocks blue light (the resultant screen should have a yellowish hue). If your device doesn’t have one installed, a software/app that you can download for this purpose is F.lux.
Do you ever climb into bed only to realize that while you’re exhausted, your body just doesn’t seem to want to fall asleep? One of the most common causes of sleep onset insomnia is anxiety and chronic worry, therefore #9 and #10 are techniques designed to address this issue by relaxing your body and calming the mind.
How to do it:
Keep in mind that the absolute time you spend on each phase is not important, rather the ratio of 4:7:8 is. Therefore you can change the speed of your counting if needed but maintain the ratio. While this technique can take some getting used to, once mastered, it can be a powerful tool to help you fall asleep fast.
A mantra is a form of meditation that consists of the repetition of a word or a phrase. This practice counteracts the thoughts that produce anxiety and stills the mind. Therefore, this is extremely useful if you tend to have an overactive mind or racing thoughts that prevent you from falling asleep.
How to do it:
Remember that it takes time for your body and mind to get used to a new practice, so if it doesn’t seem to work the first time, be encouraged to keep trying. This technique can also be used in conjunction with the breathing exercise described above.
Melatonin, the all-important sleep hormone, can be found as an over-the-counter supplement in most drug stores. For many people, taking a dose 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime can be extremely effective.
Valerian root is another natural option. Valeriana officinalis is an herb that acts by shortening sleep latency and reducing nighttime waking. Extracts can be found in health food stores and pharmacies.
Keep in mind, however, that valerian can interact with some medications and should also be avoided during pregnancy. As with all herbal supplements, ask your doctor before starting to help determine if it is right for you.
With that said…sleep tight and sweet dreams!