Do you suffer from insomnia or frequently have trouble sleeping? 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 article provides essential tips for better sleep—scientifically proven methods that you can incorporate into your day…so that you can start gaining back your nights.
11 Tips for Better Sleep
#1 Set Up a Sleep Haven
The first tip for better sleep is to create for yourself a “sleep haven”—a space designed and optimized for the sole purpose of getting a good night’s rest. The following are some ways you can achieve that:
- Use the bedroom only for sleep. Try not to work, watch TV, or use your computer in bed. The goal is to associate the area with sleep alone, so that your brain and body get a strong signal that it’s time to nod off when you get into bed.
- Make sure it’s quiet: If necessary, use earplugs or a white noise generator or app.
- Make sure it’s dark: Use heavy curtains, blackout shades, or an eye mask to block light.
- Make it comfortably cool: Between 60 and 70°F (15-20°C) is ideal for most people. Studies have shown that increased body and bedroom temperature can decrease sleep quality and increase wakefulness.
#2 Garner the Power of Natural Light
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.
- First, expose yourself to sunlight as early as you can in the morning. The closer to the time you get up, the better. Have your coffee outside, or eat breakfast by a sunny window. You’ll feel immediately more awake.
- Then, find ways to increase your exposure to natural light throughout the day. Keep curtains and blinds open to let as much sun into your environment as possible, and go outside during breaks.
#3 Exercise, and Exercise Early
#4 Switch to Decaf in the Afternoon
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.
#5 Nap Smart…Not Long
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).
#6 Say “No” to Late-Night Buffets
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.
#7 Train Your Brain with a Pre-Sleep Routine
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.
#8 Block Out Blue Light
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.
#9 Use The Calming Breath Technique
One of the most effective tips for better sleep is to learn and practice a relaxation breathing technique. 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:
- Rest the tip of your tongue softly against the roof of your mouth, keeping it there throughout the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; if this seems awkward, slightly purse your lips.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth, to a count of 8. (Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation)
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.
#10 Still Your Thoughts with a Mantra
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:
- Choose a word…any word. While some prefer a phrase with spiritual significances, a simple word with a positive connotation such as “peace,” “love,” or “joy” works just as well. Other variations include repeating a pleasant sentence such as, “I welcome peaceful sleep” or using single syllabled sounds such as om, so, or hum.
- Close your eyes and slowly repeat the word or phrase, saying it each time you exhale, softly or in your mind.
- Continue doing this while envisioning your limbs relaxing and your body sinking into the bed.
- Do this over and over again. If your mind wanders, simply focus back on the word.
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.
#11 Try a Natural Supplement
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.
Now that you know these practical tips for better sleep at night…sleep tight and sweet dreams!
*The information contained in “11 Tips for Better Sleep” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.