As discussed in my previous post Why Can’t I Sleep? there are several things that can lead to insomnia, both acutely (in the short term) or chronically (lasting a long time). Many of us don’t even realize that some of the things we do everyday could be interfering with our ability to get good sleep.
Nothing is more frustrating than lying down in bed, tossing and turning night after night and battling to remain awake and functional during the day. Whether you’re a busy mom on the go hustling and bustling to get children ready and off to their respective functions, a student balancing the rigors of classwork or an employee needing to be refreshed for a long day’s work, sleep is necessary to perform at your best and it seems we all at some point or another, have fallen victim to the perils of insomnia.
As a physician, I myself have even struggled with the frustrations of insomnia. I’ve spent many nights staring at the clock just wishing for even half a night of sleep only to be disappointed and struggling the next day to still be able to perform at my best.
My worst bouts of insomnia occurred when I was actually a medical student. I had the perfect storm of stress, early morning classes, late night studying and sometimes unpredictable schedules that lended itself nicely to many nights of no sleep.
For me, I thought that insomnia was just “a part of the job”, something I would have to deal with that would get better as my schedule normalized; but what was more concerning to me were the many conversations I would have with friends who were not in medicine, my mom, dad, sister and many others who also suffered from insomnia. Their frustration coupled with my own led to me to research ways of improving sleep so that I could help not only myself but those around me and now I want to pass that knowledge on to all of you!
So, if you currently or have ever struggled with insomnia and felt at your wits end as you struggle through many sleepless nights, fret not because in this post we’ll go over 7 easy (and some not so easy) tips to help ensure you get the good night’s sleep you’ve been dreaming of… (get it?)
Tip #1: Keep A Consistent Bedtime
Now this tip can be very difficult, especially as adults. When it comes to children, we know how important it is to get them to bed at a specified time making it easier for them to fall asleep at that time on subsequent nights. Yet as adults, that habit tends to fall by the wayside.
But it’s just as important for adults as it is for children. The reason is that we all have internal clocks (known as our circadian rhythm) that regulates our natural sleep cycle. Your circadian rhythm is responsible for your natural dips and peaks in energy. Now there are variations in different people’s circadian rhythms (hence the term “night owls” and “early birds”), however we also have some control over when these dips and peaks occur.
One way we control this is by resetting that clock so to speak and programming ourselves to get sleepy and more alert during certain times of the day. How do we do that you ask? By going to sleep and waking up at around the same time everyday.
Now this may seem like an easy enough tip, but let’s not forget that everyday includes the weekend! In order to give yourself the best chance at programming your clock, there should really be no more than a 1 hour difference in your bedtime from night to night.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to enjoy your weekend freedom by hanging out a little later than normal, just don’t make a habit of it. Stick to a regular bedtime and you’ll see a world of difference in the quality of your sleep.
Tip #2: Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine Prior to Going to Sleep
Along with calling it a night a little earlier on the weekends, you should also watch your alcohol and caffeine consumption prior to bedtime. Have you ever noticed how that 1 glass (or 2) of wine can sometimes make your eyelids droop a little sooner than normal? So that’s a good thing right? Alcohol puts you to sleep…. Wrong!
While alcohol is a depressant, meaning it will often help you fall asleep and even more deeply at the beginning, the problem is that it interferes with the deep sleep that you fall into later in the night known as REM sleep, causing more of a disturbance in sleep and more early morning awakenings.
Again, I’m not trying to dissuade you from the responsible enjoyment of libations here and there (I often enjoy a glass or two of wine myself) but for your sleep’s sake, you should try to avoid alcohol consumption 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
Same goes for caffeine. It’s easy to see why this could present a hindrance to your sleep as caffeine is a known stimulant, making it difficult to settle down to sleep. Feel free to enjoy your morning cup of joe, just try not to consume caffeine within 4 hours of sleep (longer if the effects tend to last longer for you)
Tip #3 Don’t Use Blue Light Before Bed
So you’re lying in bed about to call it night but decide to do a little Facebook and Instagram perusing before going to sleep. Seems innocent enough and definitely common in today’s technological age, but did you know that the blue light emitted from your phone (or television) has been shown to interfere with the production of melatonin (your body’s natural sleep hormone)?, making it more difficult to fall asleep. So while scrolling through your social media may be relaxing to you, you should try a more low stimulating activity such as reading under dim light and avoid media use 1 hour prior to bedtime.
Tip #4: Exercise!!!
Now we all know about the many benefits of exercise, not only for your physical appearance but also your cardiovascular health. But did you know that 30 minutes of exercise a day can help you get better sleep?
But there is a caveat to this tip. While exercise is great for your sleep both to help you get to sleep easier and sleep more soundly, exercise itself can also leave you feeling more stimulated and thus can have a negative effect if your workout is too close to your bedtime. So try to give yourself a good 3 hours or so in between your workout and going to sleep.
Tip #5 If It’s Not Working, Get Up!
Now this is perhaps the most counterintuitive tip but definitely one of the most important of them all. If you have gone through your bedtime routine, did a low stimulating activity such as reading, shut out the lights and close your eyes and find that you just cannot fall asleep. Get out of the bed!
Most of us think that if we just lay down long enough, eventually sleep will overcome us but for the majority of people, lying in bed when you’re not sleepy has the opposite effect. You start to become anxious about when you are going to fall asleep causing you to be more alert than you were when you first got in the bed.
So if you are not sleepy, get out of the bed and do something low stimulating like reading or listening to music or an audiobook (remember no television or cell phone). Do these things for a little while until you get sleepy, then get back in the bed. This will help prevent you from developing that learned anxiety that comes from lying in bed when you’re too awake to fall asleep.
Tip #6 Use the Bed For Sleep Only! (well mostly 😉)
This tip goes hand and hand with tip #5. The fight against insomnia is one of mental warfare just as much as it is physical. Our beds are usually the most comfortable place in our home, making it easy to want to lounge there while watching television, chatting on the phone, eating, etc.
The problem with this is that our minds get conditioned that the bed is meant for everything else BUT sleep. So you should transition your habits to using the bed only for sleeping so that when you get into the bed, your mind instantly makes the connection that it’s time to go to sleep.
Tip #7 Get Some Extra Help
So you’ve tried tips 1 through 6 and are still struggling with getting a good night’s sleep. It happens, and luckily there are other options. While the preceding tips should be implemented in any healthy sleep routine, and oftentimes are the only things needed, sometimes you need a little extra help,
This could come in the form of sleep aids such as melatonin or prescription sleep aids or in the form of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy. While I will get into the specifics of these modalities in a later post, definitely something to think about.
And of course, there are disorders of sleep such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy that require further work-up with sleep studies and complete work up by a medical professional. Again, I’ll get into more specifics about these in a later post.
But with that being said, if you are concerned you have any of these disorders or your lack of sleep is severely interfering with your daily functioning (or safety ie while driving) please seek out medical help from your primary doctor and maybe a specialized sleep physician.
…. And there you have it!
I hope that you have all found these 7 tips helpful. And if you’re struggling with insomnia, end the battle and put these tips to use. I have personally found these tips helpful in achieving a healthy sleep life for myself and have helped many others as well.
As we ring in the new year, I hope one of your resolutions is better sleep and I hope to help you get there!