Sleep is so natural, so human, and so easy – like walking and eating – until it isn’t.
For some of us, insomnia begins with having children. We are easily startled by the smallest move, the fear that something is wrong, or soon enough, by crying or running into our bedrooms at night. For others, the problem starts with difficulty falling asleep due to a racing mind worrying about work or other life stresses. Sleep may be disrupted by an ever present shiny blue screen beaming light into our brains suppressing melatonin that should be released at bedtime. Or maybe it’s a snoring partner, noisy pet, or restless legs that keep us awake.
Interrupted and non-restorative sleep is so pervasive that the media has clearly picked up on the issue and sleep itself has developed a new cache as people realize the role it plays in good health. A whole industry of sleep medicine now exists brought on by the ubiquitous 24-7 lifestyle choices, demands, and anxieties that can influence, if not cause, poor sleep.
Even if you know about sleep hygiene, there is a good chance that you could use a refresher. Check out these basic tips for getting a good night’s sleep:
Tips for Good Sleep Hygiene:
- The bed should only be used for sleep and sex.
- No screens within one hour of bedtime.
- Avoid the news if it is a trigger to your stress.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Don’t eat too close to bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine after noon (some people are even more sensitive).
- Establish a regular sleep routine – the same thing every night – with relaxing rituals that feel good to your body, for example a warm shower, cozy pajamas, a 5 minute meditation, and then into bed.
- Make sure the temperature in your room isn’t too hot or too cold.
- Get up at the same time every day.
- If you wake-up in the middle of the night, don’t clock watch. Get up, move into another room, and do something boring for 10-15 minutes. It shouldn’t be engaging, stressful, or involve a screen. Then go back to bed and try again.
- Sometimes a change of environment can help. This can be especially true if your sleep partner is snoring.
If these basic sleep hygiene rules don’t do the trick, here are some extra tips that could be worth trying:
- For some people, listening to audio can help them go to sleep – for instance – a podcast or audiobook. Again, it should be a low stress subject, and not so engaging that you wake yourself up to listen to it. Something non-offensive and a general interest of yours.
- Get your heart rate up early in the day. Physical exercise every day for at least 30 minutes can improve your chances of a good night’s sleep. Better not to exercise close to bedtime, though.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy can really help with insomnia. Seek a psychologist or other psychotherapist who has experience in this area.
- Having good interactions in-person with people during the day has been shown to correlate with better sleep at night. This is especially true if you have good face-to-face interactions with your romantic partner. Facebook and social media don’t count here. It is really crucial that you have real human interactions.
- Warm milk 1-2 hours before bed (if you aren’t lactose intolerant) can improve your sleep due to the tryptophan in the milk.
- Giving yourself a break if you wake up can often be helpful. You can remind yourself that, even if you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep, you will get through the day. Sometimes just telling yourself that it is ok to be up relaxes you enough that when your body is ready, it is more likely to take the opportunity to go back to sleep.
- Be ok with the “second sleep”. Pre-industrial ancestors often split their sleep into two shifts – one shift a few hours after dusk interrupted by a 1-3 hour wakeful time, followed by another sleep with wakefulness starting around dawn. It may be that our biology, if not our lifestyle, is more suited to this kind of pattern.
- Of course, there are herbs and supplements. Valerian, Melatonin, Sam-E, 5-HTP, Calms Forte, Hops and Magnesium are some things that people try with varying degrees of success for mild sleep problems.
- Over-the-counter short term solutions include benadryl and unisom.
- Pharmaceuticals such as ambien ortrazodone are options for some people. These are band-aids, though, and while they can improve sleep time for some people, they don’t improve health outcomes when used on a regular basis.
(*NOTE: Most pharmaceuticals, herbs, and over-the-counter medications come with drawbacks and no pill or powder can improve sleep-related health outcomes.)
Ultimately, like eating well and exercise, sleep is something that we can work on to improve our overall health. Please see your primary care provider at WholeFamily MD if you would like to discuss your own sleep hygiene and how it relates to your health.