Why not “tonight”? Why can’t this be 10 tips for better sleep TONIGHT? You’ve waited long enough. You’ve had enough sleepless nights. Please! Just let it be over TONIGHT!!!!!
Unfortunately sleep is too important, too complex. It is a combination of complicated processes, long established habits and tangled physical properties. If we only concentrate on the short term; i.e. sleeping better tonight, we miss the big picture, which is Better Sleep for Life! Isn’t that what you really want?
Sleep is natural, normal and necessary. It is so elementary a baby can do it with ease. It is so essential that without it we die. It is a basic function of life, like eating, moving, thinking and creating. Why then should it be so darn difficult?!
If you have been having regular trouble sleeping you know how poor sleep on a nightly basis effects your days. It’s a struggle to wake up in the morning. Maybe you are late for work or school. You have trouble concentrating, focusing and it’s harder to be creative. Your mood suffers when you are sleep deprived. You are more likely to be irritable without good sleep behind you. The tendency to blurt out something you don’t mean or shouldn’t say is much higher when you’re tired. It’s harder to exercise and it may seem you are always hungry. Certainly your health and your life in general would be better if you could just start getting some decent sleep.
So here you are. And I can help! Keep reading and together we will get you moving in the direction of better sleep and a better life.
A few nights of restless sleep before a big event, in a new environment or during times of illness are normal and to be expected in everyday life. The problems begin when “a few nights” becomes “most nights” and any good reason for the sleeplessness has become a distant memory or is a complete mystery.
By definition, a chronic sleep problem has developed over time and existed as a concern for several weeks, at least. It is therefore unrealistic to think it can be repaired in one or two nights. It took awhile to get this bad; it will take awhile to get better. I know that’s disappointing, but it’s true.
The good news is you can START to make it better right away. The changes you make tonight and the commitment you make today will be the first steps to healthy sleep for the rest of your life!
Read and follow these 10 tips. Just reading them won’t help. You must also follow them! Some seem really simple — stupid in fact. But you will likely find that simple does not always mean easy. Also, when it comes to sleep, it is often the “stupidest” things that turn out to be the most powerful. So trust me on this. Your success will depend on your willingness to really work on these suggestions and be patient while the magic works over time.
Ready? Here we go.
Tip #1 Set a regular time to get up every day.
This means weekends, too. The actual time you choose as “your time” doesn’t matter that much, but being regular about it does. If you have to be up by a certain time to make it to work 4-5 days a week, then that is going to be your time – workdays and weekends. This is a crucial step, and really, really hard for most people.
Sleep is definitely a natural process, but we need to allow the wisdom of nature to work with us and regular rhythms are a hallmark of nature. The human body, like the squirrel body or the bear body or the chrysanthemum “body” dances with rhythms of the natural world. The sun rises and sets, the temperature goes up and down, the seasons change. We need to get into that dance, move in regular rhythms to become regular in our responses.
Tip #2 Set an “intended” bedtime.
This too should be the same every night so that you can be certain you are allowing adequate time in you schedule for sleep. I say “intended” because you may not be sleepy at the same time every night and, as we shall later see, you should only try to sleep when you are sleepy. It is absolutely necessary, though to designate a time when all else will be laid aside and sleep will be the priority.
We live in a very busy, overscheduled, hyper-stimulated society. Sleep has taken a backseat to everything else and it needs to be given the respect it deserves. Post your bedtime in you PDA. Set an alarm clock in the living room or kitchen that will proclaim your bedtime as surely as the one in the bedroom proclaims your morning. Do not allow the 30,000 other distractions of life eat into your sleep schedule.
Tip #3 Allow enough time for sleep.
How much is enough? Well, grandma was right again. Most humans need close to eight hours. 7 to 8 is a good range to test for yourself. Some will require 7 hours and others 9, but science has shown us that we are likely to die earlier if we do not average at least 6 hours every night. That does NOT mean that 6 hours is enough for a good life, just enough to keep going.
Sleep is not a passive process. It is not “down time”. It is an extremely important opportunity for the body to heal, build, restore, re-balance and to clean up tissues, organs and systems. Without enough sleep the simple maintenance functions may not get completed. Some of our most important hormones, like human growth hormone and testosterone are produced most efficiently, sometimes only while, we are asleep. What would happen if you never took your car to the shop? If you never emptied the wastebasket in your office? If you never restocked your refrigerator?
The brain has lots to do while we sleep as well. We now know that memory consolidation is best achieved during sleep. There are hundreds of stories of creative breakthroughs that came through dreams or were at hand just upon awakening.
Schedule enough time for sleep so that the brilliance of your body and mind can have a chance to shine.
Tip #4 Create a bedtime ritual.
If you have kids, or if you ever were one, you are probably familiar with this idea. At a certain time each evening, the children are helped or reminded to take a warm bath, change into their snuggy jammies, brush their teeth, read a pleasant bedtime story, recite their hopes and gratitude, kiss their loved ones and then turn out the lights.
This would be an excellent routine to copy for yourself. The advantages of doing these kinds of things every night, at the same time are twofold:
First the regularity of timing, as discussed in Tips #1 and 2 is reinforced. Having a regular sequence of activities that lead up to “lights out” serves as a signal to your body that the chance for sleep is approaching. This lets the systems begin to reset and ready for their sleep tasks, rather than abruptly trying to change course in midstream.
Secondly, the quiet relaxing nature of the pre-bedtime activities gives you an opportunity to shift gears mentally and emotionally as well. You disengage from the stressors and pull of the daily responsibilities and ease into rest. Relaxing reading, soothing music, a bath, a massage, an intimate moment with a lover; these all can create an effective “moat” to safely separate your active day and your restful night.
Tip #5 Make your bedroom into a Sleep Sanctuary.
When you walk into your bedroom at the end of a full day, ready to start your successful sojourn to slumber you should receive one and only one message: Sleep…! (OK, Sleep and Sex – but two and only two messages!) If you walk into your bedroom and see a treadmill, a computer, a TV, a telephone answering machine, a pile of bills, a pile of laundry, a pile of anything other than pillows, your brain is getting mixed messages. With so much distraction the brain doesn’t know what you want or intend.
Just like training a new puppy, there needs to be a very clear message about what needs to happen where. Bed = Sleep. Bed = Sleep. Bed = Sleep (and sex). That’s IT!
So move everything out of your bedroom that does not relate to or promote good sleep. Now with all that clutter gone, you can “invite” sleep in. Make your bedroom a place you love. Choose your favorite restful colors. Hang pictures that remind you of relaxed times and places. Make it soft, like a hug and quiet like a sanctuary.
Tip #6 Get out of bed if you can’t sleep.
In the beginning, when trying to reset you sleep patterns, you may find that even though you have set regular hours, followed a relaxing bedtime ritual and gone to bed in a tranquil cocoon, sleep still doesn’t appear on demand. Remember it took awhile for it to get inconsistent and erratic, it’s going to take time before it becomes reliable again. In the meantime you have to stay true to your intentions and continue to retrain yourself into better responses.
If you find yourself awake in bed and getting upset over it, get out of bed! Whether this is at the beginning of the night, the middle of the night or in the hour before the alarm, do not teach your brain that it is acceptable to be awake in bed. This goes back to training the puppy-sleep-brain. Remember the message is Bed=Sleep. If sleep is obviously not there, get up. Go to another room and do something quiet and restful until you feel sleepy. Then go back to bed and try again. If you “wake up” as soon as you get back in bed, then get up again. Repeat until you fall asleep easily. Training is about establishing a firm connection between two conditions, in this case Bed = Sleep. Don’t let there be any other choices.
Now this is one of those things that seems silly or counter-intuitive or just plain dumb. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve heard patients say it before: “But if I just lay here maybe I will eventually fall asleep.”
“But at least I’m resting.”
“But it’s too cold to get out of bed.”
“But I’m too tired to get up.”
“But I don’t want to disturb my spouse.”
All those excuses may be true, but the reality is, staying in bed when you are not sleeping, especially when you are feeling any negative emotion about it, just brings more of the same on subsequent nights. It’s a big part of why you’ve had this problem as long as you have, despite all the other things you’ve tried. To break the pattern you have to break into the pattern.
When you finally get this part and start this exercise, you could very well have some rough nights at first. You may feel a couple nights like you got even less sleep than before you started following any of “these stupid tips”! I am truly sorry for the discomfort and wish it weren’t so. But keep the long term goal in mind here and know you are making important progress toward good sleep and excellent daytime energy that you can count on in the future. To skip or delay this step is likely to diminish or delay your success.
Are you starting to see why we can’t fix everything all at once? Sleep is a process. Fixing broken sleep is a process. Each step along the way builds on previous steps. If your old habit is sleeping poorly we need to replace that with new habits. Habits take time to take hold. So stick with it. Don’t try one thing or each thing for just one night and declare “this doesn’t work!” Remember one-night solutions don’t work!
Medical science shows us it takes at least 18 days to begin to change a habit. As you go through these changes on your path to healthy sleep for life, allow yourself 3 weeks of solid commitment to each stop before making any judgments. It will take even longer to cement in, but you can get some good feel for the outcomes before the first month is over. With some changes you may indeed see nearly instant benefit, but if you’re looking for the whole package, you’ll need to be consistent and patient.
You’re doing well so far. So, ready to continue on?
Tip #7 Control Your Environment.
You will sleep better if it is dark. This may seem to be obvious, but I’m frequently amazed how many people discount this simple fact.
The brain gets one of its biggest clues about when to sleep from the daily changes in light. In fact melatonin, the most famous of the natural sleep chemicals, is only produced when the ambient light begins to fade. Melatonin production can also be shut down by as little as seven minutes of light exposure. Streetlights, nightlights, the glow from a computer screen, TV or even the alarm clock can be cutting into your ability to produce adequate melatonin to fall asleep, stay asleep or get back to sleep. This means the more light you can shut out of your bedroom the better. Turn off, screen out and eliminate what light sources you can, and try a comfortable sleep mask if it’s not enough.
Here’s another obvious one: It needs to be quiet. This can be a challenge in some neighborhoods, but good earplugs can be transformational. There are dozens of different earplug designs and you can find most of them at your local drugstore. Everyone is different, so try several. They are cheap. If you can’t find anything you like already made, you can have a custom pair made just for you by most hearing aid dispensers. These generally cost around $40.
Here’s one of the most common environmental mistakes people make. There are hundreds of people who try to get decent sleep with the television on in the background. These flashing lights and quick dialogues, often with varying volumes between shows and commercials are just the opposite of the environment required for healthy sleep to develop. Remember, the human brain is wired to alert to the human voice. It doesn’t matter if that voice is live or recorded, talking to you directly, loud enough to understand or even in your language. When the ears pick up human voices, the brain wave patterns change to alert status. This is not what you want if you are trying to sleep. Turn the TV off. Better yet, move it out of your sleep sanctuary all together!
The temperature of your bedroom is important. Sleep happens most easily when the temperature is falling. That’s why it is so difficult to sleep on those hot summer nights. The ideal temperature range for sleep is between 72 and 58 degrees. There will be some individual variation with this and finding a temperature to agree on is a classic couple’s dilemma. If you are waking too early in the morning, your natural temperature curve coupled with the room temperature may be the culprit. Try lowering the bedroom thermostat a couple notches or trade your blanket for a lighter one.
People often ask about what kind of bed they should buy. My advice is to get the most “comfortable” bed you can afford. This will be different for every person, which accounts for the popularity of the customizable number system beds. Just remember you will spend over 2800 hours in the bed in the next year and it’s worth the investment – in yourself.
The point here is, where you sleep greatly effects how you sleep. Take time to study your sleep environment and identify potential sleep stealers. Change what you can to minimize outside disturbances and you may be astounded to discover how much difference a seemingly small adjustment can make. And please, no TV…
Tip #8 Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and sleep disrupting drugs and prescriptions near bedtime.
This is a big one. Each of these substances has a distinct effect in the sleep centers of the brain.
Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate and some pain medications, keeps the brain’s alerting system turned on. The effects can last up to 9 hours! That means a diet cola at 3 pm may be what’s keeping you up at midnight.
Nicotine has similar alerting effects. Cigarette smokers can also experience withdrawal symptoms during the night that can cause restless and broken sleep, especially in the last half of the night.
Alcohol is perhaps the most common self-medication strategy used by people who have trouble falling asleep. This can really backfire, though. It is true that alcohol can lead to some relaxation and quicker sleep onset. However, the sleep that ensues is short on the restorative deep sleep most people want and it carries an ironic Trojan horse that is revealed when the alcohol is metabolized.
The body cannot safely eliminate alcohol in the same form you drink it in. The liver has to change it into other safer chemicals first. One of those chemicals has stimulant properties similar to caffeine! This happens about four hours after the glass of wine, whiskey or brandy hits you stomach. That would explain why you can have a drink at 9, fall asleep at 10 and be suddenly wide awake at 1 am! You will have some difficulty getting back to sleep, too, until the new chemical is cleared from your system.
Obviously recreational drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines interfere with sleep. Even drugs that seem to cause drowsiness generally do not lead into normally restful sleep. The pills sold as “sleep aids” are usually anti-histamines that can make you sleepy, but they don’t bring about normal sleep either. There are many over the counter and prescription drugs that also alter sleep patterns in surprising ways. Be sure to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about how these may be affecting you.
Tip #9 Eat well to sleep well.
Sleep is just one of the three legs on the stool of good health. The other two legs are exercise and nutrition. To do anything well, including sleep, the body and brain need adequate, clean and appropriate fuel. Feed yourself good food that you prepare yourself or know has been freshly made. Regular schedules are important for healthy meals, too. Avoid large, spicy, fatty or rich foods near bedtime. Dinner should be finished at least 2 hours before your intended bed time to allow time for initial digestion. Lying down with a full stomach is an open invitation to heartburn and acid reflux.
Likewise, it is important that you not go to bed hungry. If your body is hungry, lacking nutrients, minerals and amino acids, your sleep will be restless and the body’s housekeeping chores will not get completed properly if the raw materials for repairing and restoring tissues are not at hand.
There are many different foods that can improve your ability to get to sleep. Warm milk is a famous example. The reason this works is because milk has tryptophan which the body uses to make serotonin. Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals, neurotransmitters, necessary for normal, consistent sleep. Other sources of tryptophan are turkey, soy products and sesame seeds.
There are also foods that can keep you awake; ginger for example. A meal high in protein without balancing carbohydrates, may block serotonin. If you are having trouble sleeping a big meal of spicy ginger beef, just before hitting the sack, would probably not be your best choice!
Tip #10 Don’t worry about it.
Now here’s some crazy sounding advice! After spending so much time going through all the different things you need to do to improve your sleep, telling you all the terrible things that can go wrong if you don’t sleep well, now I’m saying not to worry about it?
The operative word here is “worry”. Yes, I do think good sleep is important – I know you do, too or you wouldn’t still be reading this. Yes, I believe we need to be paying attention to all these conditions, behaviors and schedules we’ve listed here. Yes, I know it’s hard work and yes, I know it’s worth it. But worrying about is, stressing over it and making it bigger than is has to be is not helping. In fact that goes for all the other nagging worries in our lives!
We mentioned before that losing some sleep before a big event, a trip or during a move or any exciting time is normal and natural. The trouble begins when the sleepless pattern seems to linger when the triggering event or circumstance is no longer present or relevant. For many people the “trouble” becomes a “problem” and then a “sleep disorder” when they start to worry about it during the day as well. Fretting over it, stressing and getting upset over it does NOT make it easier to sleep.
If worry and anxiety, about sleep or anything else, is there with you when you go to bed at night, you need to find a way to deal with it in the daylight first. Stress reduction strategies and techniques include meditation, yoga, martial arts, simple play, counseling, prayer, hobbies and fresh air exercise. Music, guided meditation, creative visualization, progressive relaxation and biofeedback can also be incredibly effective tools.
One of my favorite tricks is to perform a nightly “brain dump”. When everything seems to be on overload, I will be sure to take time every evening to sit down and write out all I would normally be worrying about in bed. This might include big stuff, like how to pay the mortgage, smaller stuff like remembering if the tires need rotating as well as stupid stuff like wondering if my favorite summer shirt will still be in fashion next year. After writing furiously for 10 minutes or so the scribbling will come to a stop on its own. Later, in bed, when those worrisome thoughts start to come up I can say “no, I wrote you down, so I don’t need to think you right now”. It really works.
As much as you have been proactive about taking control of your schedule, your environment, your diet and behaviors, you also must accept responsibility and reclaim control of your thoughts. This may require outside assistance from a coach or counselor, but ultimately it is the key to lasting success – in sleep and in life.
So there they are, 10 Tips for Better Sleep – tonight, next Tuesday and beyond. To recap, they are:
1) Set a regular time to get up every day.
2) Set an “intended” bedtime.
3) Allow enough time for sleep.
4) Create a bedtime ritual.
5) Make your bedroom into a Sleep Sanctuary.
6) Get out of bed if you can’t sleep.
7) Control Your Environment.
8) Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and sleep disrupting drugs.
9) Eat well to sleep well.
10) Don’t worry about it.
I know it’s not easy. But approach it like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. Keep in mind that when you can count on full refreshing sleep every night, your days will be brighter, more productive and more creative. Your relationships will flourish and your personal potential will expand. Good sleep lets your body heal from daily use and rebalance for each new day. Reducing cumulative damage can help prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression.
In other words when you sleep well you will live better, longer and happier than you dreamed possible!