Adequate and restful sleep is an essential component of health, yet for many it is elusive. There are a number of common reasons for tossing and turning and staring at the clock until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes with an easy fix.
Insomnia, which encompasses difficulty falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, early-morning wakening, or non-refreshing sleep, can be acute or chronic. It is more common in women, and the incidence increases with age.
As a first step to improving sleep it useful to look at sleep hygiene, which is essentially your habits (including your environment)regarding sleep.
Here are a few ways to improve sleep hygiene
- Stick to (or close to) the same bedtime and awakening time. The body gets used to falling asleep and waking at a certain time, but only if this is relatively fixed.
- Don’t sleep too much, and don’t sleep too little- research has shown both short-duration (less than 6 hours per night) and long-duration (equal to or greater than 9 hours per night) sleepers were more likely to have a depressive disorder than were those sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night.
- Avoid napping during the day. If you nap throughout the day, it may hinder your ability to fall asleep at night. Many people ‘hit the wall’ in the late afternoon- (which is usually related to diet, or poorly functioning adrenal glands) and may feel the need to have a nap. If you must nap, limit the time to 20-45 minutes, making sure you can still sleep well at night.
- Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime. Many people believe that alcohol helps them sleep. While alcohol has an immediate sleep-inducing effect, a few hours later as the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall, there is a stimulant or wake-up effect.
- Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime. This includes caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea and pop, as well as chocolate, so be careful.
- Avoid late night eating, and eating heavy, spicy, sugary foods, or foods that are known allergens and intolerances. These can affect your ability to stay asleep.
- Exercise regularly, but not right before bed. Adequate exercise is consistently associated with proper sleeping and mental contentment, and both excessive exercise and a lack of exercise have been associated with insomnia and anxiety. For some individuals, short bursts of intense, aerobic-like exercise have been shown to be beneficial in decreasing anxiety, especially if the anxiety is associated with emotions such as irritability, frustration or anger. Stretching exercises and yoga-type exercises are relaxing and help to calm the nervous system.
- Find a comfortable temperature setting for sleeping and keep the room well ventilated. If your bedroom is too cold or too hot, it can keep you awake. A cool (not cold) bedroom is often the most conducive to sleep.
- Block out all distracting noise, and eliminate as much light as possible. Eliminating light exposure is important with regards to our bodies natural ability to secrete melatonin- the hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm or our internal 24 hour clock. Even the light from an alarm clock can disrupt natural melatonin secretion. Consider an eye mask if your room is bright.
- Reserve the bed for sleep. Don’t use the bed as an office, workroom or recreation room. Let your body “know” that the bed is associated with sleeping.
- Practice relaxation techniques before bed. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and others may help relieve anxiety and reduce muscle tension.
- Establish a pre-sleep ritual. Pre-sleep rituals, such as a warm bath a cup of herbal caffeine-free tea, or a few minutes of reading, can help you sleep. This also includes limiting time in front of screens (TV, computer, cell phones) for a set period before sleep as these can alter melatonin secretion.
If you have good ‘sleep hygiene’, and are still suffering from lost sleep, there are a number of gentle, non addictive natural therapies that you might benefit from.