20 Ways to Improve Sleep (and Sleep Hygiene)
Americans and many other citizens of the developed world suffer from a number of deficiencies ranging from vitamins, water, to the most talked about deficiency: sleep. What would a day at the office be like where no one says they were tired or hadn't slept well the night before? It's difficult to imagine and that goes for millions of people. Like all other facets of human life, sleep has its own rules and hygiene, but many don't know the ins and outs of practicing good sleep hygiene (which should not include sleeping pills unless there is a doctor's diagnosis deeming it necessary).
Before we start the list, let's take a look at the anatomy and physiology of sleep.
Sleep is a cyclic process involving 3 Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phases and the REM stage. Sleep cycles and waking cycles rely on the circadian clock located in several areas of the brain working together including the hypothalamus, pineal gland, and several others which create the 'internal timer' we use to monitor our 'circadian rhythms'. Sleep is NOT unconsciousness, but is instead suspended consciousness where your ability to react and complete activities is severely impaired (very much like natural anaesthesia). Physical, emotional, and mental activities are not non-existent during sleep and do, in fact, burn a lot of calories while we doze. Humans are diurnal creatures meaning that we are predominantly awake during daylight hours and sleep when the sun goes down (once again thanks to the pineal gland and a hormone called melatonin). This is why rainy or darker days make us drowsy and slow. The majority of activity for a human asleep takes place during the REM phase which releases a substance called 'plasmic interleukin' that repairs and restores cells as well as boosts immunity, fights disease, and helps keep our other necessaries fine-tuned. This is why sleep deprivation can make a person apt to get sick in a variety of ways and slow to heal. Mild and minor changes to a person's life by getting better sleep hygiene can dramatically alter their life for the best!
While I stress that I am a Certified Healthcare Assistant and Holistic Healer, I also stress that I AM NOT A DOCTOR! All issues with sleep should be discussed with your physician as insomnia can often times be simply a symptom, not merely a condition, and signify that something else needs attention. However, if you're experiencing occasional sleeplessness or would like to get better zzzzz's, then here are 20 ways to do it:
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Light pollution is an underrated but serious issue that affects sleeping patterns of all living creatures, human and otherwise. Light's presence is great during the day and we should absorb a certain amount through our eyes indirectly in order to get the full benefits. However, light prevents the pineal gland from producing melatonin 'the sleep/dark hormone' which is released when light decreases in our environment. Remember that early man had only sun and then indoor dim candles or firelight, not much to prevent the release of this hormone.
Here's some ways to make sure that you get the best 'dark' for your sleeping space:
-Use blackout curtains (which are helpful also for regulating home temperature).
-Use a sleeping mask; make sure it's not too tight and covers enough of your eyes and near your nose to keep out beams of light accidentally slipping in (some of these are even available for just a dollar!).
- Unplug all appliances in your bedroom that cast light that are unnecessary like televisions, computers, and DVD players that have lights to let you know that they are plugged in. It's best to not even have these in the bedroom, but some homes are too small not to and so it behooves you to take the initiative to pull the plug!
Baby, It's Cold Inside!
A chill is in the air, you start to shudder a little . . . and it's not December. No, it's bedtime! Answers across the blogosphere have addressed people's concerns about whether or not it's normal to feel cold, chilled, or even shudder when they get tired. It's perfectly normal and it's because our body temperatures naturally lower during proper sleep cycles. Literally, your body is telling you it's time to get under some covers and sleep!
However, the temperature you keep your room at during the night also plays a vital role in sleep hygiene. For optimum sleep, experts agree that 65* is cool enough without being too cold to give the body plenty of cool air while it sleeps. Some people may like even lower temperatures and some cannot stand temperatures under 70*, but physically the best sleeping temperature remains at 65* for humans!
Wind Down . . . Early
Whether you're arriving for an interview or about to begin a trip or even starting a new project, social etiquette tells us to arrive at least 15 minutes early just in case. The same is true for your body and the sleep-wake cycle that requires relaxation first. Your body during the day has an active sympathetic nervous system which when in full swing creates a rush of adrenaline that brings about the 'fight or flight' response. When at low standards, the sympathetic system helps keep our limbic or balance system in check and keep us alert and able to recall memories more easily. On average, it takes a total of 15 minutes to wind the sympathetic nervous system into a state of relaxation (some people require more, some less) which means that you should start pretty early to get yourself in the mood and mode for sleep. Experts recommend starting a routine for bedtime that takes at least an hour (4 sets of those 15 minutes just like the 4 phases of sleep). So plan on having an hour before bedtime to be cmpletely detached from the world; no cell phones, no computers, no television, no loud noises. Instead, play soft music, take a warm bath or shower, practice personal massage/reflexology, and perhaps take up meditating or light reading.
We Mean It . . . CUT THE CAFFIENE!!!
Caffiene is practically as addictive as nicotiene and is also psychologically altering, neurologically and cardiovascularly damaging, and can even wreak havoc on your kidneys. Not all caffiene is the devil and it occurs naturally in chocolate, tea, and most in coffee.
When it comes to the safer, natural forms, use them sparingly (limit your cups per day) and never use caffiene after sundown as it can counter the effects of precious melatonin and other hormones that keep your body in proper alignment.
Make a Home Brew
While the go-to beverages since childhood have been warm milk with nutmeg or chamomile tea, there are other more efective options available.
Along with chamomile, teas made that include herbs like Valerian Root, Skullcap, Passionflower, Peppermint, and Catnip help not only with relaxation, but some underlying causes of poor sleep like indigestion, anxiety, and even dehydration.
Unless using a pre-mixed infusion blend, ALWAYS consult both a doctor and a knowledgeable salesperson in a herbal store about the products you buy before putting them in your body! These herbs are, like anything else you ingest for a specific effect, drugs and require supvervision and consultation!
Clean and Change Your Bedclothes!
Sheets and pillowcases gather dust, skin cells, hair, and sweat residue from our bodies. This should not be slept in repeatedly!
Change your sheets once a week at the very least and wash them accordingly!
The Bed is For Sleeping!
With so many hand-held devices at our disposal and attached to some at the hip, is it any wonder why we see 'tweets' and 'updates' in the wee hours of the morning? This is a very bad habit and no personal electronic device belongs in bed. Keep tablet computers, computers, laptops, cellular phones (unless they double as alarm clocks, but in that case should be turned off), and tablet readers on a desk or designated area for them.
By keeping yourself away from these devices you can focus on the truly important issue of getting restful sleep.
Put The Screen Out
Like hand-held devices, televisions have no place in the bedroom. They create a temptation to watch it before or during sleep (I know people who can't sleep without one on) and having them on alters the theta waves in the brain as well as a person's metabolism, hence the advice from the CDC to AHA to not watch television and eat at the same time.
Place televisions in areas meant to entertain. Place beds in places meant for sleep.
Sound Machines and Binaural Tracks
Binaural means 'two sounds' or 'both ears' and is a set of relaxation sounds with undertones meant to guide alpha and theta waves through the first stages of sleep for longer, more meaningful rest. Binaural tracks can be purchased as CDs, MP3s, or in expensive machines. Free samples are available online and are well-worth the try!
Sound machines are great tools for both relaxing and falling asleep and are relatively inexpensive. For those that can't sleep with noise going on, having the machine playing during the winding down hour might be helpful.
Like Pavlov's Dog, our mammalian brains are trained to react and this will become true of relaxing sounds and binaural tracks. Once you are trained to sleep when they come on, you'll go out like a light!
Take it Off!
Pajamas are the most comfortable clothes there are, but for people who are not in arctic level climates, sleeping in the nude allows for the best body temperature and circulation possible. If you feel self-conscious about the idea, have a robe beside the bed (see the 'Sleep Prepared' sletep).
Have a Nightly Routine (For Personal Comfort)
Some people find re-locking or checking the doors nightly to be part of a routine that helps them sleep. This is not a sign of OCD, but instead just a routine that assures the person that they are safe. These activities are very vague and vary from person to person; find your own and you'll sleep much easier at night!
Bedtime Snacks, Say 'Yes' to These!
While it's not a good idea to eat a meal before bed, a light snack 15 minutes before bed can worl wonders! Here are some examples of sleep-aid foods:
Grains: Oatmeal- warm and gentle this is a definite for a good sleep snack!
Fruit: Apricots, plums, pears, apples, and blue or black berries (note that these are all low-acidic or non-citrus fruits).
Veggies: Celery, carrots (baby or sliced), and mushrooms.
Nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios (as well as sunflower and pumpkin seeds).
As was said in the 'disrobing' section, it is wise to keep items beside your bed to make you feel safe enough to sleep. A glass of water in case of thirst, a robe, a flashlight, and even a clock whose face will not interfere with the light levels in your bedroom. Feeling safe means you'll be able to nodd off faster and more efficiently.
Practice Self Massage and Reflexology
During my training I had to learn self-massage for repetitive strain injuries and reflexology to help center between classes and clients. The same is true for people needing sleep. Why pay out loads of money for a treatment that will wear away during the day when you can do these techniques at home and become even more aware of your own body. Being body aware is the key to optimum health and practicing these two methods of bodywork on one's self not only relaxes, but helps to increase circulation and immunity.
Embrace Your Dreams AND Nightmares!
72% of emotions experienced in dreams are negative and adults experience nightmares more frequently, but less memorably than children. In fact, about 20% of our total dreams could be considered 'nightmarish'. So why is this such a high statistic even for a person avoiding the dark and disturbing? It's difficult enough for a healthy brain and psyche to handle the negativity of life and mortality in waking hours, but sleep gives them an oppirtunity to do so with minimal phsyical effects that are negative. With your sympathetic nervous system in suspended animation, images/thoughts/feelings/and events that might cause a panic attack an simply be replayed and analyzed in sleep. Good dreams are of the same effect and have the purpose of trying to remind us to 'keep up the good work' or 'focus on this so that it can come true'.
More people than you think are subconsciously avoiding or afraid of sleep beause of unpleasant dreams, but once we understand that very few of them are actually in the memorable part of our psyche, that they are useful, and that we have more of a chance for good or mediocre wacky dreams than full-on nightmares, we can sleep that much easier!
Keep a 'Sleep Journal' For a While
We're told to keep food diaries, exercise journals, dream journals, and even personal journals . . . so why add another on to that? Well, firstly, aside from the personal journal, the others (like this one) should be temporary and means of helping as a diagnostic tool to find patterns that will help your course of treatment or find certain triggers.
Document how long you slept, whether or not you dreamt and whether it was positive or negative, did you wake with a headache, document your habits before bedtime; all of these factors will help you and your healthcare provider decide what kinds of things could help you get better sleep and it may be something as simple as adding a vitamin!
Consider Melatonin Therapy
This one definitely requires a doctor's supervision if you're going to go the route of taking a pill form or even the liquid (which can be added to herbal infusions or warm milk). However, there are some natural ways to get melatonin including exposing yourself to at least 10 minutes of indirect sunlight in the eyes for 10 minutes a day, eating hearts of lettuce, and eatin ripe, red cherries which are all hgih in melatonin.
Remember that melatonin is a hormone and, like any hormone, too much of it in your body can have disastrous results!
Use Math Tricks and Wordplay Instead of Sheep
Aside from the mayhem I've seen sheep on farms cause, it's been proven that counting in order (like the old trick of counting sheep), though monotonous, is not helpful at all to sleep. Instead, it can impair it and keep you up.
Oddly, one of the chief reasons laymen cannot sleep at night is that we do not use enough of our analytical and empirical skills during the day (unless we're fans of puzzles, trivia, and the like). All humans are intelligent and have brains primed to solve problems to survive, but this also means that we love to solve problems that really don't help, but are just there to be solved.
Some suggestions experts have come up with are counting backwards from either 100, 200, or 300 by numbers divisible by 3 only. Another trick is counting backwards from 1,000 by odd numbers only. Word association and internal spelling is also a good trick to help you fall asleep (and fine-tune some proper grammar as well).
The bottom line here: your brain, whether you consider yourself a brainiac or not, needs stimulation and if it doesn't get it it will keep you up until it's been just as exercised as your body!
Use Meditative Breathing or Meditation
Meditation is deep thinking or contemplation, not shutting off the world around you. Most people are turned off to the idea of meditation or meditative breathing because it either seems aloof or too hard to turn off and tune out things in their head. Actually, many forms of meditation begin with brainstorming and simply allow your mind to select the set pattern it wants to follow because eventually from that chaos, one set pattern of order will emerge!
Meditative breathing is used to handle stress, pain, and sleeplessness. Some find that alternate nostril breathing used in Yoga, or Lamaas, or other forms of breathing exercises are helpful, but let's start simple:
Inhale for 10 seconds deeply through the nostrils, now exhale slowly and deeply for 20 seconds through the mouth slightly opened.
By doing this, you expel CO2 and get as much cellular relaxing and repairing oxygen as possible. This helps your body to feel good enough to relax and sleep.
Like anything we undertake, it's difficult at first, but after sticking to it the benefits pour in and don't go away. The hardest part is being consistent with yourself. It's not always easy to unwind, to take an hour away from a busy life, to turn off personal electronic devices, or even discipline yourself to eat and breathe in a healthy way. But I promise you that doing these things with consistency is what will make the real difference for you when it comes to getting the best sleep possible!
If nothing else, taking steps by yourself to get a better night's sleep is a step in the right direction no matter which facet you choose to address first! Just remember that the only way to know and make sure that something works is to be consistent with it and never be afraid to tell the world that it's time for you to relax and then sleep. Be unapologetic about detaching from personal devices and be perfectly comfrtable sleeping at the proper temperature and even sneaking a healthy snack!