Sleep has become a casualty of modern life. The 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health showed that 15 million US children and teens get inadequate sleep. Teenagers aren’t’ the only ones accumulating sleep deficits. Adults get about 10% less sleep every night than our great grandparents did and bout 60 to 90 minutes less than what is desirable. Workers with long commutes get up earlier and arrive home later, limiting the number of hours available for sleep (and increasing the risk of nodding off behind the wheel). Even once they make it to bed, more than 15% of adults in the United States experience insomnia or have trouble sleeping.
If you are excessively sleepy or you just don’t feel well rested in the morning, what can you do about it? Fortunately, there are many things we can do to improve sleep as individuals, family members, and a community. Here’s a checklist to help you get a good night’s sleep.
- Get comfy. Make sure your bed and bedding are comfortable.
- Remove distractions. Get the TV out of the bedroom. Avoid watching or listening to upsetting, violent, or scary materials within 2 hours of bedtime. That includes the news, conflict-filled talk shows, and high-anxiety dramas. Use the bed only for sleep and intimacy, not for TV, reading, working, talking on the phone, or playing electronic games.
- Soothing sounds. Listen to relaxing music, sound from nature, or the sound of silence. Keep the noise level down. Consider earplugs if you can’t control the environment.
- Security and safety. Before you head for bed, make sure your doors are locked, the stove is off, the iron in unplugged, the water taps are turned off, and there are no bogeymen under bed (just kidding on this last one, but it does help to go through a routine to ensure you’ve done what you can to ensure your personal safety).
- Darker is better. Turn the light off. Darkness promotes sleep and healthy levels of melatonin, an important hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness.
- Keep it cool. Cool room temperatures promote sleep and minimize interfering itchy sensations.
- Smell the roses, or better yet, lavender or chamomile. Soothing scents such as lavender have proven effective in helping people fall asleep, even in noisy intensive care units.
- Warm it up. A person warmed passively by a hot bath or sauna (not from intense exercise) falls asleep more quickly than someone who is cold. Even just a hot foot bath has proven helpful to ensuring good night’s sleep in a scientific study; so even if for some reason you can’t soak your entire body, consider a warm foot bath before bed to help you drift into dreamland. Keep the body warm and the room cool.
- Consider eating a light snack containing a protein (eg, seeds, nuts, low-fat milk, hard-boiled eggs) and a complex carbohydrate (eg, whole grain cracker or toast, slices of fruit or vegetables) within 2 hours before bed.
- Take a warm bath or shower within an hour before bedtime.
- Make it routine. Head to bed at the same time daily.
- Read something soothing, reassuring, or inspiring. Save the action/adventure stories, headline news, and murder mysteries for daytime reading.
- Manage your stress constructively. Practice mediation, autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, prayer, counting your blessings, extending good will to others, or other relaxing stress management techniques.
- Keep a journal. Write down or record any worries, anger, irritations, or other negative perceptions. Get them out of your head, set them aside, and let them wait until tomorrow. Write down or record a list of things you appreciate or for which you are grateful. Make notes about little kindnesses you have observed in others or offered to others. Did someone smile at you today? Offer a handshake? Ask how you were? Open a door? Let you go first? Just noting small acts of kindness can help us feel better and more connected to other people. This helps us feel more positive and secure.
During the Day
- Limit daytime naps to 45 minutes, maximum.
- Expose yourself to bright light in the morning; this helps set your biological clock so you’ll be tired in the evening. Avoid bright lights before bed.
- Exercise during the day; yoga or other slow, meditative exercises may be helpful in the afternoon or evening.
- Check with your doctor. Make sure you can breathe easily at night; congestions and obstructions to breathing reduce restful sleep. If you snore, ask your doctor to check for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. If you have a painful or itchy condition, discuss optimal management with your health professionals. Review your medications (if any) to make sure they aren’t the culprit.
What Else Can You Do?
- Consider a cup of calming herbal tea such as chamomile, lemon balm, hops, or passion flower.
- Talk with your clinician about trying valerian, melatonin, tryptophan, or 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) supplements.
- Get a massage or at least a hand, foot, shoulder, or back rub from someone you trust.
- Consider trying acupuncture, especially if pain makes it hard for you to sleep. (Sleepiness and a sense of calm and relaxation are side effects of acupuncture.)
- Ask your clinician about cranial electrotherapy stimulation or electrosleep.
What to Avoid
- Avoid alcohol within 4 hours before bedtime (alcohol use just before bed can lead to rebound wakefulness 2-4 hours later).
- Avoid caffeine 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid heavy or spicy foods 4 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid strenuous exercise within 2 hours of bedtime.
- Avoid stimulating TV, electronic games, and arguments within an hour of bedtime.
If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed, leave the bedroom, and try one of these strategies – snack, warm bath, soothing music, inspiring book, making a list or jotting in a diary.