Your sleeping area
- Use your bedroom only for sleeping
- Move the TV out of your bedroom
- Keep your bedroom quiet and dark
Your evening and bedtime routine
- Get regular exercise -- but not within 3 to 4 hours before bedtime
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Consider using a sleep mask and earplugs
If you can't sleep
- Imagine yourself in a peaceful, pleasant place
- Don't drink any liquids after 6 PM if waking up during the night to go to the bathroom is a problem
Your activities during the day
- Get outside during daylight hours
- Don't consume anything that has caffeine in it
- Don't drink alcohol before bed
- Don't take naps during the day
- Don't take medicine that makes you feel energized right before bed
Sleep is such an important part of your overall health that no amount of healthful food and exercise can counteract the ill effects of poor sleeping habits.
Researchers have linked poor sleep to a number of health ailments, from short-term memory loss and behavioral problems, to weight gain and diabetes, for example. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), lack of sleep can even adversely impact more serious diseases, such as:
- Parkinson disease (PD)
- Alzheimer disease (AD)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Gastrointestinal tract disorders
- Kidney disease
A disrupted sleep cycle also adversely affects your body's production of melatonin, which is both a hormone and a potent antioxidant against cancer, thus raising your risk of breast cancer.
Poor sleeping habits can also raise your levels of corticosterone, the stress hormone associated with road rage. Additionally, when your body is under stress, it releases hormones that increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Your muscles get tense, your digestive processes stop, and certain brain centers are triggered, which alter your brain chemistry. Left unchecked, this stress response can eventually lead to headaches, anxiety, and depression.
Understanding Why and How Insomnia Occurs
I recently interviewed Dr. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and the leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams. In that interview, we discussed several important factors that affect your sleep, for better or worse.
According to Dr. Naiman, the most commonly reported sleep disorder is insomnia; having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or the inability to get quality sleep throughout the night.
The list provided by Health.com (above) offers many helpful tips to help you get a better night's sleep, but it can be extremely helpful to first understand why and how insomnia occurs in the first place. By addressing the underlying causes of your inability to fall asleep first, you may be able to resolve the situation much faster. In order to understand why you can't sleep, you need to understand that sleep is an outcome of two types of variables:
- Sleepiness – Under normal conditions, your sleepiness should increase throughout the day, peaking just before you go to bed at night. This is ideal, as you want your sleep to be high at the beginning of the night.
Making sure you’re exposed to bright sunlight, and high-quality lighting during the day, followed by decreased light exposure once the sun sets, will help maximize your natural sleep cycle so that you’re appropriately sleepy at the end of the evening.
- "Noise" – “Noise" occurs in three zones: the mind level, body level, and the environmental level. If the noise is conceptually greater than your level of sleepiness, you will not fall asleep.
The most common type of mind noise is called "cognitive popcorn,” or unstoppable thoughts running through your mind at night. Examples of body noise include pain, discomfort, indigestion, side effects from prescription drugs, or residual caffeine from drinking coffee too late in the day. Environmental noise is usually obvious, such as noises in your room or house, a snoring partner, music, lights, or being too hot.
In order to get a good night's sleep, you want:
- sleepiness level to be high, and
- the noise level to be low
More often than not, the reason why you can't fall asleep is NOT because you're not sleepy enough, but rather because you're subjected to excessive noise, which, again, can be either mind/body/environmental-type noise, or a combination thereof. Therefore, the FIRST thing you need to ask yourself when you can't sleep is:
- "Where/What is the noise?"
Typically, people will find between three to six different factors that contribute to the noise burden keeping them awake. Therefore, don't give up if you've addressed the most obvious source of noise and still can't sleep. Keep looking! You need to really evaluate your environment and your inner- and outer state to determine and address ALL the contributing factors.
Tips to Address Excessive "Noise"
If you're in the habit of spending a lot of time in front of the TV or on the computer at night, you may want to reconsider, as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on your sleep:
- TV and computer screens emit blue light, nearly identical to the light you’re exposed to outdoors during the day. This tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion.
Under normal circumstances, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 or 10 pm, which makes you sleepy. When this natural secretion cycle is disrupted, due to excessive light exposure after sunset, insomnia can ensue.
- They stimulate your brain, thereby preventing you from falling asleep quickly. TV also disrupts your pineal gland function.
- These items also prevent you from getting high-quality sleep if you fall asleep with them on. In fact, many teens are now getting “junk sleep” for this very reason.
If you find that "cognitive popcorn" is an issue for you, try journaling for awhile before bed, in lieu of watching TV, or keep a notepad by your bedside. If you wake in the middle of the night with your mind racing in circles, you can transfer your to-do list to the page and return to sleep knowing you can address it tomorrow.
Worries can take great toll not only on your ability to sleep, but it also creates a vicious cycle of stress. If transferring night-time worries onto paper just doesn't cut it, or if you don't know how to overcome them, I highly recommend using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to release your negative emotions before going to bed.
I also recommend listening to my previous interview with Dr. Naiman for more in-depth details about the various forms of insomnia.
"Cool" and "Dark" -- Two of the Most Potent Aids to Prevent Tossing and Turning
Two very important contributing factors that can make sleep elusive are:
- Light – If your bedroom is not already pitch dark at night, I highly recommend installing blackout shades or thick drapes.Even the barely noticeable light from a streetlight, a full moon, or your neighbor‘s house can interfere with the circadian rhythm changes you need to fall asleep. You want your bedroom as pitch-black as possible.
Alternatively, wear an eye mask to block out light, but this is a poor second best option.
Also hide your clock, so that its glow won’t disturb you. Ideally, you’ll want to avoid using electronic clocks in your bedroom, as they emit not just light, but also electromagnetic radiation, which can also disrupt your sleep. In fact, electric clocks have a very high magnetic field, as much as 5 to 10 mG up to three feet away. If you are using an electric bedside clock, you could be sleeping in an EMF equivalent to that of a powerline.
Also avoid electric blankets for this same reason.
- Temperature -- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, as low as 60 to 68 degrees.
Keeping your room cooler than 60 degrees F. or hotter than 70 degrees F. can lead to restless sleep. This is because when you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
For an additional boost, try taking a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready for sleep.
Additional Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Sleep
Last but not least, you can also consider taking a melatonin supplement, which will help boost sleepiness. It likely will not be enough to counteract or override excessive “noise” however, so do make every effort at addressing the various forms of noise, as discussed above, first.
Ideally it is best to increase your melatonin levels naturally, by exposing yourself to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs in the winter) and complete darkness at night.
Doing this regularly will promote proper functioning of your natural circadian rhythm, which is essential for a proper sleep cycle. However, if that isn't possible, you can consider a melatonin supplement. It's is a completely natural substance, made by your body, and has many health benefits in addition to sleep.
In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to increase sleepiness, help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep, decrease restlessness, and reverse daytime fatigue. I prefer to use a sublingual melatonin product because it is absorbed much faster and therefore works more quickly.
For even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep, please review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep. If you're even slightly sleep deprived I encourage you to implement some of these tips tonight, as high-quality sleep is one of the most important factors in your health and quality of life.