We all need a good night’s sleep, but it’s not uncommon to struggle with getting one. It’s estimated that one in three people will suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives. Most of us will experience short-term insomnia, which is caused by stress or a short-term disruption in sleep patterns, like travel, a sick child, noisy neighbors or excitement about an upcoming event.
Long-term insomnia, which is defined as continuously broken sleep patterns lasting more than four weeks, can be a sign of clinical depression or another serious medical condition that you should discuss with your doctor.
Insomnia can manifest either through an inability to fall asleep or the inability to stay sleep through the night. Either way, normal healthy sleep patterns are altered and this has a measurable effect on health. It’s important to correct any short-term sleep disruptions as soon as possible to prevent permanent sleep pattern alterations or long-term deterioration of health.
In this article, I’ll look at what you can do to ensure you get the sleep your body needs to heal, repair, restore and grow.
Environment and Routine
1. Get in a routine. Just as bedtime routines are important for children, research shows that establishing a consistent bedtime routine can also help adults transition to sleep more smoothly. Going to bed at the same time every night and doing something relaxing before bed to help you release stress can help your body prepare for sleep.
2. Track Your Sleep Cycles. A typical sleep cycle is 90-110 minutes, though 90 minutes is considered a reliable number. Research shows that we awaken more refreshed and energized if we sleep in complete 90 minute cycles. In other words, if our actual sleep time is 6 hours, 7 ½ hours or 9 hours. What makes it tricky is you have to allow for time to fall asleep and if you wake up in the middle of the night for any reason such as to go to the bathroom, you won’t know if you were mid-cycle. But people have shared with me that after a couple weeks of tracking their sleep time, they have landed on the right number for them and they often awaken feeling more refreshed after 6 or 7 ½ hours than they did when they slept for 8 hours or some other amount of time that isn’t an even 90 minute multiple.
3. Create a comfy space. Keep your bed and your bedroom for activities that belong there: sex and sleeping. Don’t watch TV or eat snacks in bed. Create a comfortable, soothing bedroom escape with cozy blankets, soft sheets and a comfortable mattress. If your mattress is lacking, consider a memory foam mattress topper. It’s an inexpensive way to make a less than top-notch mattress incredibly comfortable and inviting.
4. No TV or work. Don’t watch TV, especially violent TV crime shows or the news, before you go to sleep (in bed or anywhere else). Doing this will put your mind into an agitated state and disrupt the pineal gland, which will make it harder to fall asleep. Also put away any work at least an hour or two before bed so your mind is not still thinking about work-related challenges or trying to solve problems as you head into bed.
5. Listen and read. Listening to relaxing music such as nature sounds, new age or soft classical music can help, as can reading something spiritual or an uncomplicated book. (My mom is an avid reader and often tackles challenging reads, but keeps a few light romance novels by her bed and reads a chapter or two of those before sleeping because they don’t stimulate her as she is trying to wind down.)
6. Release stress. Journal, meditate or do deep breathing before bed; if you are holding onto any tense or anxious thoughts, sleep will be difficult. Some people also find progressive muscle relaxation therapy to be helpful. (This involves lying down and tensing each muscle group for eight seconds as you inhale and then slowly relaxing the same muscle group for eight seconds as you exhale slowly and release all tightness and tension. You can hit every muscle head to toe, or pick four major areas of face, neck/shoulder/arms, abdomen and chest, and finally buttocks, legs and feet.) Some readers have told me that they struggle with meditation because they fall asleep, but this is the perfect opportunity to use your meditation techniques to help bring about sleep.
7. Take a bath. Build a warm bath with Epsom salts, sea salts and/or baking soda into your routine. If you dislike baths, take a hot shower or a sauna instead. When you are wound up or stressed, get a professional massage or ask your partner to give you one to relax. Use essential oils (many have medicinal purposes and some even target insomnia) or other fragrances that calm you.
8. Cool down and warm up. Pay attention to room temperatures and keep yours below 70 degrees. In cooler months, consider wearing socks to bed. Feet have the poorest circulation and will feel the cold first. One study showed wearing socks to bed can reduce waking at night.
9. Block out light. Sleep in complete darkness and/or wear an eye mask. Sleeping in as close to total darkness as possible is important because darkness increases the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that regulates the body’s sleep cycle. It’s believed to help people fall asleep more quickly and to sleep more soundly. Studies show that if you are exposed to light while sleeping, your melatonin level will not rise high enough to do its necessary work. Even a night-light can cause disruption. New research ties sleep disruption due to even small amounts of light resulting in increased cancer rates as well.
10. No more liquids. If you wake up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and you struggle to return to sleep afterward, be sure to empty your bladder before bedtime and avoid liquids for 90 minutes before bedtime to reduce the likelihood of waking to urinate.
11. Don’t just lie there. And lastly, if you’re tried these techniques and you still struggle with falling asleep, don’t stare at the clock and stress about what time it is! Get up and out of bed and do something to relax you: read, listen to music, clean something, tackle a project and go back to bed when you feel more relaxed, tired and ready try again.
Diet, Supplements and Exercise
12. Try magnesium. When I experienced sleep disruptions from hormonal imbalances many years ago, I read about magnesium as a potential solution. Magnesium and calcium need to be eaten/taken together in balance and many of us are calcium heavy and magnesium deficient, which can disrupt sleep. (In fact, new studies say 99% of Americans are magnesium deficient, a topic to be covered in a separate article.)
I bought magnesium and found it let me sleep continuously through the night. I have since recommended it to many people who have reported great success. At the time, I bought whatever I could find at the store. Now more research has been done and one doctor has achieved amazing results using a specific form of magnesium known as magnesium chloride.
Dr. W. Davis, an author and cardiologist practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported that “sleep was induced rapidly, was uninterrupted, and that waking tiredness disappeared in 99% of the patients. In addition, anxiety and tension diminished during the day” after supplementation with magnesium chloride.
13. Get an adrenal function test. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism published a study connecting insomnia to adrenal stress. Your doctor should test your adrenal function if sleep is an unresolved concern. Similarly, hormonal balance can disrupt sleep patterns, so women in perimenopause or around menopause should get a hormone panel done to rule out imbalances as causes of sleep disruptors.
14. Identify food sensitivities. As we noted in the article on food additives, food additives, chemicals, artificial dyes and flavorings can affect sleep patterns. Many people have food sensitivities or allergies they are unaware of. Poor digestion, impaired liver detoxification and food sensitivities can keep you from a good night’s rest by causing gas, gastrointestinal distress, excess congestion, apnea, and other symptoms.
15. Eliminate food sensitivities. The most common food sensitivities that affect sleep are corn, wheat, dairy, caffeinated products and sugar. If you have never tried an elimination diet, you might consider one. These diets involve removing a questionable food from your diet for a week or two and then introducing it back in and seeing how your body reacts. Another option is to have a food allergy test. While you may not be allergic to a food, many of us are sensitive to it and never know it. If you are sensitive to corn or gluten or dairy, for example, eliminating or reducing these foods will help you sleep better; if you can’t eliminate them, try taking a digestive enzyme before meals.
16. Eat sleep-inducing foods. Eating a balanced diet with healthy fats, protein and fiber will help keep your digestive system balanced. Chlorophyll-rich foods like leafy greens and microalgaes like chlorella and spirulina are not only healthy, they are sleep inducing. Sugars, spices and stimulants will have the opposite effect.
17. Don’t eat before bed. Avoid eating immediately before bed, especially grains or sugars, as they raise blood sugar, and later when it crashes, you may wake up and find it difficult to return to sleep. Because digestion takes a lot of effort, avoid eating any big heavy meals later in the evening as well. Leave at least a couple hours between your last meal and bedtime.
18. Avoid caffeine after noontime. Caffeine isn’t metabolized well and even an afternoon cup of coffee, tea or some chocolate can disrupt nighttime sleep patterns if you are sensitive. Alcohol can also disrupt sleep patterns as we mentioned in the previous chapter; while it helps you relax and fall asleep, it often results in nocturnal awakenings that disrupt deep sleep cycles where healing occurs.
19. Avoid prescription medications where possible. Many have side effects that can disrupt sleep. Rather than treating the symptom, work with your doctor on changing the diet and lifestyle habits that can help get at the underlying cause.
20. Try melatonin. I mentioned melatonin earlier as controlling sleep schedules. Melatonin, or its precursors L-trytophan or 5-htp, may be helpful as a supplement if other underlying causes are ruled out. (Tryptophan has to be combined with carbohydrates in order to reach the brain but can be consumed through things like turkey or received as a prescription from your doctor. 5-htp seems to be more effective in those who have underlying depression as well as a sleep concern.) But consider melatonin a short term solution as you work on uncovering the true cause.
21. Get some exercise. Exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective means of combating insomnia, so if you struggle to sleep at night, be sure you get out and get active for at least 30 minutes during the day. A Stanford University study showed that after 16 weeks of moderate exercise, participants fell asleep 15 minutes earlier and slept 45 minutes longer than they had before.
I hope there are some easy changes on this list that you can try making to help bring about sleep with greater ease. If you suffer from bigger sleep troubles, work with your doctor to discover the cause and the best relief. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your sleep troubles, as sleep deprivation over time will prevent your body from performing its necessary healing functions and will subtract years and quality from your life.
To your wellness and health: your true wealth!