Everyone wants good sleep, but let’s face it – most of us really don’t sleep like champions. Actually, thanks to modern living, most of us get pretty lousy sleep. Huh. It’s kind of the one area where humans are moving steadily backward. Seems like a good time to reverse the trend because let’s face it – everything is better if sleep is better (I’m getting that lesson drilled into me currently by my fantastic, but sleep disruptive, newborn.)
Small Steps to Good Sleep
- Make sure your sleep environment is totally dark. This means no nightlight, no TV, no light coming in the window, no bright alarm clocks. Focus especially on the blue-spectrum lights which are more sleep-disruptive than the red end of the spectrum. Seriously my bedroom looks like a crazy person lives here (ahem. Quiet in the peanut gallery) because all of the lights that indicate my various electronics are on are covered with layers of tape so I don’t have little blue and green lights all over the room.
- Caffeine only before noon. This includes sodas and iced tea, and even dark chocolate if you’re especially sensitive. My favorite case of “cured” insomnia involved a mechanic, who in answer to the question “how much water do you drink in a day” replied “three pots” meaning that the only drink the shop where he worked was coffee and he had three pots per day (!!) Sometimes, looking at the simple things really is the best.
- Exercise. Exercise helps everything. Really everything. For most people it is best for sleep to exercise in the morning, but some people respond best to evening exercise. As with everything else, try it at home and see what your body likes best. Remember 10 minutes is more than none, so don’t feel bad about just doing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have.
- Cut down on the sugars and starches in your diet. If you’ve read anything from this blog you probably know I’m not a fan of the carb-heavy diet and here’s one more reason. Carbohydrates stimulate cortisol production, especially when they are eaten right before bed. Eating a carb-heavy meal is likely to put you to sleep at first as your blood sugars rise, but when they quickly start to drop it can wake you up at night and prevent you from getting into deeper sleep stages. Make sure the last meal of your day is mostly proteins and not so many starches and sugars.
- Melatonin before you go to bed – between 1 and 10 mg depending on your body’s response. When you get the right amount of melatonin you will fall asleep easily and generally stay asleep well. Too much produces extremely vivid dreams or nightmares as well as a groggy feeling in the morning like you’re not ready to get out of bed. If you notice those symptoms just decrease your dose. In general, the amount of melatonin that you need decreases over time and typically you will be able to sleep well without it within a few months. The typical starting dose is 3mg and you can use more or less depending on your needs. This is the hormone your body naturally produces to help you feel sleepy, but if you’ve been sleep deprived for a while it gets used first to help protect your brain from oxidative damage so there is less left over for sleep.
- Eliminate food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are one of the biggest hidden causes of sleep disruption that I encounter with my clients. Eating a food to which your body is sensitive increases inflammation and your internal stress levels, which raises cortisol (one of your stress hormones, but also the hormone that wakes you up and gets you going in the morning) and prevents restful sleep. It also makes pain levels higher, if you have pain that prevents you from sleeping, simply because of the increased inflammation. Eliminating food sensitivities takes some work at home but it’s entirely possible (and free) you just have to know how.
- Warm milk before bed. Skip this, of course, if you have a milk or dairy sensitivity. Warm milk before bed (or hot chocolate with real cocoa) is wonderful. Milk contains a protein called casein that acts as an opiate and sedative, which helps you to sink into sleep more easily. Mama really did know best.
- Protein rich foods for the evening meal. In addition to cutting down on sugars and starches, boosting the protein for the last meal of the day makes a huge difference to sleep. Protein digests and is converted to sugar slowly so your body isn’t stimulated to wake up because of hunger or fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
- Numb out as you fall asleep. This is one of my favorite things. I had insomnia as a child and my father was able to help me overcome it using this technique. As you lay down for sleep find a comfortable position and then focus on a heavy feeling in your body. It is almost the feeling you get when you go to the dentist and have your mouth numbed – that heavy, numb, overly-large feeling. Start thinking of that feeling in your toes and feel it gradually creep up your feet to your ankles to your calves and up your body slowly all the way to your head. At first you may have to go through the cycle slowly from toes to head a few times, but this is an effective way of shutting down your brain and blocking out the thoughts that can sometimes keep you awake. The more you use the numb out, the easier it will become. Now if I have a hard time sleeping, I numb-out and I can barely make it past my knees before I’m asleep.
- Eliminate noise or add a loud fan. If your sleep environment is noisy then do everything you can to either make it quiet or to mask noise changes. Some people don’t notice noise when they sleep, but most people will rouse, at least partially, in response to noise. Even if you don’t wake up fully, noises can change your sleep cycles and interfere with deep sleep. If you live in a noisy area or have a noisy house then getting a loud fan or white noise machine (or app) can really help to cut down on the disruptions.
Of course there are a million other things you can do for sleep, but these are some of the basics of good sleep hygiene that can help to get you on track for many better nights in the future. Good sleep = good day.