Updated: Dec 4, 2020
How to Sleep – 12 Remedies to Choose From
by Deirdre Eberhart, LCSW
In many ways sleep habits impact the way that we interact with the world, and the way we interact with the world impacts our sleep habits. There are many factors to consider and one thing is for sure; Always get checked out by your doctor if the sleep you are getting is insufficient. There may be an underlying medical issue causing your sleep disturbance and a sleep study may uncover medical issues such as Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) or Sleep Apnea.1 There are also some less obvious physical conditions that could be negatively impacting your sleep including reflux (and other GI problems), allergies, endocrine (hormonal) problems, arthritis, asthma, neurological problems, and chronic pain.1 You always want to rule out
something medical before you start taking matters into your own hands and looking for remedies.
In addition to the aforementioned physical ailments which negatively affect sleep; stress can be a huge culprit to healthy sleep hygiene. It seems like as soon as the light goes off – our thoughts turn on. The never-ending to-do list starts, the worries of the future, the regrets of the past all play on repeat. For a restless mind there are many remedies – you may need to try several of them before you find one that works best for you.
Sleep Remedies to Try:
1) Make a list and check it tomorrow. If you are tossing and turning due to the
immense amount of to-do’s in your mind then get them out of your mind
and onto a piece of paper. Leave a small notebook next to your bed and,
when you wake up (or when you cannot go to sleep) make an exhaustive list
of the things you need to do – however trivial they may seem. People replay
lists in their minds so they won’t forget them. If you write the list down then
you will remove the reason for replaying those items over and over again.
2) Write it out. Sometimes when we stay awake planning out conversations and
arguments in our heads we can rev ourselves up – making it hard to sleep.
This can be due to stressful life circumstances, depression, anxiety, or a
racing bipolar mind. In these cases seeking out a professional would be the
best way to go. In addition, when you have incessant thoughts (similar to #1)
write them down in the aforementioned notebook next to your bed. You
may be surprised by how effective it is in reducing your anxiety so you can
catch those z’s. I promise you can pick all your worries back up tomorrow.
3) Turn down your lights hours before you go to bed. This includes the light we
receive from our phones and computers. When our eyes detect light it acts
as a zeitgeber. A zeitgeber is any signal our body receives that resets our
circadian rhythm or “internal clock.”3 In plain words, when we see light our
bodies wake up. In fact, light inhibits the production of melatonin which, as
you may know, induces sleep.4 If it is simply impossible to avoid light right
before bed then perhaps invest in some blue blocking glasses which can
block the effects of light on internal clock.
4) Keep it cool. Temperature is another kind of zeitgeber. Have you ever
noticed that it is harder to sleep when it is warmer? Do you take more naps
when it is colder out? Our bodies are wired to respond to the environment
this way due to how our internal clocks interact with our exterior world. If
you do not have much control over your environment’s temperature then
take care to wear light and comfortable clothing. For those who have hot
flashes it can be helpful to keep a water mist bottle next to the bed to keep
your body moist so it can release some heat. Body lotion can also have a
cooling effect for the same reason.
5) Count your breath to 200 and try to stay awake. This meditative technique
is best utilized when you can make the room you are sleeping in as dark as
possible (see #3 above). Get in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
Breathe in and breathe out – and count that as one breath. Count your
breath to 200 (or any other number that you see as attainable – but not too
easy or hard). If you lose count, don’t worry and pick up from the last
number your remember – or start over.
The most important part of this method is that you genuinely try to stay
awake while doing this. Part of the reason some of us stay awake at night is
because of the worry that we are not asleep yet. This method addresses
those negative cycle of worrying.
In addition, even if you did this exercise all night and did not get to sleep you
could still reap some sleep benefits. According to a study published by
Behavioral and Brain Functions, researchers findings suggest that
mindfulness meditation can have similar affects to sleep.
6) Listen to a guided meditation. When we shift the focus onto something else
it can help us forget about our day’s worries and to-do’s. Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be particularly helpful in relaxing both the body and the mind. This meditation consists of doing a mental scan from head to toe and locating the tension in your body. You then systematically tighten those muscles and release them. This relaxes the muscles in addition to helping your mind focus on the present moment (where there are no worries about the past or the future). This is a great way to fall asleep.
7) Get enough exercise during the day. Sometimes it is hard to sleep when we
haven’t had enough movement during the day. Our muscles need to be
exercised and they may express that need at night when we are trying to
sleep, when it is least appreciated. This can cause restlessness leading to bad
8) Listen to a book. Listening to a book will shift your focus to something else
(similar to #6) and can also get you out of your own head. Find a book that is
calming – perhaps choose one with a narrator who has a calming voice. This
is a simple remedy and does not require much mental or physical effort on
9) Avoid alcohol before bed. Alcohol may be a depressant and allow you to fall
asleep but it will not keep you asleep. In addition, the sleep quality that you
get will be subpar. During a good night’s sleep our brains enter what is called
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which revitalizes the body. When alcohol is
consumed REM sleep is blocked, thus blocking the ability to rejuvenate and
feel alert and refreshed upon awakening the next morning. In addition,
getting up to pee in the middle of the night does not promote good sleep
either. (5) If you depend on alcohol for sleep you may be chemically dependent.
If this is the case please consider seeking medical help to address this
10) Social sleep cues. When we are surrounded by others with bad sleep habits
we can adapt them – and it can be hard to break the cycle. If possible, setting
boundaries with others is a good first step to re-establishing your sleep/wake
cycles. Tell your friends or roommates your plans and stick to them. They will
not take you seriously if you do not follow through -so follow through.
11) Hold yourself accountable. This can be particularly hard when part of your
nighttime unwinding process includes reaching out to friends or playing
games on your phone. Decide a bedtime and stick to it. Set yourself up for
success by asking a friend to hold you accountable. Once again, follow
through. If you do not respect your own authority then you are telling
yourself you are unimportant – and that is way uncool. Be cool to yourself.
12) Avoid caffeine and nicotine intake before bed. This one may be obvious but
watch out for seemingly harmless beverages such as soda and tea. Both of
these contain caffeine yet not all people associate them with bad sleep.
Nicotine is also a stimulant and may negatively affect sleep.
*A special note to those people who do not have a choice in the matter of sleep hygiene, particularly new parents and those with nightshift hours. Please seek the help and support of friends and family to help you attain the best possible sleep solutions for your situations: For nightshift workers blocking out light during the day to attain optimal sleep may be your best bet. Social sleep cues, particularly on your days off will make it harder for you to keep a regular schedule. Shorter naps during those days off may be vital to keeping yourself well in your body and mind.
For new parents it can be very difficult, especially in the first few months, to get adequate sleep. This can develop into post-partum depression and/or anxiety. Napping can be a vital part of good sleep hygiene. Please reach out for help from your friends, family, or a professional if you become overwhelmed with symptoms of sleep deprivation. Your physical and mental wellbeing may depend on it.
As a mental health therapist I often see the negative effects of bad sleep hygiene. I believe that both physical and mental wellness can depend on adequate sleep. Preventing unnecessary stress due to lack of sleep may be of the utmost importance to your mental wellness. Making sleep a priority can be difficult for many reasons. That being said, your short-term and long- term health may depend on adequate sleep. Think of it as an investment – you could be saving yourself on medical bills in the future.