25 Ways to Improve Your Sleep
Posted on February 22, 2011 by Brian Rideout, One of Thousands of Career Coaches on Noomii.
Twenty five useful strategies to get a good night's sleep, beat insomnia, and wake up refreshed.
The creative life is one that has a lot of attendant problems, but sleeplessness is one of the worst of them. Maybe it is the irregular hours or a lack of routine; maybe it is that the mind of a creative person likes to go a mile a minute all day every day; maybe it is just that we try and cram so much into the day… whatever the cause may be, getting a good night’s sleep can be a challenge to us.
Poor-quality sleep, or worse yet, no sleep at all, is a problem I hear about from about three-quarters of my clients. It is also a problem I have struggled with most of my life. Naturally, I have become very interested in learning about sleep, sleep problems, and what can be done to improve the quality of sleep overall.
After considerable research, fighting a few bouts of insomnia myself, and trying a range of things with clients, friends, and family, I have come up with a list of some good strategies for helping people get a good night’s sleep.
1. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for at least an hour before bed.
Personally, I have nothing against any of these substances but they all have nasty side-effects when you are trying to get some quality sleep. Nicotine and alcohol can both affect your breathing pretty significantly, and if you breathe poorly, you will wake up tired.
Caffeine tricks your body into producing adrenaline, which is the enzyme that prepares you to fight or run away from danger. When you drink or eat something with caffeine in it (including chocolate) you get an initial rush of energy from the adrenaline, followed by a “crash” a little later. Sadly, even after the crash, the adrenaline still affects your body for hours, keeping you awake.
2. Respect your bedroom space.
Your body learns from the rituals you perform over a day. If you use your bedroom solely for sleeping and having sex, your body will learn to ready itself for sleep when you enter the bedroom. On the other hand, if you use the bedroom to work, watch television, or handle your home office needs, then the bedroom will have confusing signals for your body.
This also means making sure it is a comfortable space to sleep in. Flip your mattress at least once every couple of months (if not every month) and wash and change your sheets often. Try not to let laundry or clutter pile up in your bedroom.
3. Keep your bedroom dark.
We may think we can sleep comfortably with the lights on, but all of that extra light can really throw your body off an ruin the quality of your sleep. All those electronic devices with lights on them like your telephone, baby monitor, stereo, and alarm clock may be robbing you of restful sleep. Consider covering lights using a cloth, some electrical tape, or simply turn them towards the wall.
Heavy curtains can cut own on light leaking in from the outside world. If you can’t get your bedroom comfortably dark, consider using Bristol-board to cover over the window altogether at night.
4. Take some time to wind down.
Televisions, computer monitors, and fast-paced music have an effect on your nerves similar to caffeine: a lot of excitement on the television can trick your body into creating all kinds of chemicals that will throw your sleep off. Avoid screens, monitors, and loud music for at least half an hour before bedtime.
5. Use your existing relaxation strategies.
If you meditate, stretch, pray, or practice Tai Chi, Tantra, or Quigong, to help you relax and centre yourself, consider taking a few moments before bed to use those skills to help shut down your mind and release excess stress.
6. Exercise before bed.
If you don’t use skills like meditation or Tai Chi, exercise is also an excellent way to help promote sleep. A light workout fills your body with endorphins and dopamine, drugs that calm you down and make you feel relaxed and happy. Just be sure that your exercises don’t trigger adrenaline by causing you pain: stretch first and avoid isometrics.
7. Kick the pets out of bed.
Many people allow their dogs or cats to sleep with them in bed, but they can be a big distraction; even if they don’t wake you in the middle of the night they can make you uncomfortable, keep you from moving, or affect your breathing. It might be better for both you and your pet to make them sleep somewhere else.
8. Cool, fresh air helps sleep.
To get the best quality sleep a bedroom should be slightly cool, and when possible have a flow of fresh air through it. Living in Canada, it isn’t very often that I can leave the windows open unless I want to pay to heat outdoors, however, a little time walking in the fresh air before bed can do wonders for setting a good pattern for breathing.
9. Eat smaller meals in the evening.
A great number of sleep problems and most nightmares are caused by indigestion. Eating a large meal in the evening gives your stomach more to work on and increases your chances that it will affect your sleep. Some things that soothe the digestion, such as warm milk or mint tea can help ease digestion as well.
10. Set aside a regular bedtime.
Most adults don’t have a set bedtime, but can benefit from one. As I mentioned before, your body learns from habits. Naturally, we have a pattern that is set by weather, the light, our diet, and our habits called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm tells us when it is time to eat, sleep, wake up, etc.. When we follow the pattern set by our natural rhythm we have a much easier time digesting, sleeping, and waking up.
If we sleep at irregular times we can throw that pattern completely off. By setting aside an hour to relax leading up to a regular bedtime, you can help get your body tuned into your natural rhythm, an adjust that rhythm slightly for you.
11. Try some of nature’s sleep aids.
Aside from warm milk and mint tea, there are a number of scents and flavours that naturally make us sleepy. The scents of jasmine, lavender, and vanilla all soothe and relax us. The flavours of apricots, vanilla, and chamomile are also naturally soothing. Using teas, incenses, or oil diffusers can help improve your relaxation and rest. Fruit juice before bedtime is also an excellent sleep aid.
12. Get some sun.
Among the other things that can throw off our circadian rhythms is a lack of sunlight, particularly at certain times of the day. Getting out into the sun for just a little while helps your body produce vitamins and natural chemicals that help with sleep. Melatonin, the substance that is responsible for the brown colouration of skin and freckles, is also important for our sleep cycles, and we need sunlight to produce it.
One way our circadian rhythm is affected by light that is of particular interest is the way the dawn affects us: during the sunrise there are blue light frequencies that help wake us up an make us fresh. If you get up early or live in a climate with very little sunlight it can be very useful to by a dawn simulator or find another way to absorb blue light.
By the same token, if you work at night, exposure to the blue light-frequency at dawn can make it hard for you to get sleep. If you work nights and have to be out and about at sunrise, consider wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses to protect you.
Many people in Canada and Northern Europe suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that is related to the the weather and light, and most cases of SAD go undiagnosed. One of the symptoms of SAD is sleeping trouble. The symptoms of SAD can be regulated with sunlight and vitamin D supplements. If you find that you are sleeping better after getting sun regularly consider consulting a doctor about SAD.
13. Stop trying to “catch up.”
Many people who work nights, long hours, or irregular shifts try to catch up on sleep during the weekends by forcing themselves into a “normal” sleep pattern. This really only throws you off your natural rhythms even further.
14. Respect your personal rhythm.
Some people really are naturally “night people,” and some people really are “morning people.” Sadly we live in a world where everyone is expected to work according to the clock of the majority, and this can very negatively affect the minority. Get to know when you are the most energetic and alert, and when you most want to sleep. If you can, try and take advantage of it by working on the most intensive tasks on your schedule at the right times. If you are a night person, look for opportunities to work nights instead of days.
15. Learn to power-nap.
Shortly after lunchtime most people hit a lull in energy; for the majority of day-people that is about 3:00pm. If you can take a power nap at that time for just ten to fifteen minutes it will vastly increase your energy for the rest of the day.
16. Eat a good breakfast.
While you are up and moving after the alarm clock goes off, your body is still waking up. The right meal can really help boost your energy and finish the last part of your sleep cycle well. A good breakfast should happen within 30 minutes of waking, and include a fair amount of protein. You should hold off on coffee or other stimulants until you have been up a at least an hour to make sure your body reaches peak alertness.
17. Have your partner listen to your breathing.
If you snore very loudly, top breathing in fits and starts, or breathe very unevenly at night chances are you have sleep apnoea, a common breathing problem that absolutely destroys the quality of sleep. Because you can’t listen to yourself sleep, having someone else listen in can help spot this problem.
18. Train yourself to sleep in a healthy position.
People who sleep on their backs get the best night’s sleep, while people who sleep on their fronts have a great deal of sleep problems. It is possible to train yourself to sleep on your back, but even if that is difficult there are a few handy guidelines for sleeping comfortably:
Your neck and back should form a straight line.
You should be laying more-or-less parallel to the ground, not sitting up.
None of your limbs should be tucked under you.
Pillows should primarily support your neck, rather than tilt your head upward.
19. Set the mood for sleep.
Because your body learns from rituals if you do the same things every night before sleep, it will be more inclined to sleep when you want it to. While you don’t need to go through a checklist every night, repeating a few of the same steps every night before you go bed will make a big difference.
20. Soft music can be the best sleep aid.
Soft, relaxing music played at a low volume can be a very effective sleep aid… for some people. If you can sleep without absolute silence playing something soft, slow, and relaxing at a low volume has numerous benefits. It drowns out sounds from the street outside, it provides familiar and comforting sounds, and if you are having trouble sleeping listening to the music can give you something to do with your mind. Be sure to pay careful attention to how music affects your sleep. If you find it is keeping you up rather that lulling you to sleep, you might want to try going without for a few nights.
21. Use habit-forming sleep aids sparingly.
Not only are some sleep-aids addictive, but over time your body learns that those pills you are taking are a part of the ritual, and you can throw it off-rhythm by stopping your usage of them. When using over-the-counter sleep aids, only use them until your severe sleep problem is under control.
22. If you are having trouble getting to sleep, try a little extra salt.
While some people eat way too much salt, many really health conscious people have too little of it to compensate. If your body doesn’t have enough salt, it goes into an emergency mode and starts producing adrenaline. Taking a tablespoon of salt dissolved in something strong like decaffeinated coffee or orange juice for several nights can help break bout of insomnia.
Another good strategy is to make a bath as hot as you can stand it, and add in some Epsom (bath) salts. Try soaking in it for ten minutes before bed.
23. Take care of aches and pains.
Bodily complaints like a toothache, headache, or muscle spasms will definitely keep you awake at night. Be sure to look into these problems and get professional help for them. If you frequently wake up with a stiff back talk to a chiropractor or try a different mattress.
If sudden and severe muscle cramps (like a “charlie horse”) wake you up in the middle of the night it is possible that you have some dietary deficiencies that need to be addressed, talk to a nutritionist, get your blood iron tested, and add some bananas to your diet.
24. A healthy sex life leads to healthy sleep
Very few experts on any health field are comfortable discussing the benefits of sex on people’s health, but it can be a very important tool in a lot of them, including sleep. Regular sexual release, either alone or with a partner boosts the immune system, rids the body of aches and pains, floods the system with endorphins, and naturally makes us sleepy.
25. Stop trying to get to sleep.
When you are unable to get to sleep it is natural to try to sleep. Unfortunately, when we start thinking about sleeping we are actually waking ourselves up; the harder you try to get to sleep, the farther away sleep becomes. The trick to beating insomnia is often to stop trying. Instead, it helps to find a distraction for your mind like reading, exercise, meditation, or listening to the music you have left playing on the stereo.
Poor quality sleep or no sleep at all drains us of our energy to create, communicate, and just enjoy life. Applying just one or two of these steps can radically improve the quality of the sleep you get, and give you the energy you need to flow freely towards your goals.
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