Sleep is an essential restorative activity for the health of both our body and our brain. Without sufficient sleep, we are more likely to develop serious problems like high blood pressure, obesity, depression, or diabetes. Lack of sleep affects some 70 million Americans, with people over 50 years old showing a greater likelihood of encountering these serious health problems.
While over-the-counter sleep aids may offer temporary relief for sleeping issues, they come at a price. More often than not, these medications contain antihistamines—compounds our body can quickly develop a tolerance to, thus reducing their efficacy over time. In addition, the so-called hangover effect of certain sleep aids is a well-known phenomenon, causing grogginess or lethargy the following day.
Ultimately, it is a lifestyle change that offers the real foundation for creating lasting transformation in our sleeping habits. Establishing simple, tried-and-tested methods known as sleep hygiene can work wonders to increase the quality of our nighttime hours. Here are seven effective techniques to help establish a healthy sleep routine, so that you can get a well-deserved night’s rest.
Try to go to bed on time and get up on time. We can train our brain to sleep, and it’s much easier to do if we have a schedule. A recent study has found that routine during the day has an impact on our ability to rest at night, so regulating our work schedule and mealtimes can go a long way to improving the quality of our sleep overall.
2. Find Time to Wind Down
Spend the last 30 to 40 minutes before sleep winding down from your day. Try a soak in a warm bath, do some gentle stretching, meditate, drink some warm milk or chamomile tea, or read something that inspires you. These relaxing activities help your nervous system shift into parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode, which is sleep-inducing. If you create a nightly ritual that is consistent, it will have overall effects.
3. Eliminate (or Limit) Caffeine and Alcohol
Did you know that caffeine has a half-life of about six hours? For example, for that last cup of coffee or chai at 3:00 p.m., half of the caffeine is still around at 9:00 p.m. and a quarter will still be around at 3:00 a.m.! Experiment with reducing your caffeine intake and the time of day you drink caffeine. The later you reach for that mug, the more likely you are to experience its effects when it’s time for bed.
Aside from our usual caffeinated beverages, some medications also have the potential to be stimulating. Tell your doctor if you suspect that a medication you’re taking is disturbing your sleep. Your doctor can help you manage the issue by prescribing a lower dose or an alternative medication.
Believe it or not, alcohol can affect your sleep negatively. It typically makes you feel tired and relaxed at first, but it actually disrupts the sleep cycle and can cause late-night waking. You may want to be mindful about that glass of wine or pint of beer if you want to enhance your sleep quality.
4. Turn Down the Lights
As twilight begins, the muted light triggers our brain to release melatonin—our intrinsic sleep molecule. Dim your lights when the sun sets; this will let your brain know it’s time to get sleepy. Also, avoid blue light around bedtime. Blue light is the kind of light that is found in computers, tablets, and smart phones. Studies show it has the same effect as regular full-spectrum light.
5. Exercise Is Important
After the initial exertion, exercise ultimately has a calming effect on the nervous system. Exercise reduces anxiety and makes us physically tired—and if we are really tired, we tend to sleep more soundly. Studies have consistently shown that getting daily exercise helps improve the quality of our sleep. Even a 15-to-20-minute walk each day can help.
6. Make Peace with Your Day
Sometimes our mind is the obstacle between us and sweet sleep. Try an activity that helps restore clarity and ease, such as journaling, reading, meditating, or praying. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a good choice for those of us dealing with chronic insomnia, because CBT can help us identify negative thought patterns that create anxiety and perpetuate poor sleep. Weekly CBT sessions can enable you to create new, helpful thought habits and break the cycle of poor sleep quality.
7. Keep Your Bedroom Comfy
Sleep experts say we sleep best in a dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable bedroom. Make that the goal and remember your bed is only for sleep and intimacy—not for electronics or work. The goal is to only associate your bed with sleeping and relaxing.
Sleep specialists recommend these seven sleep-hygiene steps before any use of medications when treating sleep problems. If you are already using a sleep aid, remember to take one step at a time when making a transition. It may be a good idea to reduce your medication incrementally over time rather than quit cold turkey. Another useful technique is to change sleep tactics on a weekend so that napping is an option. If you are using prescribed medication, be sure to consult your healthcare specialist before changing your current treatment.
Consistency is the key to creating any new habit. Allow these methods to work over time. Know someone who is suffering from poor sleep? Share this article with them—and may you both have sweet dreams!