In the midst of our bustling modern lives, achieving quality sleep can feel like an elusive dream. As we grapple with the demands of work, relationships, and technology, the concept of a peaceful night’s rest might seem like a distant fantasy. Yet, amidst this chaos, there are practices which can be very beneficial techniques to give you the upper hand and gently guide us back to sound sleeping. Here are a few pointers to get you on your way to a better night’s sleep.
Sleep Hygiene Practices
This first section outlines some basics around setting the stage for a better night’s sleep. You’ve probably heard these sleep hygiene tips before, but I wonder, are you doing them? These simple strategies are effective at both helping you fall asleep and improving your quantity and quality of sleep.
- Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Your body needs to become habituated to going to bed and getting up at set times, whether it’s a weekday or weekend. It sounds like tough love, but if you force yourself to get up, say, at 6:30 am for a few days, regardless of how you slept the night before, and then to go to bed promptly at 10:30 pm, it can help you reset your sleep pattern. It might be painful for a few days, but it will likely be worth it. Of course, having a consistent sleep schedule is not always possible for shift workers, and when this is the case, taking a look at all other strategies to ensure quality sleep becomes evermore important.
- Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol too Close to Bedtime: These substances affect your readiness for sleep or the quality of sleep you get. As any coffee lover knows, caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake. It is best to avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, and some pain relievers) for four to six hours before bedtime. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a sedative, and while it may help lull you into sleep, sedatives have a rebound effect and increase the number of awakenings throughout your night. Alcohol limits the amount of REM sleep we get and this is the crucial sleep which helps to store and organize our memories.
- Get Daily Exercise: A regular exercise routine can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Exercise strengthens circadian rhythms, and may stimulate longer periods of slow-wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep. Everyday it is important to find time for some movement – a walk/hike, a run, bike ride, weights, yoga class, swimming, an interval routine, or home calisthenics routine (aiming for 20-60 minutes). It is especially helpful if you get outside for your exercise, and particularly during the earlier part of the day, for the purpose of light exposure. Exposure to natural light in the day primes the evening release of natural melatonin that supports healthy sleep.
It’s important to remember, however, exercise stimulates the body to secrete cortisol, which helps activate the alerting mechanism in the brain. So if you exercise too soon before bed you are fighting the cortisol in your system. Try to finish exercising at least 2-3 hours before bed or work out earlier in the day.
- Minimize Light Exposure Before Bed: Light slows down the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep, and blue light from screens seems to be the most potent at doing this. Get the melatonin kicking in by dimming the lights in your home before bedtime. If you use a device before bed, turn the brightness level down on the screen, or consider using blue light blocking devices. Blinds in your room or using an eye mask can be helpful to block out the light while sleeping.
- Keep Your Bedroom Cool: Cold induces sleep due to lower brain temperature. Research suggests a cool bedroom of around around 18-19 degrees Centigrade (66 degrees Fahrenheit) is best for sleep.
- Reduce Environmental Noise: Although it seems obvious, sometimes we don’t take the steps to minimize environmental noise. If you are a light sleeper and easily jostled by sound, consider using earplugs or “white noise” machines. Many people use a fan for white noise, which also helps keep the room cool.
- Set up a Bedtime Ritual: Along with establishing regular bedtime and wake-up times, it is helpful to set up a soothing bedtime ritual. If you’ve ever put a baby to sleep, you know how important these routines are in settling a wakeful brain into sleep mode. It works the same way for adults. Plan a relaxing routine for the 30-60 minutes before bed. This won’t be the same for everyone. For one person, it might be 15 minutes of meditation followed by a cup of chamomile tea. Someone else might like a warm bubble bath accompanied by calming music. Get the lights dim in the house, this also cues the brain that sleep time is coming.
Yoga, with its rich tapestry of postures, breathwork, and meditation, offers a holistic approach to fostering a tranquil state conducive to restful sleep. In this section, I’ve listed some yoga techniques to help calm the mind and relax the body, which can be part of the bedtime ritual. I do not go into detail with the techniques listed below, but you will find links links to previous blogs I have written on the techniques with more detail.
- Breathing: At the heart of this transformative practice lies the power of deep, mindful breathing. By incorporating pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, one can effortlessly invite a sense of calm and relaxation, paving the way for a peaceful transition into the realm of sleep. Try incorporating these breathing techniques in the evening to unwind before bed: Ujjaiya breathing and belly (diaphragmatic) breathing combined with a focus of slowing exhales.
- Gentle Yoga Poses: Certain postures can serve as a lullaby for the body, gently releasing tension and encouraging a state of tranquility. The poses shown below take advantage of calming practices such as inversions and vagus nerve stimulation to soothe the nervous system, helping the body shift into a state of ease and relaxation before bed.
- In the realm of the mind, the meditative aspects of yoga hold the key to unlocking a peaceful sleep cycle. By incorporating mindfulness and meditation into one’s practice, individuals can cultivate an inner stillness that serves as a powerful antidote to the restlessness of the day. There are countless guided meditations you can source online and through various apps. Ultimately, you are looking for anything that promotes feelings of ease. Here are recordings of a progressive muscle relaxation meditation, a body scan meditation, which are all excellent for promoting relaxation and allowing for a seamless transition into a restorative sleep state.
Anyone who has experienced insomnia will tell you the whole process of going to sleep is complicated by the fact that your mind develops a whole range of negative or anxious thoughts about it. These thoughts then prevent you from sleeping. However, by questioning the validity of these thoughts, we can decrease their power to cause us anxiety. Here are some typical negative thoughts of people with insomnia, and for each one, I’ve included an alternate response to challenge the negative thought and reduce anxiety :
- Negative thought: “I’ve got to fall asleep right now or I won’t be able to function tomorrow.” Alternate response: “ Actually, there’s no urgency. You’ve done without sleep before. You’ll be a little tired, which is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it’s hardly the end of the world.”
- Negative thought: “It isn’t normal to have this kind of insomnia. It means there’s something wrong with me.” Alternate Response: “ Unfortunately, insomnia is quite common. Almost everyone experiences it sometimes. No one will think less of you for having it.”
- Negative thought: “I could will myself to go to sleep if I tried hard enough.” Alternate response: “Trying to force yourself to sleep never works. It increases anxiety, which only fuels your insomnia. It’s better to let go of the attempt, and give in to not sleeping. Then you can relax a little.”
- Negative thought: “I need to remember all the things I’m lying awake thinking about.” Alternate response: “If something is worth remembering, get out of bed, write it down, and go back to bed. There’s plenty of opportunity to plan things tomorrow.”
- Negative thought: “I never get enough sleep.” Alternate Response: “This is probably true for most people; you are not alone. It’s simply uncomfortable and inconvenient. It’s not the end of the world.”
I hope this blog gives you a few new ideas on how to improve your sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is an underestimated aspect of our health and well-being. By incorporating these science-backed tips into your routine, you can set yourself up for a more restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep. Remember, it may take time to see significant improvements, so be patient and consistent in your efforts to achieve better sleep. Sweet dreams!