There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to fall asleep. Sleep plays a crucial role in your physical health, and its importance goes way beyond simply boosting your mood or getting rid of any dark under-eye circles. Getting enough shut-eye is beneficial to your mind, your heart, your weight and even to your brain, as it promotes learning and memory. Sleep deprivation, in fact, is linked to an increased risk of stroke, diabetes, heart and kidney disease, as well as high blood pressure. In the short term, though, it can make you moody, irritable, lethargic, lack concentration and it can even lead to weight gain.
Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. Most adults need about 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep a night, while children and teenagers need even more than that. Despite this, less than 5% of people sleep 9 hours a night. Many people find it harder and harder to set aside time for a good night’s sleep with our jam-packed schedules, and even when we do manage to get into bed, falling asleep can be a task in itself. How do we teach ourselves to sleep better? Here are several things you can try to calm your body and mind, and prepare it for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep schedule (use a sleep tracker or activity band)
Set a bedtime and time to wake up, and stick to it. Keep naps to a maximum of 15 minutes a day. Even on weekends or on holidays, try your best not to mess up your new sleep schedule, as consistency will help to reinforce your body’s internal clock. This helps you get the best quality of sleep every night. When deciding on a bedtime, choose a time that you normally find yourself feeling drowsy at night. In time, you may not even need an alarm clock to wake you up! However, if you aren’t there yet and harsh awakenings aren’t your thing, invest in an activity tracker than can gently wake you up by buzzing on your wrist when you aren’t in too deep a sleep. Downloading a sleep tracker on your phone can also help you see how much rest you are getting and adjust your schedule if it isn’t working for you.
Create a sleep ritual
Think of several ways that you can relax yourself, and calm your mind every night before bed. Dim the lights and try to take an hour or two to wind down every night, fitting in several things like a warm shower, a cup of camomile tea, playing some soothing music, some bedtime yoga or reading a good book (try not to use an e-reader with a lighted screen, though!). This helps you to ease into the transition between being awake and asleep.
Put down that iPad
As mentioned, try not to use any electronic device that emit blue light, also known as short-wavelength enriched light, before bedtime. Examples of devices that blue light include your smartphone, a laptop, e readers, tablets and even several types of flat screen tellies. A study done by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that individuals reading from an iPad at night felt less tired before bedtime, and spent less time in REM sleep as compared to individuals who read a paper book. Blue light could delay your brain’s release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, so try not to use these devices an hour before bedtime. However, if this sounds impossible, certain devices such as the iPhone have a special ‘night mode’ which reduces the amount of blue light it emits. But try to put your phone on airplane mode before going to bed, so that you aren’t tempted to reply a text in the middle of the night!
Exercise, but with caution
A workout helps to improve the quality of your sleep that night, but be careful when you chose to go out for a bit of cardio! Even half an hour of running can keep your body temperature elevated for up to 4 hours, which can make falling asleep within that time quite difficult. Beyond 4 hours, however, your body cools down and this can signal to your brain to release melatonin, making you feel sleepy. Morning exercise is the best, but if you can’t fit that into your schedule, just try not to do anything too vigorous past 6pm.
We talked about a drop in body temperature causing a release of melatonin, and this is why trying to keep your bedroom nice and cool can help you sleep a little better! Hot showers can make you drowsy in the same way, as it raises your body temperature temporarily, and then it falls. There isn’t a strict ‘optimal temperature’ for you to set your thermostat at, it varies depending on your own preferences. Make sure than when you are lying in bed, you don’t feel hot, but also not uncomfortably cold! In REM sleep you aren’t able to thermoregulate as well, so keeping the room too cold isn’t good for you either. Sleeping naked can help you keep cool throughout the night, and it also helps circulation throughout the night.
There is a technique known as the 4-7-8 breathing technique which has helped many people fall asleep at night. It mimics certain de-stressing elements of meditation and helps you to calm your mind. It may be tricky to get comfortable doing it, but with more practise, it can also grow more effective. Here’s how you do it: Exhale completely through your mouth, then close it and inhale quietly via your nose while counting to 4. Then, hold your breath for 7 counts, then exhale completely again through your mouth to the count of 8. Repeat this until you find yourself drifting off to sleep. Spraying a soothing essential oil such a lavender on your pillow can also help you to unwind.
Cut the caffeine
Everybody knows coffee isn’t a good idea if you are planning to sleep. But this also applies to non-herbal teas (yes, even green tea!), fizzy drinks, energy drinks or hot chocolate. Try not to drink anything too caffeine-rich 8 hours before sleeping, as it takes that amount of time to leave your system. Caffeine not only has the ability to stop you from going to sleep, but it may even prevent you from going into deep sleep if you do happen to be able to doze off! If you are looking for a caffeine alternative, why not try making yourself an adaptogentic latte?
If you do find yourself lying in bed, unable to fall asleep despite breathing deeply, and avoiding both the telly and a matcha tea, give up for a while. If you have been lying in bed for over 15 minutes and trying to doze off is making you anxious, get out of bed and try to do some gentle yoga or stretching before trying for some beauty sleep again.