How’s your sleep these days? It’s a question I almost always ask my clients early in the therapeutic process. Sleep, while sometimes undervalued in our high-performance ‘busy’-glorifying society, could not be more vital to our well-being. When we sleep our brain files away the day’s events and memories and our body repairs and replenishes. Waste matter in the brain is processed and removed instead of being allowed to build up. Muscles repair and rebuild. Blood pressure eases. Cuts heal. Our organs take a much-needed rest. For example breathing slows, the heart pumps more slowly, and the liver takes a break from detoxifying the rest of the body to instead repair itself. We get a break from harmful stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And our hunger-regulating hormones are balanced during sleep making us less likely to crave sugary, empty calorie foods.
For some people sleep comes easily and reliably. But I am well aware that many people are having more and more trouble with sleep. Perhaps this is close to home for you. You may be thinking “I really really want to sleep… I just can’t!” New moms, women in general, men and women who suffer from anxiety, there are so many who aren’t sleeping well. Especially in our over-caffeinated and over-scheduled lives, I would say that most of my clients have some difficulty sleeping.
If this is you, I invite you to join me right now in taking a very careful look at your bedtime routine and sleep habits. In mental health we call it “sleep hygiene”. With time and persistence you can train yourself to sleep better. Here are eight of the most important factors in getting a good night’s sleep:
1. Stick to a routine
Using a tried and true method called ‘classical conditioning’ you can train yourself to sleep well by pairing certain activities with bedtime for a few weeks consistently. In other words, the more that you begin your bedtime routine by, let’s say, brushing your teeth, washing your face, doing your 10-minute meditation, and saying goodnight to your goldfish, the more that your body and mind will come to associate that routine with the next step: sleep! Doing the same (sleep-friendly) things before bed day-in and day-out will help to ensure that your brain and body get the message each night: it’s time to sleep.
2. Turn off all screens an hour before bed
Our modern self-lit devices: televisions, computer screens, tablets, and phones, illuminate using a rapidly flashing blue-toned light. Our eyes and brain compensate for this and we only see a solidly-lit screen when we’re viewing it, but in the meantime other parts of the brain are being highly stimulated by this light. It means that while we’re aware of feeling really tired, unconsciously we are activated and perhaps even agitated. So break the addiction and put away the phone, turn off the TV, and meditate, listen to music, or read by lamplight from a paperback book… give your eyes a break from all screens for at least an hour before you’re hoping to fall asleep.
3. Dim the lights
This one is simple and it relates to the point above. When our eyes are exposed to bright light our natural melatonin production is impacted. As recently as one hundred years ago or so, and for all our centuries on Earth prior to that, the sun would set and we would illuminate our lives for a few extra hours by candle, lantern, or fire. Quite a stark change from the florescent, incandescent, and electronic LED lights we use these days! These days we leave all the lights on right up until bedtime and then take a melatonin pill to help us sleep. Yes, I believe there is something wrong with this picture. Turn the lights down, turn some of them off, light a few candles, and trust nature to guide you to sleep.
4. Lower your temperature
Try having a warm (not too hot) bath with some Epsom salts (magnesium also helps us get sleepy) and then go to bed in a relatively cool bedroom without too many covers. As your body temperature drops gently you are more likely to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Studies on people with insomnia show that they tend to have warmer core temperatures at bedtime than the norm, so see if you can find a way to cool down comfortably.
5. Try a natural sleep aid
There are some things made by Nature that naturally help us to sleep. They tend not to have any harmful side effects or addictive qualities, and they often serve multiple purposes like calming anxiety as well. When I say “natural” I’m talking about things your great-grandmother would recognize such as chamomile tea or lemon balm tea. Valerian root also acts as a natural sedative. Magnesium supplements are another one that I swear by. And by the way, magnesium deficiency is also a culprit in anxiety and body aches. Please check with your doctor or naturopathic doctor first, but for me magnesium supplementation was a game-changer.
6. Cut out caffeine at least 6 hours before bed
The time it takes for the body to eliminate one half of the caffeine you consume is approximately 5.5 hours. That means that 12 hours after consuming caffeine you will still have about 25% of it in your system. It takes a full 24 hours to work its way out of your system. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some people can tolerate it better than others, so give yourself an honest appraisal of your own limits. Better yet, eliminate caffeine altogether. After the initial withdrawal discomfort you will notice, believe it or not, improved alertness and concentration as well as deeper sleep, and your adrenals will thank you! Again, trust mamma Nature!
7. Don’t lie awake in bed
Easier said than done, right? Don’t worry, you do have control over this. What I mean is that if you have been lying awake in bed for 20 minutes or so in full alertness it’s time to change things up. Get up, have a little walk around your place in the partial-dark, read something dull for 15 minutes by lamplight… the point is to train yourself that bed is a place for sleeping, not a place for lying awake in frustration or worry. If frustration and worry are winning the battle, get out of bed for a little while.
8. And the most important of all: The Anchor
The anchor of your sleep routine is your waking time. Your waking time is just as important as the things you do before bed. Setting an anchor for your sleep routine means getting up at the same time every day no matter how many hours you slept the night before, no matter whether it’s the week or weekend. It’s also important to stay awake throughout the day, no matter how tired you might feel. The next night, try your new healthy sleep routine again, and again get up at your anchor time no matter what. Repeat, repeat. (By the way, this doesn’t fully translate to new mamas. Caring for a newborn infant requires a whole other level of sacrifice… you can use these tips to get your sleep back on track later!)
The discipline required here isn’t easy, especially when you’re sleep-deprived and feeling desperate, but getting your sleep back on track in a natural and sustainable way is so very worth it. If this isn’t happening for you, see if you can simplify rather than complicate. What would your ancestors do? What does Nature suggest? Nature has designed you to sleep well and wake up feeling rested and restored, at least most of the time. Trust in that.