Who doesn’t want a good night’s sleep? It recharges you for the next day, it gives your enzymes and hormones the green light to repair and restore cells and muscles. And as researchers now tell us, it’s also essential for clearing out the metabolic garbage that builds up in our brain during the course of the day. To top it off, it just feels good to wake up refreshed in the morning instead of fighting the alarm clock and dreading the day ahead.
So, how do you stack the sleep deck in your favor? I tell my patients, it’s not enough to want a good night’s sleep. That usually just introduces unwelcome mental pressure, a kind of sleep performance anxiety. Instead, you want to prepare for that good night’s sleep. The best way to do that is to get your mind and your body in sleep synch.
Clear your mind.
For most of us, the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of good sleep is the mental residue of the day’s stresses and worries. You need, as best you can, to tune out the world before your head hits the pillow. One great way to do it is to reserve 10 or so minutes before bed to do some meditation. I like a mindfulness follow-the-breath style of meditation but experiment to find which techniques work best for you. Lots of people find that the best way to quiet the mental chatter and relieve anxiety is by moving the body in a deliberate and mindful way so here, a short 10 or so minute session of restorative yoga is the ticket.
Try an in-bed sleep booster.
OK, you’ve slipped into bed but you’re not feeling the sleep pull. Here’s the simplest and most soul-comforting technique to bring on the Zs – visualization. Picture your most favorite spot in the world. Maybe it’s that summer cottage by the lake or, who knows, memories of your grandmother’s kitchen. Whatever mentally puts you in your “happy place” will tame the stress hormones and set the stage for sleep.
For those who prefer more structure to their in-bed de-stressing, try some deep muscle relaxation. Start at the bottom by concentrating your attention on your toes, very deliberately tensing those muscles for a few seconds and then releasing them. Over the course of about ten minutes, work your way up your body, muscle group by muscle group, until you reach the scalp muscles, that is, if you’re still awake by then. You’ve got a mindfulness component here – you’re being very “present” with your body, telling it what to do, moment by moment. And you’re taking advantage of the power of distraction – concentrating very intently on something other than very much wanting to fall asleep. I even have a few patients who apply that same principle by going through an involved step-by-step procedure in their heads – knitting a particular stitch or tying a particular sailing knot.
Read an actual, real, live paper book.
When it comes to distraction, it’s hard to beat losing yourself in a book, especially a novel, when you first get into bed. I’m talking old-school print, illuminated by a small bed-side lamp. No screens, no excess light to interfere with the quality of your sleep, no sleep hormone disruption and a good story to boot, what’s not to like?
Light up your day — for a better night.
Getting ready for a good night’s sleep begins during the day with a healthy dose of sunshine, at least half an hour a day if you can, preferably outdoors and in the morning. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and the Salk Institute have discovered that natural light cues the wake/sleep clock inside us, our circadian rhythms, helping to ensure we feel lively during the daylight hours, thanks in part to the energy hormone cortisol, and mellow in the evening as the levels of the hormone melatonin rise, preparing the body for sleep.
You’ve got to move it, move it!
It stands to reason that if you tire the body out during the day, the mind will be more ready to shut down at the appointed evening hour. And, in fact, researchers, have found that people who meet the government’s recommended exercise minimums, 150 minutes a week at moderate intensity (brisk walking will do the trick), are twice as likely to get a good night’s sleep as their couch potato counterparts. Exercisers who do strength work, lifting weights for example, report an especially noticeable sleep bonus. A deep sleep after a taxing work-out promotes the secretion of growth hormone essential for building new muscle tissue. But try to get your work-outs, be they strength or endurance, done by early evening, to give cortisol levels time to level off and the body to power down.
Hit the water.
When you’ve got a little spare time in the evening, treat yourself to a relaxing hot bath. It’s really a sleep double whammy. Warm water has a soothing effect on the nervous system and it also slightly raises your body temperature. That temp dropping back down to normal after the bath sends the body into an even deeper state of relaxation, perfect for lights out. In a pinch, a hot shower is helpful too, just not quite as good as a full body soak.
By-pass the medicine cabinet.
First, the ones to avoid. Even though alcohol can help you fall asleep, it usually winds up being sleep disruptor (enjoy waking up at 3 a.m.?) when its depressant effect on the central nervous system wears off. Prescription sleep meds can be habit-forming and dangerous. Even over-the-counter remedies should be used sparingly – or better yet, not at all. You don’t want to have to depend on a pill for a good night’s sleep. That goes for melatonin supplements too, fine to use in low doses — 1/2 mg.-3 mg. — for a few days at a time, but the long-term health effects aren’t known.
So, what to try instead? Nutritional or mineral or herbal supplements with calming, and sleep-enhancing effects, and without the downsides of pharmaceuticals. Making the sleepy-time list: magnesium (300-600 mg.); the amino acids L theanine (100-500 mg), taurine, GABA and 5 HTP (50-100 mg.); and herbals like lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, magnolia and valerian root. Test drive one at a time, a half-hour or hour before bedtime and see which one works best for you.
Respect the “sleep gate.”
Even with all of these tools at our disposal, all of us, at least occasionally, will have trouble falling asleep. What’s the solution? Don’t fight it. Israeli researchers figured out that the body has a natural “sleep gate” that opens at night every 90 to 120 minutes. If you haven’t fallen asleep within the first 30 to 45 minutes of hitting the sack, odds are you won’t, not until the next gate opens. And tossing and turning just creates an unhealthy association between being in bed and feeling frustrated. So get up, keep the lights low, don’t turn on the TV – all that light blasting into your eyeballs confuses those circadian rhythms – and do something relaxing until that next wave of drowsiness hits. That’s when you know it’s really time to go to bed.