Throughout my life, I’ve had times when I’ve not able to sleep properly as a result of relationship break-ups, extreme stress at work and the loss of loved ones. In exceptional circumstances like these, it’s not helpful when you can’t get to sleep and stay asleep. Nor does it help if you wake early feeling as tired as when you went to bed.
If you have disturbed nights for a short while, you might feel really tired, but somehow you muddle through. The real problem arises when insomnia becomes an ongoing issue. Not only does your body not get the essential rest it needs, but your mind goes into overdrive. All your problems start to crowd in at three o’clock in the morning.
So what’s the answer?
I’d like to share three different approaches I’ve used that have helped me overcome insomnia. There’s no single fix. It’s case of working out what’s right for you. Although that may take time, it’s worth the effort when you’re consistently rewarded with a good night’s sleep.
Quite simply, the three approaches focus on:
Habits to Avoid
Try reducing your caffeine, alcohol and nicotine intake during the afternoon and evening, because they stimulate your body and can inhibit sleep. I used to be able to drink both wine and coffee during the evening without it affecting my sleep. But not anymore!
The problem with caffeine is that it’s a stimulant that blocks the action of the hormones in the brain that makes us feel sleepy. What’s more, the ‘half-life’ of caffeine is about 5 hours. This means it takes that long to clear half of the caffeine out of your body, and much longer to eliminate it all. Coffee is probably the main source of caffeine in our diets. But it’s also found in other food and drinks, such as tea and chocolate, although in smaller quantities.
Some ‘over the counter’ and prescription medications also contain caffeine. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to stop taking any medication that has been prescribed. But if you have a sleep problem that might be aggravated by prescription medicines, discuss the matter with a qualified medical practitioner.
Alcohol and Nicotine
Although drinking alcohol can help you to drop off to sleep quickly, it’s often responsible for you waking up during the night. What’s not always realized is that it also keeps you from entering the deeper stages of sleep. This may explain why you wake up feeling as though you haven’t been to sleep at all.
The majority of smokers find that smoking makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep. It also affects their sleep patterns often causing them to sleep less deeply and for a shorter period of time. Again this means they don’t wake up so refreshed.
If giving up your favorite night cap or after-dinner coffee sounds like a killjoy idea, just give it a try. See what effect it has on your sleeping pattern and the quality of your sleep. It might just tip the balance in favor of a good night’s sleep.
To Eat or Not To Eat?
It’s long been agreed that having a heavy meal late at night is not conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. But going to bed hungry can also affect your sleeping pattern. So, rather than run the risk of waking up hungry during the night, have a light snack ideally a couple of hours before going to bed to give your body time to digest the food properly. It’s important though to avoid food and drinks that stimulate.
And if you’re wondering what are the best foods to eat, the research into the relationship between sleep and food is not conclusive. So, if you want to explore this aspect a bit more, I suggest starting with the resources at the end of this article.
One of the challenges in choosing what to eat is that different foods tend to suit different people. What might be ideal for one person may be a complete anathema to someone else. So, if you suspect that what you’re eating may be triggering insomnia, try removing the foods you think might be causing the problem to see what effect this has. Also, try changing the times at which you eat especially during the evening.
At the risk of stating the obvious, if you’re prone to getting up in the night to go to the toilet, then try reducing your fluid intake in the evening. This doesn’t mean reducing your total fluid intake – particularly water – throughout the day. It just means not drinking excessive amounts before you go to bed.
Some people find that taking a nap is a great short term solution to an exhaustion problem. Others find an after-lunch nap of 10-20 minutes enables them to re-charge their batteries so they can keep going longer and get more done. But, it’s not a good habit for everyone, because napping can accentuate insomnia.
It works a bit like this…
If you’re tired during the day and take a nap, particularly if you sleep for 1-2 hours, then you run the risk of not being able to sleep when you go to bed. Then because you don’t sleep very well at night, you’re tired again during the day and need to nap, typically during the early afternoon. And so the cycle goes on.
If you’re someone who experiences insomnia at night and you regularly take a nap during the day, try weaning yourself off of this habit. You can do this by gradually reducing the length of your nap from, say, one hour down to ten minutes over a 5-6 week period. Then see if this helps you sleep better at night.
And if you’re someone who doesn’t lead a particularly active lifestyle, you might want to try weaning yourself off naps altogether.
Television, Tablets and Cell Phones
Don’t be tempted to watch television or use your iPad in bed, because these activities stimulate your mind. The light from these devices can also convince your brain that it’s not time to produce melatonin – the hormone that helps regulate your sleep patterns.
Similar problems are known to exist concerning the use of cell phones. What’s more, if they buzz or light up during the night, that simple act can be enough to disturb your sleeping pattern.
Tips to Help overcome Insomnia
When Your Mind Goes Into Overdrive
If you can’t switch off at the end of the day, stop doing mentally demanding or stimulating activities at least a couple of hours before going to bed. Instead replace them with calming pastimes that help relax both your mind and body. Watch a comedy show. Read a good book, but not an action thriller that stimulates your mind. Or take a relaxing bath and listen to some soothing music.
If you find yourself wrought with worry, write persistent thoughts down in a journal. And make a deal with yourself to review them in the morning. Don’t try to solve your problems just before you go to sleep.
Often the simple act of taking the thoughts out of your head and putting them down on a piece of paper brings some relief. You may even find that a solution pops into your head as you’re writing.
But if you can’t switch your mind off, bring your attention to your breathing, because as you focus on that, it will help bring about a state of relaxation.
Ideally, plan and schedule your time well in advance. If this isn’t possible because things keep cropping up at the last minute, write down everything you have to do the following day. Don’t put your head on the pillow trying to remember all that needs to be done. Because if you’re concerned you might forget something, you won’t be able to drop off.
Take Regular Exercise
Physical exercise tires your body and helps induce sleep. It also releases endorphins, the feel good hormones that help reduce stress and the adverse effects it can have on sleeping patterns.
So if you don’t already do it, try introducing some form of exercise into your daily routine. My preference is to exercise first thing in the morning. This is because the flood of endorphins helps fire up your motivation to do all that you need to do during the day. But choose a time that suits you. The only thing to be aware of is that some people who exercise last thing at night find that an endorphin release immediately before going to bed can inhibit sleep.
Reduce Light, Noise and Temperature Extremes
Light can disrupt the pattern and quality of your sleep, so it’s important to make your bedroom as dark as possible.
Don’t be tempted to leave lights on or use night lights, And as mentioned earlier, avoid the use of television, tablets and cell phones last thing at night. Use heavy curtains or blackout blinds to block light from the outside. If that’s not feasible, then invest in an eye mask you can wear while you’re asleep.
Noise can be extremely disruptive, particularly if it’s caused by other people in your home or neighborhood, so one option is to install a white noise machine that masks outside noise. I don’t have any direct experience of these machines, but if you look on Amazon you’ll find many reviews by satisfied customers.
Finally, don’t try and sleep in a hot room, because this can also disrupt your sleeping pattern. Around 65 degrees Fahrenheit is believed to be ideal, but experiment to see what works best for you.
If you don’t have the benefit of air conditioning and the weather is hot, shut the curtains during the day to keep out heat. And if it’s feasible, leave the windows open back and front. Then when the temperature starts to drop in the evening open the windows and curtains to allow cool night air in.
Routine for Going to Bed
To get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, it’s likely that you’ll need to follow the same routine every day. This helps your body get into the habit of knowing when to sleep and when to wake up:
- Go to bed at the same time
- Get up at the same time (including weekends)
- Have the same routine before going to bed
If you follow an established routine, you have a good chance of sleeping well. But if this cycle gets disrupted for any reason, your body clock may start telling your body to sleep and wake up at the wrong times. So, if your sleeping pattern is all over the place, try and establish a routine that helps you get good quality sleep every night.
Setting a New Routine
Start by working out how much sleep you need. You may already know the answer, but if not, you’ll need to make your best guess. Typically, this is likely to be about 7 – 9 hours.
The next step is to work out when you need to go to bed in order to get the amount of sleep you need before getting up at the right time the following morning.
You then need to get into the routine of going to bed at roughly the same time, but try to go to bed only when you feel sleepy. If this sounds an odd thing to say, just think about it for a moment. When you’re over-tired you often can’t drop off. But if you feel sleepy, you invariably just drift off without even realizing it.
Over time, you’ll be able to condition your body to become sleepy at the same point every evening. But it may take a while to achieve this.
Begin winding down a couple of hours before going to bed to help your mind and body relax.
Then when you get into bed, turn the lights out right away so your body gets used to the idea that it’s time to sleep. Don’t be tempted to read in bed, check your phone or take one last look at your emails. If you leave the lights on, it sends the wrong message to your body, which won’t associate bed with sleep.
What If You Can’t Sleep
If you don’t drop off after 15-20 minutes, then get up and relax by sitting in a comfortable chair. And don’t get back into bed until you feel sleepy again. If you wake up in the night, as opposed to just rousing, follow the same routine. Just get up and relax in a comfortable chair until you feel sleepy. This habit emphasizes to your body that bed is for sleeping.
Get up at the same time every day, including weekends, and try to avoid taking regular naps during the day.
Stick with this routine as best you can for a couple of weeks, even if you feel tired. If possible, don’t go to bed early or sleep in late. Your body clock will gradually adjust, so that you start to feel sleepy at the same time every night. This makes it easier to drift off as soon as you get into bed and put the lights out. And when this happens you’ve got a better chance of a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.
Enjoy Deep, Restful Sleep
Insomnia is one of the most difficult things to deal with, but take heart, because it really is possible to get a good night’s sleep every night.
You may need to experiment with these ideas to find the ones that work for you, but it’s worth the time and effort to be rewarded with night after night of deep, restful sleep.
If you have a sleep disorder or suspect that you do, then you must consult a qualified medical practitioner, because the suggestions in this article are unlikely to be effective for you.
TV, Tablets and Cell Phones
Exercise and Endorphins