For over a decade sleep was a major challenge for me. I had a lot of difficulty falling asleep. Sometimes I would lie in bed for an hour of two before finally drifting off! And most of the time I would wake after a few hours and not be able to get back to sleep.
Research has proven that the right amount of sleep leads to better health, mood, memory, and attention. It also helps us manage stress and alleviates inflammation and depression. So it’s not surprising my lack of sleep began affecting my work, health, relationships, and how I showed up in the world. I would be so exhausted that it was difficult to focus at work, my patience with friends and family was low. And many times I would find myself upset or angry merely because I was so tired. It also affected my digestion and made me more susceptible to getting sick.
I eventually saw a sleep doctor who prescribed a number of medications that were way too strong for my body, leaving me groggy and messing with my memory throughout the day. Over time, I experimented with my lifestyle and sleep environment and eventually found my own recipe for better sleep. I rarely have trouble with sleep these days, but that is because I take all of the following steps very seriously! If you have difficulty with sleep, I challenge you to experiment with the following tips and find the combination that will help you get a good night’s sleep more often than not.
1. Filter or reduce sound.
I’m definitely a light sleeper. The slightest sound wakes me. Many years ago, while living in a busy neighborhood in New York City, I discovered the beauty of white noise. In those days I had a large fan in my window to filter out the sounds coming from the street. Today, I use a white noise app or sound machine. I also find that white noise filters out the noise in my mind. I start to focus on the tranquil sound and everything in my head starts to settle down. I am also a huge fan of earplugs. I wear them every night and take them with me when I travel. They are a quick, easy, portable way to reduce sound.
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2. Keep your sleep space as dark as possible.
According to the Sleep Foundation, “Darkness is essential to sleep. The absence of light sends a critical signal to the body that it is time to rest. Light exposure at the wrong times alters the body’s internal ‘sleep clock’—the biological mechanism that regulates sleep-wake cycles—in ways that interfere with both the quantity and quality of sleep.” I try to keep my sleep environment as dark as possible and use minimal light if I have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the restroom.
I use blackout curtain in my bedroom and try to stay places that have them when I’m traveling. I also wear an eye mask every night. If I happen to forget my eye mask while traveling, I’ll roll up a dark shirt and drape it across my eyes. Just like my earplugs, my eye mask goes everywhere with me everywhere.
3. Control the room temperature.
Some of us run hot, some of us run cold. Recommended bedroom temperatures are between 60 and 68 degrees. For me, I don’t like being cold, so that temperature range is a little low. If I can’t control the room temperature and I’m cold, I’ll put on more layers or use a heating pad to warm up. If you run cool, and can’t turn down the thermostat, you might open a window or turn on a fan, etc.
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4. Get sunlight and regular exercise.
Studies indicate that getting regular sunlight during the day, especially early in the day, helps you sleep at night. Exercise also significantly improves the sleep of people with chronic insomnia. I like to combine the two and go for a walk outside during daylight, but you could also go for a hike, run, swim, or bike ride.
5. Practice yoga and meditation.
According to Psychology Today, “Researchers at Harvard Medical School investigated how a daily yoga practice might affect sleep for people with insomnia and found broad improvements to measurements of sleep quality and quantity. Research indicates that yoga helps with sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time and sleep onset latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep).” If you want to try some yoga postures before bed, I recommend forward bends or Viparita Karani, which are both especially calming to the nervous system. You might place a block, bolster or pillow under your forehead in a seated forward bend to help relax your brain in preparation for sleep. Meditating before bed is also great for sleep.
6. Filter what goes into your mind.
We can’t control all of our circumstances, but we can control what we listen to, read, and watch. I did study in college where I surveyed the amount of news people watched and compared it with their perception of how much crime took place in their community. The more time subjects spent watching the news, the more likely they were to think there was far more crime in their community than there actually was. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch the news or a scary movie, but filling your mind with positive messages from uplifting books and shows can improve mood and reduce anxiety, which will help you sleep. When my mind is spinning at night or I am worried about something, I listen to some type of positive message, which puts me at ease and helps me fall asleep. Overall, I try to consume content that is positive rather than disturbing and negative.
7. Consider who you’re hanging out with.
Are you hanging around good, positive, supportive, non-judgmental people? Choosing to hang around healthy people rather than negative, critical, non-supportive, drama magnets has definitely made my life and sleep better. Life is too short! Less drama equal less mental wars to keep you up at night. Stick with people who are loving and fun to be around while minimizing your time with those who can drag you down, suck you dry, make you worry, etc.
8. Look at what you’re eating and drinking—and when.
Everyone is a little different, but for most people, eating a big meal before bed is not good for catching zzz’s, especially if the meal is heavy or spicy. That being said, I know for myself, I can’t go to bed hungry and I can’t go to bed overly full. I tend to eat a little something before bed that has minimal sugar in it. Eliminating caffeine and reducing my alcohol consumption has definitely helped my sleep as well. Again, everyone is different, but for most of us, keeping caffeine to a minimum and drinking your cup of joe or green tea in the early part of the day is best. I don’t drink alcohol often but when I do, I limit my intake to one glass of wine and don’t drink close to bedtime. If I have more than a glass, I wake up after just 4 hours of sleep. If alcohol affects your sleep, play around with the amount you consume and time you drink, or eliminate drinking it all together. Lastly, if my digestive tract is off, my sleep is off, and vice versa. Try to stick to a routine that keeps them both in a healthy pattern.
9. Try natural supplements when you need them.
It’s taken YEARS, but I’ve finally come to a place where I don’t take pharmaceutical drugs for sleep unless I’m traveling to a faraway time zone. Normally, if I do need a sleep aid, I stick to a small doses of melatonin. Sleepy Time Tea, valerian, and magnesium are other good options. (Be careful with magnesium, though—it is likely to fast track your digestion.)
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