Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep

Most of my blog posts are aimed at helping parents improve their children’s sleep. These days, however, sleep is not easy to come by for any of us, so this post focuses on how to improve your own sleep. Hope you find a few tips below that help!

Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep

Design a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine. A bedtime routine can help you relax and prepare your mind and body for sleep and, as you use a routine consistently over time, it will begin to cause drowsiness to occur around your bedtime in a very reliable way.

A typical routine could be doing some last minute tidying up in the living or kitchen, having a light bedtime snack with some protein (nut butter on toast is a great choice), putting on your pajamas, washing your face and brushing your teeth, and then reading a book or magazine in bed until you are drowsy enough to fall asleep. Taking a hot bath at night can also help you feel drowsy because, after you heat your body up in the bath, you will almost always become sleepy as you cool off again.

Try not to ignore drowsy feelings at bedtime to try to accomplish a few more things.  If you become drowsy near your usual bedtime, try to go to bed right away rather than knocking off a few more chores or emails. Drowsiness may only last 20 minutes or so and, if you ignore this signal, you may get a second wind and be unable to fall asleep again until a couple of hours later.

Try not to lie awake in the dark in bed when unable to sleep. If you lie awake in the dark in your bed, you might begin to associate your bed with wakefulness, worry and frustration. Instead, at bedtime or during the night if you cannot fall asleep within a few minutes, choose a quiet, relaxing and distracting activity to use until you do feel very drowsy.

You could read a book or magazine, listen to an audiobook or podcast, do a crossword or other type of puzzle, or engage in any other quiet activity you enjoy. You can sit up in bed to do this or, if you think it might take you more than thirty minutes to get drowsy, you can sit in a comfortable chair near the bed. Put this activity away only when you become very drowsy, no matter how long this takes. Try not to lie in bed “trying to sleep” or thinking to yourself, “at least I’m resting.”  Lying awake in bed awake in the dark is never a good idea; it’s much better to distract yourself with something you enjoy until drowsiness really takes over again.

Remember that everyone wakes 4-6 times a night. We all wake a few times a night, usually at the end of a sleep cycle. The important thing is not to worry about these wakings and to do something quiet and relaxing to get drowsy again if the waking lasts more than a few minutes.

Use your bed only for sleep, intimacy and quiet, relaxing activities. Try not to use screens, eat, talk on the phone, do any type of work, have a long discussion with your partner, or watch the news in bed. You want to keep your bed associated only with sleep and relaxation. Try to keep your bed free of screens, too. Electronics mimic daylight and are confusing to your body at bedtime.  They are also very stimulating and interesting and so, make it much easier to ignore drowsiness and miss out on the sleep you need.

Be sure your bedroom is a place you really enjoy and that it is quiet, cool and dark. Go ahead and make those changes you’ve been considering. Would you like your bedroom to be painted a different color? Maybe you’d like to clear out some clutter or upgrade your bed or your bedding? Even simple changes can make a big difference. Bedding made of natural fiber is usually the most comfortable. Most people sleep better with a memory foam mattress topper because this type of topper provides support and cushioning for the most typical pressure points on your body (shoulders, hips and so on) which may keep you from waking as often to change position. You may sleep better with a pillow that provides good neck support, such as a memory foam contour pillow. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try blackout curtains or a sound machine with ocean waves. Make your bedroom a real sanctuary: you deserve it!

Avoid clock watching at night.  Clock watching raises anxiety, so set your alarm each night and then turn the clock away.

Try to keep a very regular sleep schedule, especially when it comes to your rise time.  Your rise time actually sets your bedtime because your brain keeps track of when you get up and then assumes that you will want to go back to sleep about 16-17 hours later. This is why “sleeping in” can actually make it harder to fall asleep when you’d like to the next night. Even if you lose some sleep one night, try to get up every morning at the same time. If you rise every day at about the same time (even on weekends), your body will know when to release melatonin and cortisol, the hormones in your body that control how sleepy and how awake you feel at different times of the day.

Remember the concept of “core sleep” to help reduce your worry about lost sleep. Core sleep is the first 5.5 to 6 hours of sleep you achieve each night. If you are able to achieve this amount of sleep in total  (even if you have some wake periods during the night), you will have obtained almost all of the deep sleep your body needs (since the body gets this deep sleep during the first 2 to 3 hours of the night ) and one or two cycles of the REM (dream) sleep your body needs (since REM sleep is obtained during the next 2.5 to 3 hours of the night). To use a food-related analogy, if you achieve a total of 5.5 to 6 hours of sleep, you will have gotten all of your “protein” (deep sleep) and 1 or 2 vegetables (dream sleep). Would it be ideal to have more vegetables? Sure.  Can you do fine the next day without them? Yes!

Any sleep you obtain above these 5.5 to 6 hours could be thought of as “optional” sleep.  Of course, we’d all like to have 7-8 hours of sleep every night but this idea of core sleep being “good enough” is meant to help reduce your worry about sleep. And if you can reduce your worry about sleep, you will almost always be able to achieve more of it.

Finally, remember that your body makes up for a night of poor sleep right away. The very next night, your body “steals” some of the lighter sleep you would usually get to make sure you get more deep and REM sleep instead. Your body will do this until you have caught up again. Isn’t your body amazing?

Try to maintain positive sleep thoughts.  If you have had some trouble sleeping, you may have developed some negative sleep thoughts (like feeling some “dread of the bed” as bedtime nears or believing that you have “lost your ability to sleep well”). These thoughts can lead to anxiety about sleep which then makes sleep even worse! So, when you begin to work on improving your sleep habits, try to notice and challenge some of these sleep-related thoughts. Try substituting some positive sleep thoughts like these: “My daytime performance will not suffer significantly if I get my “core” sleep. If I didn’t sleep well last night, I am more likely to sleep well tonight. Everyone awakens 4-6 times per night. My sleep will be improving as I try some of these suggestions.”

Try not to spend more than one hour awake in bed each night. In other words, if you usually get about seven hours of sleep, try not to be in bed more eight hours.  Cutting back on the amount of wake time you spend in bed often deepens and consolidates your sleep and makes it more refreshing.

Avoid napping at odd times of day or for too long.  Napping in the morning or in the  evening or for too long will usually worsen your sleep. However, napping between noon and 4pm and for 20-30 minutes or so is fine and will not negatively affect your nighttime sleep.

Try not to have more than 16 ounces of caffeinated beverages per day and try not to have caffeine after noon.  Aim for 1-2 eight-ounce servings before noon only.

Avoid more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day and avoid drinking after 7pm.  Alcohol may help put you to sleep but it will make your sleep lighter and more fragmented during the second half of the night.

Avoid a large late dinner.  Your body’s digestive processes slow down greatly at bedtime.  Try to eat dinner at least 3 hours before your bedtime.

Avoid nicotine use near bedtime.  Nicotine is a stimulant and will worsen your sleep.

Add exercise to your daily routine.  Try to exercise daily for at least 20-30 minutes.  Exercise decreases stress and also results in some physical fatigue that often increases sleepiness at bedtime.  Be sure you are finished exercising at least 3 hours before your bedtime.

Finally, you can use the letters in the word CALF to remember some ways to improve your alertness in the morning. Doing one or two of these (or all of them!) within the first half hour of rising can really help.   

C is for Caffeine: have a beverage with some caffeine (if you like caffeine and you don’t have any negative reaction to it)

A is for Activity: try to get in some light activity like yoga, stretching or a brief walk

L is for Light: try to obtain some light exposure. Sunlight is ideal but a light box also works.

F is for Food: try to have a protein-based breakfast.

One way to do this would be to have your coffee and breakfast or your deck, balcony or patio, for example, if the weather allows and then follow this up with a couple of yoga poses or a quick short walk.

Hope some of these tips help you sleep better!


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