Unfortunately, lack of sleep is a prevalent issue in modern society. There are several factors at play – the increase of artificial blue light, TVs and tablets in the bedroom, bad diets, and sedentary lifestyles. Below we will go over the importance of sleep, the most common issues we confront when trying to sleep, and some tips to start improving your sleep hygiene.
All About Sleep
When you’re awake, your brain and body are in an active, alert state. You are conscious of your surroundings and are, for the most part, capable of performing all of your necessary day-to-day functions.
When you’re asleep, your system doesn’t simply shut off. Rather, it switches to a restive state. Many internal functions, like muscle movement, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, slow down as the release of growth hormones ramps up to restore and repair your body.
Being in between these modes — not fully awake, but unable to sleep — can leave you in a dazed state. One or two nights can lead to crankiness, a lack of concentration, and the need for multiple cups of coffee. But if you’re lying awake more often than not, this could be harmful to your mental and physical health.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
A perfect day would start by waking up naturally (without an alarm) and end with having made good use of your time and energy before drifting off to sleep.
Sleep-wake homeostasis works to balance the time we’re awake with the time we’re asleep. For example, at the start of the day, we’re refreshed. We don’t need to sleep. Then as the day goes on and our energy is spent, our longing to sleep gets stronger. The longer we stay awake, the more we need to sleep.
Conversely, the hours we sleep make up for the hours we were awake, and after a sufficient period of rest, we should wake up ready for the day.
Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour internal body clocks governing the sleeping, waking, and even eating habits of humans and many other living organisms. Circadian rhythms are different in every individual and are usually dictated by genetics, the amount of light in the environment, and other individual factors.
These days, it’s easy to throw a wrench into your natural rhythm — stress from work, artificial light sources, the food you eat, etc. In many ways, your body is being conditioned to stay alert and awake as long as it can — even if it’s long past your bedtime.
7 Tips to Start Sleeping Better
Thankfully, there are several things you can do to get to sleep. The best solution will depend on how many sleepless nights you’ve had. Sleep problems come and all shapes in sizes. There are the risks of having irregular work shifts or jet lag from traveling across time zones. There are also more chronic disorders like insomnia, which is an inability to sleep or stay asleep for extended periods of time.
Other disorders may also prevent people from staying asleep. These can include sleep apnea, which manifests in abnormal breathing (or even a temporary stop in breathing) that frequently wakes those afflicted, and restless legs syndrome, an uncontrollable urge to move one’s legs or arms at night.
To see if you can alleviate some of these sleep disturbances yourself, here are a few self-help treatments to help your brain and body rest.
1. Control Your Light Exposure
Light has one of the biggest effects on our natural circadian rhythms. It’s important for humans to be exposed to light during the day (as soon as we get up, if possible) and lessen our exposure in the evening. When it’s dark, the brain automatically secretes a hormone called melatonin to induce sleepiness.
But when there’s still a lot of light around — especially the blue light from mobile phones, tablets, computers, and TVs — our sleep-wake cycle gets disrupted and we tend to stay wide awake. It’s best to avoid screens a few hours before bed, dim the lights, and if needed, use blackout curtains or a sleep mask.
2. Clear Your Head
A lot of times we have trouble sleeping because of something on our mind — anxiety about an upcoming event, a stressful client at work, or a current life dilemma. It may be difficult, but it’s important to put these aside in order to get some rest. Practice good sleep hygiene and stick to a nightly bedtime ritual. This can be taking a warm bath, counting slow breaths, or performing some relaxation techniques. These will all help prime your body for a peaceful slumber.
3. Stick to a Sleep Routine
Help the body get back on schedule by waking up and going to bed at the same time. Resist the urge to sleep in, even on weekends. And as much as possible, stay awake throughout the day. While napping is normally an effective way to catch up on lost sleep, it can send mixed signals to your body when you’re trying to reset your schedule. If you really need to nap, keep it to a maximum of 15-20 minutes in the early afternoon.
4. Exercise Daily
Exercising can help you get restful sleep at night. Even if only for 10-30 minutes, a regular fitness routine helps improve health, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality. A few good routines to try are cardio exercise (i.e., running, biking, swimming), strength training, or pilates.
5. Keep a Journal
Why have your thoughts run through your head and keep you up at night when you can just write them down? Journaling can be a good means of reflection and release from the day’s stress. Jot down thoughts that pop into your head to help you rest assured you’ll remember it the next day.
You can even create a sleep journal to document your sleep habits. How was your day? What did you have to eat? How many hours did you sleep? These are small but significant details to help you learn about your personal sleep patterns.
6. Create a Relaxing Sleep Environment
Sometimes, having the best mattress, pillow, and bedding can make all the difference. They are the major components of your sleep space. Choose a quality mattress to accommodate your preferred sleeping style and position, a pillow to support your head and neck, and a blanket you like bundling up in without making you too warm.
7. See a Sleep Specialist
If you’ve tried all sorts of self-help and still can’t get yourself to sleep, it may be worth seeing a sleep specialist. Sleep specialists are medical doctors with special training in sleep disorders and sleep-related conditions. Not only are they at the forefront of sleep medicine, but they also have access to the most effective remedies. For example, they can administer cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), offer a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device for sleep apnea, or recommend therapy for restless leg syndrome.
Whether you’ve been having trouble sleeping for a few days or a few weeks, it’s important to find helpful remedies for better rest. It can be as simple as sipping a cup of hot chamomile tea or turning on a small fan in your room. Or it may require something more permanent, like starting a regular exercise routine or creating a comfortable sleep environment.
No matter which of the above you end up trying, one of them may be what lies between you and a good night’s sleep. Just remember, your brain and body want you to get the rest you need. If you can remove certain elements keeping you up, and create a relaxing environment, you will eventually get some much-needed sleep.