We've all been there in the heart-pounding moments at 3 a.m., when we desperately want to be asleep but somehow cannot get there, when we are racking our brains for what is in our medicine cabinet that might help us along or what soothing things mothers and grandmothers did to help lull us back into sweet dreams. While our sleep can be easily interrupted by a wide variety of factors, the stress that comes in getting and staying asleep doesn't make any night more restful. Before you pop a pill or crank up the late late late show or melt down in a fit of insomnia, consider these five things that might just be the sheep you should be counting:
1. Identify the insomnia issue. Americans average seven hours of sleep a night and 60% of us report difficulty sleeping at least several nights a week. The bigger problem is, many people leave it at that, never examining why they are awake long before the alarm clock goes off or everyone else is sound asleep.
Where do I begin? The first thing you need to do to cure your sleep struggles is determining if you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep all night, you're experiencing insomnia. If you can fall asleep with ease but wake up in the middle of the night regularly, you may have the more-specific issue of "sleep maintenance insomnia". Most of us have short-term sleep issues like these at some point, but a solid 10-15% of people suffer from chronic insomnia.
Insomnia often occurs during periods of stress and may be impacted by depression, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. Rather than focusing on the irritation of being sleep-deprived, try to take a look at both the patterns of insomnia and things going on in your waking life that could be preventing your rest.
2. Take note. Consider keeping an informal sleep journal next to your bed. There's no need to make a journal another stresser but logging some simple information - the date, the time you woke up, how long you stayed awake before you felt sleepy again, your stress level on a one to ten scale - might offer you some helpful information in addressing the insomnia yourself or with a doctor. Although you might know, for example, that you have a high-stress job, it might take a little journaling to connect midnight wakings with Thursday staff meetings or an upcoming deadline.
How will this help? Taking note of how often you have sleep problems and exactly when may also strip away any of those tendencies to say "I NEVER sleep" or "I'm an AWFUL sleeper." Instead, you'll have some more concrete information that will move you from "I often am awake from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m." or "When bills are due, it takes me longer to fall asleep." This kind of real understanding will lead you to a solution much easier than sitting (or laying or pacing) in your frustration).
3. Use your daytime activity to support your nighttime rest. It probably isn't a surprise that even small amounts of exercise will help you rest easier at night. Adding in a walk after lunch or some yoga at your desk will pay off when it is time to turn in.
What about food? Avoid drinking and eating things that will affect your ability to relax or stay in bed. If spicy food gives you heartburn, try not to eat it at a late dinner. If drinking all your water for the day sends you to the bathroom four times before dawn, make a commitment to do most of your hydrating before lunch. Caffeine, sugar and alcohol are also common thieves of sleep, so be aware of when you are consuming them, in what quantities and how the impact your personal sleep patterns. If you must eat close to bedtime, choose a small amount of carbs paired with a protein (oatmeal with skim milk, yogurt with granola, whole grain crackers with soy butter, sliced apple with cheese are all healthy choices to late night snacking).
4. Really prepare for bed. As a mother, I don't know a single parent who doesn't have a well-established bedtime routine for their children. As a mother, I also find myself falling into bed with barely any transition time or closure on the day. At what point do we forget why the songs-stories-snuggles end of the day is so critical to the beginning of our night?
There's no need to ask your husband to read you Goodnight Moon and rub your back while singing Frere Jacques (but if that works, hey, why not?). Do weave some soothing rituals into the half-hour before you want to fall asleep by reading a few pages, stretching, meditating, listening to calm music or just breathing deeply. Releasing the day in these ways will help you let go of those nagging to-do lists and anxieties and prompt your brain and body that it is time to relax.
What are some other routines I can do? Setting a cell phone or watch alarm may cue you to keep a regular bedtime. Lavender essential oils or pillow sprays may soothe you as you settle in and counteract the chaos of the day. Finally, turn off the television, laptop and any other gadgets that make you unnecessarily accessible to life and work outside your bedroom. Finally, there's one thing from your childhood that may still work like a charm when you are having trouble sleeping. Warm milk may really help you drift off because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that converts melatonin and seratonin and could induce sleepiness.
5. Create a bedroom that seduces you into sleep. Do you notice on cable home make-over shows how often couples ask for a renovation that will make their bedroom into a haven? Our frenetic schedules, cluttered homes and tight spaces may mean we stack up so much in our bedrooms that there's no way to escape, even to sleep! Taking a weekend to clear all that out will help you make a healthy sleep environment and may have an immediate impact on how restful you feel in that space.
Many experts say that your bedroom should be a place reserved only for sleeping and sexual intimacy (see? once again, it comes back to the snuggling). Keep this in mind as you are moving your desk, filing cabinets, sewing machines, mountainous laundry piles and kids' toys out of your room and into places where no one needs to sleep.
How can I dial down the action and dial up the allure? Keeping your room cool and dark, choosing pillows and bedding that are comfortable and you enjoy settling in to and adding black-out curtains behind your window treatments will help set the stage. Remove the television. If this pains you or your partner, consider moving it out for a month to see if it helps. If it must stay, keep it in a cabinet or armoire that closes or cover it with a scarf so you have one more marker for turning off when you turn in.
If the stress of your days still seeps in, keep a worry book by your bed where you can write down what (literally) could keep you awake that night. Or if the to-dos are what's nagging at you all night, keep a stack of sticky notes and pen next to the bed so you can transcribe them right away, knowing you can pick them up in the morning.
Still wide awake? No! These posts won't put you to sleep but they might help you out if you need some ZZZZs:
- Help me out!: What's your bedtime routine?
- 4 ways to get a good night's sleep
- How much sleep did you get last night?
- Get rid of your under-eye circles
- Undercover: Sleep masks