Have you ever found yourself struggling to fall asleep and/or stay asleep during the night? It’s one thing to intentionally stay up late and lose sleep as a result, but there are times when you make an effort to go to bed early enough to get what you hope is a good night’s rest, and yet find yourself spending hours waiting to fall asleep. Or perhaps you fall asleep and end up wide awake a few hours later. This situation can be physically and mentally draining if it’s a common occurrence for you. When someone falls asleep, they don’t try really hard to do so; it simply comes naturally. Because of this, an inability to fall asleep can make you feel completely out of control and leave you feeling absolutely hopeless. It can feel as though the one thing that you need (sleep) is the one thing that your body won’t give you. And you feel the effects. It ISN’T as if you don’t feel tired, because you most definitely do. But when the lights are off, you cannot seem to be able to shut off your mind, relax your body, and dose off, even though you so desperately want to. In my experience, this lead me to become anxious as night time approached, which only exacerbated the problem.
It is NOT supposed to be this way. You should not struggle to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, especially when you’re exhausted. These things can be signs that there is something out of balance occurring within yourself that needs attention. So besides finding time to fit in a full 8 hours of sleep, how can you improve your chances of attaining that high quality restorative sleep that will help you start feeling like yourself again? I have outlined a few steps that you can take to start helping you get better sleep.
1. Give up caffeine.
This might seem obvious, but it is a step that is so commonly ignored because we are so accustomed to drinking coffee every morning. Some people even drink it at any time of the day. You may even feel as if caffeine doesn’t affect you all that much. But if you’re having sleep troubles, you probably are being affected by caffeine consumption. Caffeine is a stimulant because it tends to raise cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in the body, while lowering melatonin, which is the hormone that makes you feel drowsy. Although caffeine sensitivity varies from person-to-person based on genetics, lifestyle, frequency of consumption, age, and sex, it is safe to assume that sleep quality can be drastically improved by the reduction/elimination of caffeine intake. It may be difficult if you are accustomed to large quantities of daily caffeine intake, so it is best to start of slowly.
2. Balance your activity level.
There are several important factors to consider with regards to activity level and sleep. According to the literature, there is an association between sleep and exercise, meaning that people who exercise tend to get better sleep. But this can be explained in two ways: people that exercise are healthier and this leads to better sleep, OR people that get better sleep are more likely to exercise because they have better energy, mood, etc. It is possible that these are both true: exercise level affects sleep quality, and sleep quality affects exercise level. Either way, BOTH too little and too much movement create a stress response in the body. On one hand, exercise (or movement in general) increases the release of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which are important for falling asleep and staying asleep. On the other hand, too much exercise can increase cortisol secretion while reducing melatonin levels, and cause sleeplessness as a result. I rarely recommend people exercise more to increase sleep quality because it can increase stress levels that are already elevated by lack of sleep. In this case, I would suggest mild movement such as leisure outdoor walking, stretching, gentle and light yoga, or simply doing chores around your home (laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc). Once sleep quality has improved, you can start to slowly increase your exercise intensity, if that is your preference.
3. Eat more carbs and less protein at dinner.
An important amino acid for improving sleep quality is tryptophan, which is found in animal foods as well as some plant foods. When tryptophan gets into the brain, it can be converted to serotonin and then melatonin, thus making you sleepy. But foods that contain tryptophan typically contain other amino acids as well, which then compete with tryptophan in being uptaken by the brain, and can slow the formation of serotonin and melatonin as a result. Fortunately, insulin, which is a hormone that is released after consuming carbohydrates, clears competing amino acids from the blood and leaves tryptophan. This makes it easier for tryptophan to enter the brain. Since protein contains other amino acids, it is a good strategy to limit animal protein and increase starchy carbohydrates at dinner time. This leads me to my next tip.
4. Eat enough.
Some people do not want to hear this, but it is extremely important. 1200 calories per day is not enough food. I acknowledge that we are living in a country with food abundance, and that lots of people in the western world are overfed as a result, so perhaps this does not apply to everyone. But if this is a tough pill for you to swallow, then it probably applies to you. In a culture that praises small bodies and encourages low-calorie dieting, people can easily fall into the trap of chronically eating less than their body needs to feel nourished and safe. Female bodies are particularly sensitive to being underfed because of the natural dangers of bearing and birthing children. This means that if a female body feels like there is a scarcity of food, it is likely to compensate by shutting down and reducing certain bodily processes that are not exactly necessary for immediate survival. Like caffeine and too much or too little exercise, being underfed causes a stress response in the body and can result in chronically elevated cortisol levels. Sufficient food is essential for providing calories, which are used by the cells for energy, and nutrients that are used for everything that the body does to survive, including inducing sleep for restoration. Of course, it is also important to consume the right foods, which are whole-foods based and minimally processed, in order to maximize nutrient density.
5. Reduce electronic light exposure.
Recent studies have indicated that exposure to electronic blue light reduces melatonin levels in the body and inhibits sleep. Therefore it would be wise to limit electronic usage towards bed time. You can also install a blue light blocking app like f.lux into your electronics for times that you find it necessary to use your devices after sundown. Another good way to apply this is to turn off artificial lights in your home at night time and use candle light instead. Another good tool for reducing artificial light exposure is wearing amber/blue-blocking glasses towards night time. The quality and efficacy of these glasses varies from brand to brand, but a cheap pair is better than none.
6. Consume magnesium.
Magnesium is a mineral that lots of people in the United States are deficient in, which is unfortunate. It is major contributor to sleep quality. It has been shown to increase the activation of the GABA receptor. GABA is a neurotransmitter that our bodies use to reduce brain activity, and therefore contributes to sleepiness. Magnesium also helps muscles relax, which is an important element of the deeper and more restorative stages of sleep. Some examples of magnesium rich foods are spinach, swiss chard, dark chocolate, and pumpkin seeds. Taking a magnesium supplement at night time can also be beneficial for inducing restorative sleep. I like to use Natural Calm, but you can try a different one if you prefer to do so.
7. Supplement with melatonin.
This can be a useful tool for inducing sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the body and increases sleepiness. It can also be taken orally as a supplement before going to bed. Some melatonin supplements contain up to 10 mg, but small doses can be very effective. I would recommend finding the supplement with the smallest amount of melatonin and taking only a portion of the tablet, aiming towards taking only .1 or .2 mg. I’ve seen wonderful results using the melatonin supplement from NOW Foods. But I would express caution at making this a habitual practice, because of the possibility of adapting to the external intake of melatonin.
8. Improve you sleep environment.
There are several things to consider when creating the ideal environment for quality sleep. It is best to sleep in a completely dark room. This means blocking out all light from electronics and blacking out windows to completely inhibit light entering the room from outside. The darker the room, the better. Another important aspect is blocking out sound as best as possible. This includes sound coming from electronics, cars and traffic, people, etc. A good way of doing this is by using brown or white noise. Find a peaceful and consistent sound track to help block out external noise. Another thing you can try is using earplugs. I use these almost nightly, and I have yet to find a brand that blocks out sound more effectively. Lastly, try to sleep in a cool room, preferably 68-70 degrees F. This may seem a little too chilly, but blankets are very effective if you get too cold.
9. Try mouth-taping.
I know this seems strange, but it has proven very useful for me. Mouth-taping can encourage nose-breathing during sleep, as opposed to mouth-breathing. A person who snores while sleeping is susceptible to waking themselves up because of it. Because snoring tends to occur during the more restorative stages of sleep, it can cause sleep disruptions and lead to non-restorative sleep. I noticed a drastic improvement on my sleep quality when I began using this technique, so I like to recommend it people. I use SomniFix for all my mouth-taping needs. You can simply order the strips through Amazon.
Meditation is a good way of doing this. You can also find an activity that you thoroughly enjoy and that makes you feel comforted and emotionally calm and satisfied. Some examples are dancing, yoga, gardening, reading, etc. Whatever soothes you is best. Another way to relax is to surround yourself with positive people and positive things, and make an effort to stop sweating the small stuff. Practice reducing road rage, being less irritable when waiting in lines, being okay if the WiFi stops working, and finding beauty and wonder in simple things. Another important thing to note is to not stress about sleep. Having an inability to sleep can make you feel worried about sleep. So just remember that your body is an adequate adaptive machine the is equipped to handle the things that life throws at you. If you don’t seem to able to fall asleep, remind yourself that sleep will come eventually. Hold on to this hope, and use it to calm yourself when you start to feel anxious and worried in regards to sleeplessness.
I hope you find this useful, and feel free to leave any additional tips in the comments below!
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