Sleep Improvement

Following healthy sleep habits can make the difference between restlessness and restful slumber. Researchers have identified a variety of practices and habits that can help anyone maximize the hours they spend sleeping, even those whose sleep is affected by insomnia, jet lag, or shift work.

1. Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule

  • Set a regular bedtime. Go to bed at the same time every night. Try not to break this routine on weekends when it may be tempting to stay up late.
  • Wake up at the same time every day. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need an alarm clock to wake up on time, you may need to set an earlier bedtime. Try to maintain your regular wake-time even on weekends.
  • Nap to make up for lost sleep. If you need to make up for a few lost hours, opt for a daytime nap rather than sleeping late. This strategy allows you to pay off your sleep debt without disturbing your natural sleep-wake rhythm, which often backfires in insomnia and throws you off for days.
  • Be smart about napping. While taking a nap can be a great way to recharge, especially for older adults, it can make insomnia worse. If insomnia is a problem for you, consider eliminating napping. If you must nap, do it in the early afternoon, and limit it to thirty minutes.
  • Fight after-dinner drowsiness. If you find yourself getting sleepy way before your bedtime, get off the couch and do something mildly stimulating to avoid falling asleep, such as washing the dishes, calling a friend, or getting clothes ready for the next day. If you give in to the drowsiness, you may wake up later in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.

2. Naturally regulate your sleep-wake cycle

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin production is controlled by light exposure. Your brain should secrete more in the evening, when it’s dark, to make you sleepy, and less during the day when it’s light and you want to stay awake and alert. However, many aspects of modern life can disrupt your body’s natural production of melatonin and with it your sleep-wake cycle.

Increase light exposure during the day 

  • Spend more time outside during daylight. Try to take your work breaks outside in sunlight, exercise outside, or walk your dog during the day instead of at night.
  • Let as much light into your home/workspace as possible. Keep curtains and blinds open during the day, and try to move your desk closer to the window.
  • If necessary, use a light therapy box. A light therapy box can simulate sunshine and can be especially useful during short winter days when there’s limited daylight.

Boost Melatonin production at night 

  • Turn off your television and computer. Many people use the television to fall asleep or relax at the end of the day, and this is a mistake. Not only does the light suppress melatonin production, but television can actually stimulate the mind, rather than relaxing it. Try listening to music or audio books instead, or practicing relaxation exercises. If your favorite TV show is on late at night, record it for viewing earlier in the day.
  • Don’t read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad). If you use a portable electronic device to read, use an eReader that is not backlit, i.e. one that requires an additional light source such as a bedside lamp.
  • Change your bright light bulbs. Avoid bright lights before bed, use low-wattage bulbs instead.
  • When it’s time to sleep, make sure the room is dark. The darker it is, the better you’ll sleep. Cover electrical displays, use heavy curtains or shades to block light from windows, or try a sleep mask to cover your eyes.

3. Create a relaxing bedtime routine

  • Keep noise down. If you can’t avoid or eliminate noise from barking dogs, loud neighbors, city traffic, or other people in your household, try masking it with a fan, recordings of soothing sounds, or white noise. Earplugs may also help.
  • Keep your room cool. Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room (around 65° F or 18° C) with adequate ventilation.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable. If you often wake up with a sore back or an aching neck, you may need to invest in a new mattress or a try a different pillow. Experiment with different levels of mattress firmness, foam or egg crate toppers, and pillows that provide more or less support.
  • Reserve your bed for sleeping only. 

Relaxing bedtime rituals to try: 

  • Read a book or magazine by a soft light
  • Take a warm bath
  • Listen to soft music
  • Do some easy stretches
  • Meditate
  • Wind down with a favorite hobby
  • Listen to books on tape
  • Make simple preparations for the next day
  • Have a cup of hot herbal tea

4. Eat right and get regular exercise

  • Stay away from big meals at night. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods within two hours of bed. Fatty foods take a lot of work for your stomach to digest and may keep you up. Also be cautious when it comes to spicy or acidic foods in the evening, as they can cause stomach trouble and heartburn.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed. Many people think that a nightcap before bed will help them sleep, but it’s counterintuitive. While it may make you fall asleep faster, alcohol reduces your sleep quality, waking you up later in the night.
  • Cut down on caffeine. You might be surprised to know that caffeine can cause sleep problems up to ten to twelve hours after drinking it! Consider eliminating caffeine after lunch or cutting back your overall intake.
  • Avoid drinking too many liquids in the evening. Drinking lots of water, juice, tea, or other fluids may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night. Caffeinated drinks, which act as diuretics, only make things worse.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking causes sleep troubles in numerous ways. Nicotine is a stimulant, which disrupts sleep, plus smokers experience nicotine withdrawal as the night progresses, making it hard to sleep.
  • Exercise Regularly. As little as 20 to 30 minutes of daily activity helps. And you don’t need to do all 30 minutes in one session. You can break it up into five minutes here, 10 minutes there, and still get the benefits. Try a brisk walk, a bicycle ride, or even gardening or housework. Relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.

5. Get Anxiety and Stress in check

Do you find yourself unable to sleep or waking up night after night? Residual stress, worry, and anger from your day can make it very difficult to sleep well. When you wake up or can’t get to sleep, take note of what seems to be the recurring theme. That will help you figure out what you need to do to get your stress and anger under control during the day.

If you can’t stop yourself from worrying, especially about things outside your control, you need to learn how to manage your thoughts. For example, you can learn to evaluate your worries to see if they’re truly realistic and replace irrational fears with more productive thoughts. Even counting sheep is more productive than worrying at bedtime.

If the stress of managing work, family, or school is keeping you awake, you may need help with stress management. By learning how to manage your time effectively, handle stress in a productive way, and maintain a calm, positive outlook, you’ll be able to sleep better at night.

Try these relaxation techniques: 

  • Deep breathing. Close your eyes, and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with your toes, tense all the muscles as tightly as you can, then completely relax. Work your way up from your feet to the top of your head.
  • Visualizing a peaceful, restful place. Close your eyes and imagine a place or activity that is calming and peaceful for you. Concentrate on how relaxed this place or activity makes you feel.

6. Ways to get back to sleep

  • Stay out of your head. The key to getting back to sleep is continuing to cue your body for sleep, so remain in bed in a relaxed position. Hard as it may be, try not to stress over the fact that you’re awake or your inability to fall asleep again, because that very stress and anxiety encourages your body to stay awake. A good way to stay out of your head is to focus on the feelings and sensations in your body.
  • Make relaxation your goal, not sleep. If you find it hard to fall back asleep, try a relaxation technique such as visualization, deep breathing, or meditation, which can be done without even getting out of bed. Remind yourself that although they’re not a replacement for sleep, rest and relaxation still help rejuvenate your body.
  • Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity. If you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes, try getting out of bed and doing a quiet, non-stimulating activity, such as reading a book. Keep the lights dim so as not to cue your body clock that it’s time to wake up. Also avoid screens of any kind—computers, TV, cell phones, iPads—as the type of light they emit is stimulating to the brain. Herbal tea might help relax you.
  • Postpone worrying and brainstorming. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when you are fresh and it will be easier to resolve. Similarly, if a brainstorm or great idea is keeping you awake, make a note of it on paper and fall back to sleep knowing you’ll be much more productive and creative after a good night’s rest.

7. Try Acupuncture

Acupuncture can bring balance to the body. When the body is balanced, Yin and Yang energies are in harmony. Yang energy is active, alert, moving, and represents the daytime. Yin energy is quite, dark, still, and represents the nighttime. Thus, making sure Yin and Yang energies are present at appropriate times can help ensure deeper sleep at night and more energy during the day.

Acupuncture can help:

  • Balance hormone production. This is especially important for Melatonin secretion.
  • Release stress. In Chinese Medicine, Stress is defined as a blockage of energy in the body. It makes us feel angry, uneasy, anxious, irritable. Acupuncture utilizes specific points to open up the energy of the body and release pent up tension.
  • Calm the Mind. In the modern world, most of our energy is concentrated in the head as we are constantly thinking, seeing, hearing, analyzing. This leads to incessant thoughts that can not be shut off. Acupuncture helps descend the energy into the body, allowing the mind to quite and rest.
  • Promote Sleep by regulating the Nervous System. Chronic stress, rushing, or overworking activates the Sympathetic Nervous System which is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. Sleep requires the activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System which governs “rest and digest.” Acupuncture has been proven to down-regulate the Sympathetic branch and activate the Parasympathetic response.

8. Know when to see a sleep doctor

If you’ve tried the tips above and are still struggling with sleep problems, you may require professional treatment. Consider scheduling a visit with a sleep doctor if you are still troubled by any of the following symptoms:

  • Persistent daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Loud snoring accompanied by pauses in breathing
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Frequent morning headaches
  • Crawling sensations in your legs or arms at night
  • Inability to move while falling asleep or waking up
  • Physically acting out dreams during sleep
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate times

Additional Resources and Sleep Tips:

Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep – Explore simple tips for making the sleep of your dreams a nightly reality. (Healthy Sleep, Harvard Medical School)

Healthy Sleep Tips – A variety of sleep tips including bedtime snacks, exercise, room temperature, noise, and light control. (National Sleep Foundation)

Adopt Good Sleep Habits – Learn how improving your sleep environment and sticking to a regular schedule can improve the quality of your sleep. (Get Sleep, Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine)

Sleep Hygiene: Helpful Hints to Help You Sleep – More tips for getting better sleep. (University of Maryland Medical Center)