It may seem that falling asleep is something we all know how to do, because we do it every night. But do you really know how to fall asleep? Some routines and techniques will lead to much more effective sleep than others.
Henry is his own worst enemy when it comes to getting his needed sleep. After racing all day at work, he continues his relentless pace into his non-work hours, trying to squeeze in all of the things he needs or wants to do. At some late hour he gets hit with fatigue. It's the first time since awakening early that morning that he has even thought about sleep.
But sound sleep is not what Henry typically experiences. After driving his body and mind at 80 miles per hour for the entire day and evening, he slams on the brakes and rolls into bed. While his intention is to sleep, his mind and body are not ready. He's taken no time or effort to prepare himself for a good night's sleep. But should he?
The answer is a definite yes, despite the fact that most people don't. That lack of preparation could have something to do with the fact that more than half the population of the United States complains of sleep problems. This chapter is designed to help you prepare yourself and your sleep environment for a good night's rest.
In order to maximize your sleep time, there are four main considerations. You must:
- Begin your preparations for sleep during the day
- Schedule your sleep patterns deliberately
- Practice habits that help your body to relax before sleep
- Control your sleep environment
From the moment you wake up in the morning, you have choices to make that can affect how well you sleep that night. Making wise choices throughout the day can help you sleep soundly at night and awaken with renewed energy.
One such choice is to get regular exercise. The next page explains when you should work out to sleep better at night.
Exercise and Sleep
The Exercise/Sleep Connection
Everyone's body temperature naturally goes up slightly in the daytime and back down at night, reaching its low just before dawn. Decreasing body temperature seems to be a trigger, signaling the body that it's time to sleep. Vigorous exercise temporarily raises the body temperature as much as two degrees.
Twenty or 30 minutes of aerobic exercise is sufficient
to keep the body temperature at this higher level for a period of four
to five hours, after which it drops lower than if you hadn't exercised.
This lower body temperature is what helps you sleep better. So if you
exercise five to six hours before going to bed, you will be attempting
to sleep at the same time your temperature is beginning to go down.
Exercise and sleep have a more complicated relationship than many people realize. The majority of people claim that they don't exercise on a regular basis because they are too tired. Hmmm. Could that have something to do with sleep habits, perhaps? Chances are good that it does.
If there were a competition to determine which lifestyle habit would win the title of "best intention never acted on," exercise would probably win. The reason we intend to exercise is that we all know how good it is for us. And research finds new benefits every day. Regular exercise improves heart health and blood pressure, builds bone and muscle, helps combat stress and muscle tension, and can even improve mood.
Add one more benefit: sound sleep. Did you know that exercise can help you sleep sounder and longer and feel more awake during the day? It's true. But the key is found in the type of exercise you choose and the time you participate in it during the day.
What time of the day do you think exercise would best help you sleep? Morning? Afternoon? Evening? Right before bed?
Exercising vigorously right before bed or within about three hours of your bedtime can actually make it harder to fall asleep. This surprises many people; it's often thought that a good workout before bed helps you feel more tired. In actuality, vigorous exercise right before bed stimulates your heart, brain and muscles -- the opposite of what you want at bedtime. It also raises your body temperature right before bed, which, you'll soon discover, is not what you want.
Morning exercise can relieve stress and improve mood. These effects can indirectly improve sleep, no doubt. To get a more direct sleep-promoting benefit from morning exercise, however, you can couple it with exposure to outdoor light. Being exposed to natural light in the morning, whether you're exercising or not, can improve your sleep at night by reinforcing your body's sleep-wake cycle.
When it comes to having a direct effect on getting a good night's sleep, it's vigorous exercise in the late afternoon or early evening that appears most beneficial. That's because it raises your body temperature above normal a few hours before bed, allowing it to start falling just as you're getting ready for bed. This decrease in body temperature appears to be a trigger that helps ease you into sleep.
The type of vigorous workout we're talking about is a cardiovascular workout. That means you engage in some activity in which you keep your heart rate up and your muscles pumping continuously for at least 20 minutes. Although strength-training, stretching, yoga, and other methods of exercise are beneficial, none match the sleep-enhancing benefits of cardiovascular exercise.
Try to schedule at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three or four times a week. Choose whatever activity you enjoy. Walk to and from work, or walk the dog. Jog, swim, bike, ski, jump rope, dance or play tennis -- just make it part of your routine.
If you have any serious medical conditions, are very overweight, or haven't exercised in years, talk to your doctor about your plans for exercising before you begin. Be sure to start exercising slowly, gradually increasing your workout time and intensity, so you don't get sidelined by injury. Remember, regular exercise can help you feel, look and sleep better.
The effect that sunlight has on the sleep-wake cycle can be just as complex. Learn about this connection on the next page.
Sunlight and Sleep
If you're battling insomnia but can't consistently expose yourself to outdoor light in the morning, you may want to try phototherapy with artificial light. This involves sitting within about three feet (for some less powerful boxes, you need to sit closer) of an artificial-light box for between 30 minutes and two hours a day. The specially designed light can have an effect on your biological clock similar to that of natural sunlight. You can sit in front of the light while you eat, read or watch television. The boxes cost between $250 and $500 and are available from many manufacturers. If you decide to purchase a light box, be sure to get one that has a brightness of 10,000 lux, which is the intensity needed to regulate your rhythm.
It seems counterintuitive: Early-morning sunlight helps you sleep at night. But it's true, because those two things are part of the sleep-wake cycle.
Light tells the brain it is time to wake up. That's probably obvious to anyone who has had to turn on a light in the middle of the night and then has had trouble getting back to sleep. What may not be so obvious is that exposure to light at other times, particularly in the early morning, can actually help you sleep at night.
How does morning light improve sleep? The light helps to regulate your biological clock and keep it on track. This internal clock is located in the brain and keeps time not all that much differently from your wristwatch. There does, however, appear to be a kind of forward drift built into the brain. By staying up later and, more importantly, getting up later, you enforce that drift, which means you may find you have trouble getting to sleep and waking up when you need to.
To counter this forward drift, you need to reset your clock each day, so that it stays compatible with the earth's 24-hour daily rhythm -- and with your daily schedule. Exposing yourself to light in the morning appears to accomplish this resetting.
Research has shown that people who are deprived of light for long periods of time (and so do not have their biological clocks reset) experience dramatic changes in their sleep, temperature and hormone cycles. Although you probably won't be deprived of light for an extended period, getting less morning light than you need may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep and wake up at your preferred times.
Many factors can affect our biological clock, but light appears to be the most important. The timing of exposure is crucial; the body clock is most responsive to sunlight in the early morning, between 6 and 8:30 a.m. Exposure to sunlight later does not provide the same benefit. The type of light also matters, as does the length of exposure. Direct sunlight outdoors for at least one-half hour produces the most benefit. The indoor lighting in a typical home or office has little effect.
Specially designed light boxes and visors that simulate sunlight are available. (They are often prescribed to treat seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that tends to occur seasonally, during the darker winter months.) Still, a half hour in front of even the most powerful light box does not provide as much phototherapy as does a half hour outside on even an overcast day.
You can't control when the sun shines, but you can control the level of stress in your life. Find out on the next page how stress affects sleep.
Stress and Sleep
Everyone knows that it's hard to sleep when you're under a lot of stress. Unfortunately, there's no way to grow accustomed to sleeping with stress, so the solution is to reduce the amount of stress in your life.
If you moved into a new neighborhood only to discover that it was plagued by smelly smoke from a nearby factory, you would likely be annoyed or angry at first. But after several weeks, you probably wouldn't notice it as much. You would become conditioned to the smell despite the fact that it may not be terribly healthy for you.
A similar phenomenon can occur when we experience stress on an ongoing basis. We may be so bombarded with daily stress -- in the form of hurried schedules, family commitments, traffic jams and the like -- that we become accustomed to it. We may not even realize how stressed we are until we're faced with a breakdown or an emergency -- a "last straw." But such constant exposure to stress can make it difficult to get needed sleep and can compromise our overall health.
It's important to dispel the myth that you can avoid stress. If you breathe, you are going to encounter life situations that bring stress. Since you can't avoid it, the best option is to learn how to manage it. One key to managing stress is assessing what you have control over and what you don't. For instance, if your boss has set an unrealistic deadline for a project, you may have little or no control over changing that. But you do have control over how you respond to that deadline.
And your response to a given situation is what you want to focus on as you seek to manage stress. You can choose to do certain things and not others. This ability to choose puts you in control and gives you the ability to make the situation work for you.
Professional therapists who specialize in stress reduction will tell you that your body is the best guide to determining when you are feeling stressed. If you pay attention to how you feel both physically and emotionally, you can often intervene before stress begins to interfere with sleep.
What does stress management during the day have to do with sleeping well at night? Plenty. Have you ever had the unpleasant experience of crawling into bed exhausted, wanting to put a terrible day behind you, and spending the next few hours tossing and turning as you go over every detail of your day? That is stress at work on your mind. All of those emotions and thoughts throughout the day that were not dealt with at the time can work their way to the surface in the quiet of night.
In addition, the more you dwell on the upsetting events, the greater the effect on your body. When it senses stress, the brain sends a message to the body to release hormones that heighten alertness and prepare it for action. This is known as the fight-or-flight response. It's a beneficial reaction if you need to fight off a dog that threatens you on your walk or jump out of the way of a speeding vehicle.
But when the stress is mental and there is no physical response necessary, that heightened state of alertness can keep you from relaxing enough to sleep. By learning to deal with stressors in your life more immediately during the day, you are less likely to be kept awake by them at night.
Just as you can control the stress in your life, you can also control when you nap. Learn how napping may affect your nighttime sleep on the next page.
Napping and Sleep
Boredom and Napping
Have you ever had to fight to keep your eyes open during a meeting or battled the head-nods while listening to a presentation? You probably attributed your desire to doze to the boring nature of the activity. But consider this: Children -- who tend to get the amount of sleep their bodies need -- don't get sleepy when faced with a boring situation; they get restless.
So if sitting through a "sleeper of a speech" has you fighting to stay awake, consider it a hint from your body that you are not getting the sleep you need. This is especially vital when you are driving long distances. If you feel you have to turn up the radio or open a window just to stay awake during a "boring" drive, you are most likely too tired to be driving. The solution is not distraction but sleep.
Some people swear by naps, others find that napping during the day disrupts their sleep at night. Naps can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on how we use them. The urge to nap is greatest about eight hours after we awaken from a night's sleep. This is when our body temperature begins the first of two daily dips (the other, more dramatic dip occurs at night).
A short nap in the early to middle afternoon can bring a renewed sense of energy and alertness. A nap in the late afternoon or early evening, on the other hand, can disrupt your sleep cycle and make it difficult to fall asleep when you retire for the night.
To benefit most from a nap, take it no later than mid-afternoon and keep it under 30 minutes. If you nap for a longer period, your body lapses into a deeper phase of sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy when you awaken. If you are severely sleep deprived and can't go on without a nap, it is better to sleep for a longer time to allow yourself to go through one complete sleep cycle. An average sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes in most people.
If you find you need a nap every day, take it at the same time so your body can develop a rhythm that incorporates the nap. If you try to take a nap but are unable to sleep, simply resting with your eyes closed may help restore some alertness and energy.
It's also possible to use naps to temper the negative effects of an anticipated sleep deficit. For instance, if you know you are going to be up late because of special plans, take a prolonged nap of two to three hours earlier in the day. This has been shown to reduce fatigue at the normal bedtime and improve alertness, although it may throw off your normal sleep rhythm temporarily.
Your eating habits may also affect your sleep cycle. Check out how a healthy eating pattern can lull you into a blissful slumber on the next page.
Diet and Sleep
How much of a direct effect diet has on sleep is still unclear. It's safe to say, though, that a balanced, varied diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat protein sources can help your body function optimally and help ward off chronic conditions such as heart disease. Controlling portion sizes, so you're taking in only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight, can help keep diseases such as diabetes at bay. And since chronic diseases and the drugs required for them can interfere with sleep, eating wisely can help you safeguard your health and your sleep.
Adjusting your eating routine may also help you get a better night's sleep. Most people in this country eat a light breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a large meal in the evening. Yet leaving the largest meal to the end of the day may not be the best choice, since it can result in uncomfortable distention and possibly heartburn when you retire for the night. You might want to try reversing that pattern for a more sleep-friendly meal plan:
- Eat a substantial breakfast. Because you are breaking your nighttime fast and consuming the nutrients you will need for energy throughout the morning, breakfast should be your largest meal of the day. Whole-grain breads and cereals, yogurt, and fruit are just a few examples of good breakfast choices.
- Opt for a moderate lunch. Choose brown rice, pasta, or whole-grain bread and a serving of protein -- fish, eggs, chicken, meat or beans.
- Finish with a light dinner. It is particularly important to eat lightly for your evening meal in order to prepare for a good night's sleep. Plan to finish your meal at least two hours before going to bed, preferably longer. If you need a little something to eat before you hit the sack, you'll find suggestions for late-night snacks at Techniques to Promote Sleep.
In addition, you may want to try these tips:
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine, especially in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine is a stimulant, which is why so many of us reach for that cup of coffee in the morning to get us going. And it's true that some individuals can drink caffeinated beverages all day long and still sleep soundly at night. But if you're having trouble sleeping, then limiting your caffeine intake should be one of the first steps you try to help improve your sleep. Be aware that coffee is not the only source of caffeine. Many sodas and teas, chocolate, and some medications, especially those for headaches, also contain caffeine. Check labels to help eliminate such sources of stimulation.
- Some people are sensitive to the flavor enhancer and preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG). In susceptible individuals, it can cause digestive upset, headaches and other reactions that can interfere with sleep. MSG is found in some processed foods and in some Asian foods. Try avoiding foods that contain MSG to see if it helps you sleep better.
- Drink the majority of your fluids for the day by the end of dinner. A full bladder may be cutting into your sleep time. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Water is essential to healthy bodily functions. Shoot for eight glasses, or two quarts, per day. But be sure to drink the majority of your fluids before dinnertime so you won't be making numerous trips to the bathroom during your sleeping hours.
- Skip the alcohol. Despite making you feel drowsy, alcohol may actually be disturbing your sleep.
Your overall daily routine, not just your eating routine, also has an impact on sleep. Learn how on the next page.
Sleep and Routine
What is a Bedtime Ritual?
A bedtime ritual can be anything you want it to be as long as you do it each night. An appealing ritual for many might include: a light snack, laying clothes out for the next day, a warm bath or shower, brushing teeth, listening to soft music and/or reading, followed by lights out. Begin your ritual 30 to 60 minutes before your bedtime, and don't rush through it.
Our bodies like to sleep on a regimented routine. It might seem unnatural to schedule your sleep like you would an important appointment, but this is one of the most vital principles to getting a good night's rest. Here are several ideas for keeping a scheduled sleep routine.
Establish a Bedtime Ritual
Most of us begin our day with a morning routine. It helps us prepare ourselves physically and mentally for the day. So why not establish a bedtime routine that helps to prepare you for sleep? The purpose of a bedtime ritual is to send a signal to your body and mind that it's time to sleep.
You probably already have some regular bedtime habits, even if you haven't realized it. Brushing and flossing your teeth, lowering the thermostat, and setting your alarm clock may all be part of your evening routine. To help you get to sleep, you should perform these activities in the same manner and order every night.
Avoid activities that are stimulating or laden with emotion right before bedtime. Starting to assemble your new computer or paying a stack of bills 30 minutes before bed would not be wise. Begin those types of activities earlier in the evening, and end them in time to go unhurriedly through your bedtime routine.
Establishing some type of bedtime ritual also provides closure to your day and allows you to go to bed and sleep with a more quiet body and mind.
Some people think going to bed on a schedule is only for children. While it's good for children to have a regular bedtime, it's also very good for adults who want to sleep like children when they hit the sack.
Within weeks of keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule, you will begin to feel more alert than if you were keeping a variable sleep-wake routine. Not only will a stable rhythm of sleeping and waking improve the quality of your sleep, but it will probably also improve the quality of your life. Try it for six weeks and see the difference it makes in your energy and alertness.
Your nightly ritual is one way to prepare yourself for sleep. Learn some others on the next page.
Preparing for Sleep
Now that you know how to prepare for sleep during the day and schedule it at night, you're ready for bed. But before you peel those sheets back, consider how you might prepare your body and mind for that relaxing and peaceful sleep for which you long.
The hour before bedtime is the most critical for good sleep. When used properly, the time right before bed can help you let go of the stressful, anxiety-provoking events of the day and promote a restful night's sleep. But if that last hour before slumber is not used properly, it can set the stage for a long night of tossing and turning. Try some of the following ideas to see which work best for you.
The key to preparing for sleep is to establish an atmosphere of peace and calm. Ease your mind and body with quiet yet pleasurable activities. You will create a sense of inner well-being that allows sleep to come quickly and easily. Most people find one of the following works well for them. Experiment with several if you're not sure.
- Read to relax. But choose your reading material with care. The idea is to read something light that won't stimulate your mind. In other words, you probably don't want to crack that new software manual. Better choices would be a popular magazine, a short story or perhaps devotional reading.
- Listen to music. Choose music that relaxes you. In general, soft instrumental music has the most calming effect. Hard driving rock and pop beats often pull you into the music, causing you to be more awake, especially if the tunes are familiar. Another sound alternative might be playing a tape or CD of nature sounds.
- Try meditation or prayer. These activities, which help many people relax, can also help you be at peace with whatever is on your mind.
- Watch television, but only if it helps you relax. Watching television is fine to prepare for sleep if you use some discipline. Falling asleep with the TV on is not the best way to start your sleep. In most cases, you have to awaken to turn it off, which forces you to have to fall asleep again. The idea is to stay asleep once you doze off. A better use of television is to watch it earlier in the evening and practice other relaxation techniques right before bed. If you must watch right before bed, don't watch in your bedroom.
Take a Warm Bath
Recipe for a Soothing Bath
Why not make your bath as relaxing as possible? Try dimming the lights or using candles to create atmosphere. Play soft music in the background. Add two cups of Epsom salts to the bathwater to ease sore or tired muscles. Use a towel or waterproof pillow to support your head, and stretch out. Some people enjoy reading in the tub. But only read pleasurable material that you find relaxing.
One popular way to relax the body and slow down the mind is a warm bath, and you may find it fits the bill for you. But you may want to do some experimenting with your timing.
Some people find a nice hot bath just before bed makes them drowsy and ready to drop into sleep. If you do, enjoy. On the other hand, some people find that a hot bath is actually stimulating or that it makes them too uncomfortably warm when they slip into bed.
If you find a just-before-bed bath makes it harder for you to fall asleep, consider taking the bath earlier, a couple of hours before bed. An earlier bath may enhance the gradual drop in body temperature that normally occurs at night and help trigger drowsiness.
Let It Go
You've just gotten off the phone with a relative who infuriates you every time you talk with him. First he calls you collect, then he launches into all the things he sees wrong with the way you're living your life. Flying into your bedroom like a whirlwind, you try to get ready for bed. You're glowing with anger. You lie down on the bed and repeatedly slam your fist into your pillow as you try to find a comfortable position.
But you can't fall asleep...you're on fire.
Too often people go to bed when their mind is a raging fury, agonizing over some event of the day. Don't make this mistake. You don't want your bed to be a place for anger or worry. Your bedroom should produce a feeling of peace and contentment.
When your emotions have boiled over, stay out of the bed and the bedroom until you cool down. Try journaling or writing your frustrations down on paper to help unburden your mind. Or try one of the relaxation techniques -- described on the page Techniques to Promote Sleep -- to unwind your tangled emotions. Once you've calmed down, then you can retreat to bed.
The best way to make your bedroom a peaceful retreat is by preparing your room (as well as yourself). Find out how on the next page.
Preparing Your Bedroom for Sleep
Preparing your bedroom for sleep and only sleep rather than for other activities is as important as preparing yourself for sleep.
Most of us think of our bed as a place to sleep. But many people also use their bed for watching television, listening to the radio, talking on the telephone, eating, reading or playing cards. If you really want to do all you can to sleep better, however, you shouldn't do any of these nonsleep activities in bed. When you do, the bed and bedroom can become associated with these activities rather than with sleep.
Bedroom Clutter and Sleeplessness
Is your bedroom a sleep sanctuary that feels calm, looks clean, and invites you to relax? Or does it have a computer, desk, files, and magazines strewn around, clothes on the floor, and books haphazardly stacked on your nightstand? To transform your bedroom into a restful sanctuary, start by cleaning. If your bedroom doubles as an office, move the equipment and related stuff to another location or hide it behind a folding screen. While you're in the mood, pitch or move all items out of the bedroom that might distract you from sleep. Then add subtle artwork, bedding, wall coverings and window treatments that you find soothing.
If you're one of those folks who sets the timer on the television or radio and drifts off listening to it, you might want to break yourself of the habit. You may not realize it, but you may be fighting off sleep just to hear the end of that monologue or the last bars of that favorite song.
In addition, if you condition yourself to fall asleep only when you have that background noise, then if you wake up in the middle of the night, you may not be able to fall asleep without it. So you either struggle to fall back asleep without it or wake yourself up just to turn the device back on -- neither of which is likely to improve your sleep overall.
Some people even go so far as to do work in bed. While this practice may help you catch up on paperwork, it can seriously disrupt your sleep. When you do work in bed, all of the associated stress becomes related to the bed and bedroom. Just getting into bed at night may subsequently cause your heart rate to increase, your muscles to tighten, and your thoughts to race. Whether you consciously realize it, the sheets, blankets and pillows can become associated with your job, and their very sight and smell may cause thoughts of work to flood your mind as you try to fall asleep.
The single exception to this rule may be sex. We say "may be" because it depends on the effect that sex has on you and your bed partner. For some people, sexual activity is very relaxing and tiring and tends to make them sleepy. If that's the case for both partners, then having sex before rolling over to sleep may be just the ticket for a restful night.
However, some people find sexual activity actually refreshes and energizes them, making them more alert. And, for some folks, relationship problems, frustrations or negative feelings about sex can make it far from pleasant or relaxing.
For couples in which either partner finds sexual activity too stimulating or too fraught with negative emotions to be conducive to sleep, sex might best be left for another time and even a different room. It's important for couples to talk and determine what works best for both partners in terms of helping or harming their efforts at getting a good night's sleep.
If you do find yourself lying in bed and still not sleeping, check out the next page for tips on how to end all that tossing and turning.
What to Do When You Can't Sleep
Hide the Alarm Clock
The bedside clock can be your No. 1 enemy when you're having difficulty falling asleep. It acts as a constant reminder of how long it is taking you to fall to sleep and how little time you have left before needing to get up. It wakes you up just looking at it. So rather than letting it stare you in the face all night, set it for the waking time desired, then hide it away from your reach, or at least turn it around so you can't see the time.
Trying to rest can be taxing when you just can't seem to fall asleep, especially when you don't know why you can't sleep. But the answer isn't to try harder but instead to just relax.
While lying in bed, tossing and turning, you may become frustrated at your inability to slip into slumber, perhaps even repeating over and over, "I've got to go to sleep." The more you try to will yourself into sleep, the more conscious you become of not being able to doze off.
But sleep is unlike most activities in life. While trying harder is often the surest path to success in business, sports or other waking activities, it is the surest path to failure when you want to sleep. Attempting to force yourself to sleep simply won't work. It only increases anxiety and tension. Sleep is most easily achieved in an atmosphere of total relaxation. Your mind should be empty of thought or turned to soothing and calming thoughts. Your body should be relaxed, your muscles free of tension.
If you find you can't fall asleep, the best solution is to get out of bed. That's right. Contrary to popular belief, the solution is not to stay in bed. If this happens with any frequency, and you do stay in bed, you may begin to associate your room and bed with feeling frustrated, uncomfortable and unhappy. When you walk into your room, you'll immediately begin to worry about how long it will take to fall asleep. Consequently, it will take longer to drift off into slumber.
Let your body associate any feelings of wakefulness with some other part of your home. Go to the kitchen for a drink of water. Go into another room and read, sew, draw. Almost any activity will do as long as it's calming, relaxing and doesn't require intense concentration. Gradually, you'll become tired and bored. Usually, within 15 to 20 minutes, your body will be ready for you to try to sleep again.
To avoid having this problem in the future, you can learn some techniques that will promote sleep. Find them on the next page.
Techniques to Promote Sleep
Does Counting Sheep Work?
The oldest trick in the book may not be such a great trick after all. It was considered a given that the repetitive, monotonous activity of counting sheep would bore you to sleep. But a group of researchers at Oxford University recently decided to test that age-old theory. According to their results, counting sheep is actually so boring that it doesn't keep your attention long enough for you to relax your body and mind for sleep. What did seem to help the insomniacs to fall asleep an average of more than 20 minutes sooner was visualizing a relaxing, inviting scene.
Techniques to promote sleep range from the very simple, such as eating a light snack, to the less intuitive, such as deep abdominal breathing.
Snack Lightly Before Bed
There's nothing like a grumbling stomach to keep you awake. So if hunger pangs strike as you're preparing for bed, have a light snack. Research indicates that a light snack can help you sleep more soundly. The emphasis, of course, is on light. Bedtime is no time to stuff yourself. An overly full belly can be just as detrimental to sleep as an empty one.
There are various theories about what you should have as a snack before bed. One age-old suggestion is warm milk. Some research has suggested that milk might be helpful because it contains tryptophan, a naturally occurring amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin; serotonin is a brain chemical that has a calming, sleep-promoting effect. Tryptophan is also found in a variety of other foods, such as turkey, tuna, peanuts and cheese.
Other researchers emphasize the importance of eating a nighttime snack that is high in carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes, cereal or juice. The carbohydrates, they contend, help usher tryptophan into the brain, where it is converted into serotonin.
Some sleep scientists recommend eating foods that are rich in magnesium and/or calcium. These minerals have a calming effect on the nervous system, and even a slight deficiency of them, they say, can affect sleep. Dairy foods are good sources of calcium. Sources of magnesium include fruits such as apples, apricots, avocados, bananas and peaches; nuts; and whole-grain breads and cereals.
You might want to experiment with snacks from these various groups to see if they help you sleep. There's no guarantee they'll lead you to a good night's sleep, but you may find some of them helpful.
When choosing a snack before bed, another important point is that you should avoid foods that may promote heartburn, indigestion, gas or other upsets. That means you should probably avoid greasy, fatty and spicy foods. If you're lactose intolerant, skip the warm milk -- or use a lactose-free variety. And if MSG causes you problems, don't treat yourself to those Chinese takeout leftovers.
An excellent way to quiet your body and mind before bedtime is to use one of the active relaxation techniques. These techniques help you to deliberately clear your mind of intrusive thoughts, wring the tension from your body, and put yourself into a peaceful state.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
When you tense a muscle for a few seconds, it naturally wants to relax. That is how PMR works. You start at your toes and deliberately tense one muscle group at a time, progressively working your way up the body.
To prepare, lie on your back on the floor or on a couch or recliner in a room other than your bedroom. Begin by scrunching your toes as hard as you can for ten seconds, while keeping the rest of your body relaxed. Then relax your toes, and tighten and release your calf muscles, again leaving your other muscles relaxed. Then move on to your thigh muscles. Continue through the muscle groups of the buttocks, abdomen, chest, forearms, shoulders, neck and face.
Take your time at it; performing the muscle relaxation one time, from toes to head, should take at least 20 minutes. By the time you work your way through the muscle groups, you should feel very relaxed. If you don't, repeat the entire cycle one more time.
Rhythmic breathing is one of the best ways to help your body relax. There are many variations. This particular technique appears simple, but you'll need a little practice to do it properly.
First, lie down on your back and begin to breathe normally. Now place your hand on your lower abdomen, just at your belt line, and slowly fill your lungs with air to the point that you can feel this portion of your abdomen rise. Take in as much air as you can and hold it for a couple of seconds. Then slowly release all the air in your lungs.
Try to pay attention to nothing but the slow intake and release of air and the rhythmic rising and falling of your abdomen; don't rush. Repeat this eight to ten times.
Imagine your favorite vacation spot. Maybe it's sitting on the sand with your bare feet being massaged by the ocean surf, or scuba diving off some coral reef. Alternately, think of an activity you find especially relaxing: drawing, cooking, hiking, walking your dog, even shopping.
The idea behind visualization is to use your imagination to envision something that tells your mind to enjoy itself instead of being focused on some worry or concern. It can be anything you find soothing. As you lie in bed, close your eyes and literally "go" to that place or "do" that activity in your mind. Chances are good that you will be sleeping peacefully in short order.
Your mattress also is a factor in your ability to fall asleep. Learn how to pick a good one on the next page.
Choosing the Right Mattress
The top layers of mattress cushioning are often what sell the customer. Comfort is what most people look for. But consider what the padding is made of. A cotton-polyester blend on top of polyurethane foam doesn't breathe well, yet this is the material used in many mattresses. Wool is a better material for layers closest to your body. Wool whisks moisture away from your body and keeps you dry while you sleep.
Most of us don't put enough thought into choosing the right mattress, especially considering how much time we spend using it.
We spend about one-third of our lives asleep, and most of this time is spent on a mattress. Despite the amount of time we spend in bed, many of us ignore our mattress until the springs start poking us through the mattress pad. But a mattress has a lot to do with the quality of sleep and, therefore, with how we feel during the day.
So give some thought and attention to the type of mattress you use to ensure a good night's sleep and a well-rested feeling the following day. When selecting a mattress, you need to make decisions about firmness, type of mattress and bed, and size.
Don't assume soft and fluffy is best. Poor support can lead to muscle stiffness as well as neck and back pain. Make sure your mattress isn't too soft and doesn't contain bumps, valleys, or depressions. Of course, too stiff isn't great, either. A mattress that is too hard can put pressure on the shoulders and hips. The ideal surface is gently supportive and firm, not rock hard or squishy. The mattress should mold to your body while supporting it.
Keep in mind that mattresses don't last forever. Gradually, over time, they lose their firmness and support. The average life of a mattress is 10 years, although most people keep them much longer. Once your mattress has developed lumps and sags, it is definitely time to replace it.
Mattresses come in different types. What are your options?
- Polyurethane foam mattresses. These come in different degrees of firmness but often make people hot while sleeping. As you sleep, your body loses a pint or more of moisture per night. When a mattress doesn't "breathe" well or allow air to circulate, it can make you feel hot and sweaty.
- Innerspring mattresses. These mattresses consist of rows of tempered steel coils layered between insulation and padding. Firmness and durability is based on the thickness of the wire and number of coils. The higher the coil count, the firmer the mattress.
- Waterbeds. Waterbeds don't breathe, and they tend to sag under your body's heaviest parts. Some people love waterbeds and wouldn't sleep on anything else. But before you buy one, sleep on someone else's to see if it meets your expectations.
Most people choose innerspring mattresses because they offer many options for firmness, are cooler and drier because the air circulates around the coils, and are widely available.
Along with deciding what kind of mattress you want, you need to figure out what size. As a rule, bigger is better. You don't want to fight for space every night or get kicked, elbowed, or shoved on a regular basis. A healthy sleeper moves around 15 to 30 times during the night, and cramped conditions can make sleeping awkward, uncomfortable and altogether frustrating. Indeed, some decades-old research suggests that sleeping in the same bed as someone else is less restful than sleeping alone. Also, as you and your bed partner get older, your sleep will become more restless and you may require extra room in bed.
So, you can either consider sleeping in separate beds or get the largest mattress that fits in your bedroom and your budget. You might also want to try one of the newer mattresses that, according to their manufacturers, are designed to minimize the movement and disruption one bed partner feels when the other tosses, turns, and gets in and out of bed.
Regardless of which mattress or bed you buy, always try it out in the store before making it yours. Salespeople expect you to lie on their beds as part of your decision-making process. Assume your normal sleeping position, and stay there for a while to determine how it feels. If you have a bed partner, have them join you on the mattress. Even better, ask if the mattress comes with a trial period that allows you to exchange or return it if it's not right for you. And remember: Be picky -- you'll be spending a lot of your life on that mattress.
Now you have the right mattress, but what about your pillow? Learn how to pick one on the next page.
Choosing the Right Pillow
Test Your Pillow
If you're trying to determine whether your pillow is ready for replacement, try these tests. If you own a polyester pillow, fold it in half and place a shoe on top. If the pillow unfolds and knocks the shoe off, it is still good. If the shoe wins, the pillow probably needs replacing. If you have a feather pillow, fold it in half and squeeze out as much air as you can. (Leave the shoe out of this contest.) When you release the pillow, it should unfold on its own. If not, its goose is cooked and the pillow needs to be replaced.
Like the choice of a mattress, the choice of a pillow is a very personal matter. Although some people can sleep with their head on a block of wood, most of us are very particular about the type of pillow we use. Your head weighs more than 10 pounds, so your pillow needs to provide you with support as well as comfort.
A good pillow supports you in just the right places. It should keep your head in line with your back and spine. But different sleeping positions require different pillows. If you tend to sleep on your side, you need a firm pillow that supports your head and neck. If you prefer sleeping on your back, a medium to firm pillow will offer you more cushion. Those who sleep on their stomach should choose a soft pillow to ease strain on the neck.
Most pillows are made with synthetic fibers or foam, which are more friendly to allergy-prone people and easy to wash. If you must have a down or feather pillow, make sure it doesn't cause an allergic reaction in your sleep partner before you purchase it.
Other types of pillows include orthopedic varieties that are designed to relieve pain and stiffness in the neck or back. Orthopedic pillows are more expensive than conventional pillows, but medical insurance may cover their purchase if your doctor prescribes them. You can purchase these pillows at a surgical supply store.
Also available are pillows designed to reduce or eliminate snoring. Despite the rather optimistic claims about these pillows, they are rarely effective. It's better to address the snoring problem directly with your doctor rather than muffle it with a futile search for the perfect pillow.
Most importantly, find a pillow that makes you feel comfortable. Just because your Aunt Gladys uses pillows made with hair from the East African two-humped camel, doesn't mean you should. And when your pillow starts to lose its shape or support, it's time to get a new one. Experiment with a variety of types, and stick with the one that provides you with the best night's sleep.
Instead of folding that pillow around your head to drown out noise, take control of your sleeping environment. Find out how on the next page.
Controlling Your Sleep Environment
Excess Light and Sleeplessness
Light tells your body it's time to wake up, so the darker your bedroom, the better. If an outdoor light shines into your room at night, purchase shades or curtains to block it out. Use a night light, if necessary, but keep it away from your immediate sleeping area. When traveling, eye shades can be useful in shutting out unwanted light.
Noises and pets can keep you awake all night unless you learn how to control your sleep environment.
White-out the Noise
Our sleeping environment is rarely sound-free. It may be plagued by the chugging and whistles of trains, the roar of planes overhead, the clamber or loud music of neighbors, even the incessant cawing of crows in the early morning. The best solution, of course, is to eliminate the noise, but that's often easier said than done. So instead of trying to eliminate all nighttime noise pollution, try masking the noise with a white-noise machine.
White-noise machines are sound-producing devices. With the push of a button, a white-noise machine makes a soft, whooshing noise that can drown out many of the sudden and unpredictable noises that can disturb sleep. The white noise is easy to get used to and is actually quite soothing. More sophisticated models can produce the sounds of rain, wind, waves or other nature sounds, although these may be too stimulating or distracting for some folks.
Unlike the television or a radio, the noise produced by a white-noise machine does not tend to awaken you from sleep because the volume is constant and the sound itself is unchanging. White-noise machines range in price from $50 to $150 and are available from specialty shops, mail-order catalogs and even some department stores.
Put Pets in Their Place
In this country, pets are often considered part of the family. In many households, that means Fifi and/or Fido share their owner's bed. While this sleeping situation can be comforting to both human and pet, it can also disrupt sleep.
Some pets like to nuzzle up during the night. As you move, they move with you. By morning, you may find that you have been herded onto a tiny patch of the mattress while your pet has sprawled out freely on the rest. And, like people, pets change position various times throughout the night, which can awaken you. Add another person to the bed along with a pet or two and you have enough movement to simulate eight hours of earthquake aftershocks.
Then there are pets that wake their owners just for company. (Ever awoken to find one of your pet's favorite toys on your pillow?) If any of these scenarios sounds familiar, it's time to bar your pet from your bed. If you must, keep the door to your bedroom closed when you sleep to keep your pet from wandering in.
Moving your pet from the bed may be painful. You might even feel this is an act of betrayal. In truth, your pet will not love you less, but you will live together in greater peace and comfort. And you will get a better night's sleep.
Leaving the familiarity of your home environment can add to your sleeping problems. The next page tells you how to get a good night's rest away from home.
Sleeping Away From Home
Even in the lavish surroundings of a four-star hotel, most people don't sleep as well when they're away from home as when they're in their own bed. The poor sleep that often occurs in a strange environment is known as the first-night effect. This name is appropriate because sleep often improves considerably after as little as one night away from home.
One trick to getting sound sleep when away from home is to make the environment seem more familiar and homelike. A simple way to do this is to bring along some objects from home. Bring your own pillow, pictures of family, or other reminders of your own bedroom and home. Also try to follow your usual routine in the hour before bed. If you read before bed, bring along a book or grab the local newspaper. If you usually take a shower, do the same. Give your body all its usual clues that bedtime is approaching.
If, on the other hand, you find you sleep better away from home, try to determine why. What did the new sleep environment have that your bedroom at home does not? No pets? Better pillows? A firmer mattress? A quieter environment? Distance from life's problems? When you get home, try some of our suggestions for making your sleep environment more sleep-friendly.
Moving? Check Out the Neighborhood
If you're planning on moving, check out prospective new homes and neighborhoods for noise pollution before you sign a deal. Here are some tips to help you screen out sleep-stealing housing situations:
- Take samples of the neighborhood noise. Notice the space between houses. Does the bedroom of that new house back up against someone else's porch, barbecue area, basketball court? Does the neighbor's dog bark every time someone walks by? Ask other tenants or homeowners whether the neighbors are considerate about keeping noise to a minimum.
- Check noise levels around the area in the daytime, the evening and at night. That quaint tavern or nearby park may seem quiet during the day, but what about late in the evenings or on weekends?
- When renting an apartment or buying a condo, check the thickness of the walls. Can you hear the television of the tenants next door?
- Check out the traffic patterns in the area. The bus stop near the front door may seem very convenient until you realize the whole apartment shakes each time the bus rumbles through on its 24-hour route. The same may be true if the home is located along a truck route. The house may be miles from the local airport, but take-off and landing patterns may channel flights right over it.
Be alert that high prices and fancy addresses are no guarantee of peace and quiet. Obviously, you cannot eliminate all the noise or find a place that meets all your noise-related criteria, but you should at least think about whether your new home will be in a place where you can get some rest.
Sleeping is something all of us must do every night. With the information from this article, you'll be on your way to getting the most out of your sleep time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Virgil D. Wooten, M.D., is the medical director of the TriHealth Sleep Centers at Good Samaritan and Bethesda North hospitals in Cincinnati. He is also a diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a consultant, writer, and speaker on sleep-related subjects. Dr. Wooten has more than 25 years of research, clinical and teaching experience.