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.