Getting a Good Night's Sleep

by Amy Roper
(last updated August 23, 2013)

Occasionally we all have trouble sleeping. Extending periods of unhealthy sleep, however, can have a serious impact on all aspects of life, as well as negative long-term effects on health. There are prescription medications available to help with sleep, but natural remedies should be tried before relying on medication. Proper sleep hygiene can be the catalyst for achieving healthy, restful sleep. Tips for getting a good night's sleep fall into three categories: environment, nutrition, and exercise.

It is important that you create an environment that promotes healthy sleeping. Aspects of the environment in which you are sleeping can have surprisingly strong psychological effects which affect the quality of your sleep. First: have a dedicated area for sleep. Use your bed only for sleep or sex. The body takes cues from the environment about what state it should be in; using your bed to catch up on work, do homework, pay the bills, or watch movies can unintentionally create confusion for the body. Keeping a routine schedule (don't vary your bed times more than an hour day-to-day) is important.

Create an environment that associates your bed only with relaxation and sleep-related things—it should be a place that promotes rest. Some form of white noise may help block out distracting sounds and calm the mind. A pleasant smell can also be helpful, and lavender essential oil is often used as a sleep aid. Try to ensure that during the day you're getting plenty of exposure to light, but at night turn down the lights to help send the message that bedtime is coming. Turn the lights off when you sleep; if you can't get the room dark enough use an eye mask it may help. Nobody likes feeling overheated when they sleep, so keep the room cool and use blankets for warmth. Finally, make sure that your bed is comfortable and sleep in a comfortable position. If your body can't relax you'll have trouble getting your mind to relax. Also, sleep on your side if possible. Sleeping on your back or stomach may make it more difficult to breathe or even contribute to more serious conditions. Sleeping on your side can allow more oxygen flow.

It may seem counterintuitive, but diet can make or break your sleep. Aside from avoiding caffeine in the evening and not going to sleep on a heavy stomach, also avoid heavy proteins and fatty or spicy foods that require more digestion. A part of the natural sleep cycle is that metabolism slows as the body prepares for sleep. A warm shower close to bedtime may help signal your body to slow metabolism down and trick it into thinking it's time for sleep. Carbohydrates and some dairy products may also be helpful (think a banana, whole grains, a small sandwich, milk, or yogurt), although remember not to overload. Melatonin supplements are available at most pharmacies and health food stores. You may also find suggestions there for other herbal sleep aids. Chamomile tea has been known for many years to calm the mind and body, and warm tea will also help by serving through the same process as a warm shower.

Exercise is important to keep your body healthy, but also can keep your sleep cycles regular. You should avoid exercising more than six hours before you go to sleep to allow your body to relax. If you find that you have difficulty relaxing, consider breathing exercises to help calm both your mind and body. This can also help controlling stress and worry. A relaxing fiction book may be helpful as well; just avoid reading so close to bed that your mind is filled with thoughts about the book.

Lastly, know when to see a sleep doctor. If, despite earnestly trying many of these tactics, you find yourself having trouble falling or staying asleep, or find that your sleep is simply not restful, it may be time to consult your doctor. There are simple tests for sleep apnea, and you may benefit from being tested at a sleep lab, where you can find out more about your sleep behavior at night and possible neurological elements to your insomnia.

Whatever the case, sleep problems can be at the best frustrating and at the worst nearly debilitating (certain levels of sleep deprivation can cause performance similar to being drunk). You are not helpless! There are many steps that you can take at home that may be the solution to your sleep problems, and most of them are quite simple—simple enough to try tonight.

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