Secrets of a Good Night’s Sleep

Simple ways to relax and rest easy

Sleep is an important time of restoration for both physical and mental health. Unfortunately, those critical hours are not so rejuvenating for the approximately half of Americans who report chronic sleeping problems. But just as your body can learn bad sleep habits, it can also learn good ones. Here are some ideas.

Cooperate with your body clock
Your 24-hour “body clock,” or circadian rhythm, is a key to deep, sound sleep. The body clock function of your brain determines your times for sleep and waking by affecting your body temperature and by the daily release of certain hormones that affect alertness. You can enlist its aid by following some simple steps.

First, choose a bedtime and an awakening time that fit your lifestyle and temperament. Make sure you’re realistically allowing yourself enough hours of sleep, since this will become your daily routine. As much as possible, stay with the same hours of sleep each night. Within two weeks, your body clock will be aligned with your new sleep and awakening times. Particularly in the beginning, follow the same sleep time routine even on days off from your normal responsibilities. Having a regular awakening time is particularly key in setting your body’s clock; get up then no matter how poorly you’ve slept. It’s best not to take naps during the day even if you are sleepy. You’ll find that you’ll be less ready for sleep at bedtime if you nap.

Since your body keys on a decline in your body temperature for starting sleep, avoid hot baths and vigorous exercise within three hours of your bedtime. We do recommend regular exercise, but try to get it earlier in the day.

To take advantage of your brain’s own sleep-inducing chemical, melatonin, get some bright light exposure each day soon after awakening. This will decrease your brain’s melatonin levels early in the day. With less melatonin you’ll be more awake and alert. We recommend 30 to 45 minutes of light exposure as early in the day as possible. In the evening, as you approach bedtime, keep room lights low so your melatonin levels will increase and help ready you for sleep.

Prepare Your Body for Deep, Natural Sleep
Avoid stimulating drugs, including caffeine and nicotine, within six hours of bedtime. If you must take a prescription drug, such as a stimulating asthma inhaler, use it as far away from bedtime as possible. If you are a woman awakened by hot flashes, you may want to discuss hormone replacement therapy with your doctor. If pain is awakening you, try taking a bedtime dose of a mild pain reliever — just make sure it doesn’t contain caffeine. We also suggest that you not use any alcohol or other recreational drugs within six hours of bedtime because they may cause disturbed sleep patterns. Both marijuana and alcohol, for example, can predispose you to anxiety or depression, which in turn may result in a sleep problem.

A light bedtime snack can be beneficial in helping you get to sleep and not be bothered with feeling hungry during the night. Bananas and warm milk are both good choices since they are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which can help induce sleep. In the yoga tradition, starchy carbohydrates, sweets, and spicy foods are poor choices for a bedtime snack. Experiment with what works well for you. And limit your fluid intake as you get close to bedtime so you won’t be awakened by a need to go to the bathroom.

A regular exercise program, including 30 minutes of exercise at least five times a week, will work wonders for your sleep and will help you feel more vigorous during the day. Brisk walking is fine, but exercising harder is better, if you are fit. Split your 30 minutes of exercise into smaller segments and spread them over the day if that works better for you.

Stretch and Meditate Just Before Bedtime
Consider doing a simple yoga or other stretching routine just before you get into bed since this will relax you mentally and physically for sleep. Emphasize quiet and relaxation in your thoughts and movements as you prepare for sleep. This is a good time to say some prayers for your loved ones and yourself, and to meditate for a while if you know how.

Turn off the television and computer at least an hour before bedtime since they are bright light sources that encourage your body to be alert and they often keep your mind engaged with thoughts that will interfere with sleep.

Make Your Bedroom Perfect for Sleeping
Your bedroom should be as dark and as quiet as possible. If noise from outside (or a snoring sleep partner) often wakes you, consider getting a “sound generator” that makes a quiet nature sound — a burbling brook, waves on a beach — or just static “white noise.” Either will mask other sounds so they don’t disturb your sleep. You can also achieve a good masking sound by simply setting a radio to produce a bland static sound. You can even wear earplugs, but we don’t recommend this as a regular practice since it can irritate your ear canals.

Make your bed as comfortable as possible. Your sheets, pillow, mattress, and blankets should all feel pleasant to the touch and be the right weight and firmness for you. You can improve the softness of your current bed inexpensively by adding a foam pad or an air pad on top of your regular mattress. If you have trouble with heavy blankets but like to stay warm at night, consider a down or fiberfill comforter instead.

Keep your bedroom as cool as is comfortable for you. Remember that your body’s temperature needs to fall in order for you to go to sleep, so you don’t want to get overheated. Be sure not to have so many blankets that you sweat, a sign you are too hot for sound sleep.

Reserve your bed (and bedroom, if possible) for sleep and sex only. When you see your bed, you want to have this association in your mind: “This is where I sleep soundly!” If you want to watch television, read, pay bills, work at your computer, chat with your spouse, or use the telephone, do it in another room or at least sitting up in a chair. Wait to head for bed until you feel a little sleepy at bedtime. If you don’t fall asleep in 20 or 30 minutes, get up and read until you feel sleepy again. If you awaken in the night and are awake for more than 10 minutes, get up and do something quiet until you feel sleepy.

While sleep medications are a booming business, doctors have long known the positive effects that relaxation, attitude, habit changes, and stretching techniques can have on a host of medical issues, including sleep problems. Often, modifying attitudes about sleep and learning good sleep habits have produced better long-term outcomes than medication. So the great news is that most people can easily learn the simple routines outlined here and achieve a lifetime of better, sounder sleep.

Dr. Peter Van Houten has been practicing medicine at an integrative clinic in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas since 1982. Gyandev Rich McCord is a world-renowned yoga instructor and co-founder of the Yoga Alliance, the organization that sets standards for yoga teachers in the United States. This article was adapted from their new book Yoga Therapy for Overcoming Insomnia (Crystal Clarity Publishers), the latest in the Yoga Therapy series.

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