Do you look forward to bedtime yet dread the thought of another sleepless night? Have you thought of asking your doctor for a sleeping pill but hate the thought of becoming dependent on medication?
Before resorting to sleep medication, consider these proven techniques to sleep soundly.
1. Stimulus control. Just as you associate the kitchen with eating, you should train your mind and body to associate your bedroom with sleeping. Don’t read in bed, or watch TV, or play video games. Accustom yourself to use your bedroom only for restful activities. If you haven’t fallen asleep by 20-30 minutes, get out of bed and go somewhere else to perform an activity requiring wakefulness. When you become a little tired, return to the bedroom and try again. Within a few weeks of establishing this routine you should be falling asleep more quickly.
2. Avoid known stimulants. Whereas most people are aware that caffeine keeps people awake, many don’t realize that a cup of coffee as early as noon can contribute to insomnia 12 hours later. Nicotine may be to blame for sleeplessness as well and is best avoided, especially late in the day. Exercise contributes to a good night’s sleep unless performed within four hours of bedtime, in which case it tends to delay falling asleep.
3. Improve your sleep hygiene. Optimizing your sleep environment increases the odds that you’ll fall asleep and stay asleep. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet. Go to bed and get up the same time each day. Do not take naps that will naturally decrease the amount of sleep your body requires at night. Keep your bedroom at your preferred sleeping temperature. Just as your body is accustomed to eating at certain intervals, it can be trained to sleep on schedule. Like children, adults do best with a specified bedtime.
4. Employ relaxation techniques. Many people who suffer from insomnia have forgotten the art of relaxation. However, numerous techniques exist to retrain the mind and body. One effective method is to allow yourself up to 200 breaths to fall asleep. After each breath, identify one area of your body that is not relaxed and purposefully relax that muscle group. If you haven’t fallen asleep by 200 breaths, get out of bed and perform a quiet activity for at least half an hour before trying again.
5. Avoid bedtime medications. Many drugs interfere with falling asleep or staying asleep, sometimes ones you wouldn’t expect to do so. Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and other allergy/sinus medications are common culprits. Interestingly, some over-the-counter sleeping aids have a stimulant effect in certain people. Antidepressant medication is often used to treat insomnia but may actually cause it as well. Even blood pressure medication, antibiotics, and cholesterol medication may interfere with sleep in susceptible individuals. Talk to your doctor about changing your medication schedule if you believe this may be the case.
6. Paradoxical intent. Have you noticed that as soon as you go on a diet you want to eat more? Even Mary Poppins knew that telling a child to stay awake often had the opposite effect. Rather than worry about falling asleep, focus on staying awake instead. This relieves the fear of sleep, which allows a person to relax. Tell yourself that you must stay awake for half an hour (or 200 breaths). If you do succeed in staying awake, get up and try again an hour later.
7. Limit alcohol intake. Whereas a glass of wine may help you relax, alcohol intake is also associated with sleep problems in many individuals and is best avoided in the hours before bedtime. Limiting fluids in the evening hours also decreases the need to awaken for nighttime trips to the bathroom.
Only if these techniques, used in combination, are ineffective should a trip to your doctor by necessary. Once you discover what works for you, you’ll have an answer that lasts a lifetime.