I used to get jealous of people who could lay down on their pillow and fall fast asleep. Why couldn’t I do that!? I knew how important sleep was for my overall health. Insomnia effects our mood, memory, our metabolic rate and even how long we live. Poor sleep has also been associated with depression. As a young man, I know I had to get rid of my insomnia.
Individually, and as a therapist, I have discovered 8 effective tips to improve sleep and get rid of insomnia. These are highly effective approaches to help improve both sleep quantity and sleep quality. First let’s start out by comparing different types of sleep issues.
Insomnia is a form of anxiety. Things like anxiety attacks, panic attacks, excessive worrying all fall under the umbrella of anxiety. In regard to insomnia, one type of diagnosis is Sleep Onset Insomnia. This term speaks for itself. You struggle to fall asleep during the onset of the sleep cycle.
Another common diagnosis is Sleep Maintenance Insomnia. Again, this sleep issue is self-explanatory. You have a difficult time maintaining your sleep during the night or early mornings. Now let’s talk about solving these sleep problems.
Conquering the symptoms of insomnia without drugs.
Sleep medications come with potential side effects. Generally, we know that they can help us fall and stay asleep, but they don’t tend to give us a restful and restorative type of sleep. Often we awake feeling foggy and drowsy. Some of these same drugs can also be addicting.
Here are some proven natural ways to improve your sleep:
If you are still awake in your bed for more then 30 minutes, get out of bed! This pertains to both Sleep Onset Insomnia and Sleep Maintenance Insomnia.
Staying in bed for an extended period of time is a common mistake. One thing we know is we cannot force sleep. Staying in your bed while feeling frustrated leads to a negative association between you and your bed. One thing to do is leave your room and read a book (not on your smart phone or computer though. More about that later). Another approach is to drink a soothing cup of herbal tea. Also, try deep breathing and meditating. The rule of thumb is do not go back to your bed until you are truly drowsy.
A big component of sleep problems is the overthinking and the worry of not getting enough sleep. These are termed “negative sleep thoughts”. A typical negative sleep thought could be “I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow” or “If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m going to be irritable all day”.
When I address these problematic thoughts with my clients, I help put sleep in perspective. To put their minds at ease, therefore calming down their physiology, I share the research on how much sleep we actually need to still be able to function. A good example is medical students. Medical students get an average of 4 hours of sleep a night while learning complicated new information and performing life or death procedures.
I also introduce them to the research on how a poor night’s sleep has only a small impact on our mood and cognitive abilities. If you are worried about not getting enough sleep remind yourself of these examples. It will take a lot of the pressure and worry off your mind and off to sleep you go…
Increase your sleep neurotransmitters! There are a host of neurotransmitters that affect your drowsiness. One of the most impactful ones is Adenosine. Increases in Adenosine are triggered by your circadian rhythm.
Ideally, the core of your body starts to cool off at night. This signals your brain to produce Adenosine, which makes you feel drowsy. In healthy sleepers this system is working normally. These people are able to fall asleep soon after lying down at night.
What about the poor sleepers? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to cool off your core and therefore be able to fall asleep? Well, there is! Here is something to try, take a hot shower or bath about an hour before you want to go to sleep.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually works. It is not the process of getting the body hot, it is the process of the body (core) cooling off after the shower or hot bath. I like to take a hot shower with the temperature in the house at about 65 degrees (optimal temperature for sleep). After a hot shower I don’t dry myself off with a towel, I use a fan. This causes my body to cool off slowly, the blood from my core goes out to my cool extremities and this cool blood cycles back to my core. My core cools off and I get drowsy.
Another way to cool off the core therefore producing more Adenosine is to learn how to warm your hands using temperature biofeedback. Several years ago, there was a study out of Weill Cornell Medical Center. Although the study was small, it showed the potential of this simple approach.
In the study 90% of participants learned how to warm their hands doing biofeedback. After several weeks these individuals cured their insomnia! This is similar to the hot bath approach, but instead of the core cooling off after the hot bath or shower, we are using the mind to take the warm blood from the core out onto the cool hands and circulating it back to the core.
To some it may seem weird or unachievable, but I promise almost anyone can learn to do it. Try searching for a biofeedback provider in your area and see if they offer temperature biofeedback for insomnia.
One additional way to increase Adenosine is by simply staying awake longer. In my practice I see a lot of problems in the fall when kids are going back in school. The pattern I often see is kiddos spent their summer sleeping in to noon or even later. When the first day of school arrives, they are often told to go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00.
So here is this kid lying in their bed with very little Adenosine in their system. The person is now in bed, trying to force sleep. Remember, forcing sleep is something we can’t do, just try it sometime! Trying to make themselves fall asleep in turn leads the individual to associate their bed with frustration instead of peace and calmness.
In fact, research shows that the physiology of poor sleepers is much different than that of normal sleepers. Insomniacs have more muscle tension laying in their beds compared to healthy sleepers. They also have more beta brainwave and a faster heart rate than normal sleepers. I share this with my young clients and their parents. What I suggest is, as the school year is approaching, start getting up earlier in the morning. And, once school starts refrain from sleeping in too much on weekends.
Stay away from blue light, especially in the evening. Let’s face it we are no longer living like the hunter-gathers that we once were. Our biology is set up to wake up at sunset (red and orange light) then becoming more alert with natural blue light from the sun.
At night the sunset would again give us the yellow and red light, and as it got darker we would naturally start producing more melatonin (a hormone that helps with sleep). The potential light source after sunset would be the light coming from a well-lit fire.
As the temperature cooled off, we would get drowsy and drift off to sleep. Fast forward to our modern living. Most of us are not outside during the day getting the natural and healthy colored light from the sun.
We tend to be stuck inside most of the day surrounded by fluorescent and LED lights. These type of lights omit an unnatural blue light. We simply are not biologically programmed to process this type of light. A good rule of thumb is, if a light does not produce heat, we as humans are not set up to deal with it.
Add up the use of computers, tablets, TVs, and cell phones and we have a pretty severe problem. I suggest if you are going to be around blue light sources, stop two hours before going to bed. If you are going to be exposed to unnatural blue light, think about getting some blue light filtering glasses.
Once we’re in bed we need to set ourselves up do sleep deeply. Because our circadian rhythms are so strongly linked to the outside environment, any light that we let into our bedroom or into our eyes can negatively affect our sleep quality.
One thing I recommend is blackout curtains. These are the type of curtains used in hotels. They do a great job of blocking out light, giving you the perfect environment for a high quality, deep sleep. If you don’t want to try this method, high quality eye masks are a good option.
In review, here are 8 ways to improve your sleep:
- If you are still awake in your bed after 30 minutes, get out of bed!
- Learn how to turn off your negative sleep thoughts.
- Take a hot bath or shower before bed time.
- Try Temperature Biofeedback.
- Stay away from unnatural blue light in the evening.
- Use blue light filtering glasses.
- Use blackout curtains.
- Purchase a quality sleep mask.