Did you know that a lack of exposure to sunlight may be interfering with your sleep quality? Light exposure is crucial to our circadian rhythms (aka our internal clocks), which control vital biological processes including sleep. Scientific research reveals that that a lack of light in the workplace results in poorer overall sleep quality, as well as sleep disturbances, which can then have further negative effects on health.
Why is working out seemingly so beneficial? The mechanisms aren’t entirely known, but National Sleep Foundation experts say that it could have to do with exercise’s ability promote feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Staying active might also help to keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in sync—particularly if you do it outside (more on that below).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems by modifying negative thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior. A study at Harvard Medical School even found that CBT was more effective at treating chronic insomnia than prescription sleep medication—but without the risks or side effects. CBT can help to relax your mind, change your outlook, improve your daytime habits, and set you up for a good night’s sleep.
Abdominal breathing. Most of us don’t breathe as deeply as we should. When we breathe deeply and fully, involving not only the chest, but also the belly, lower back, and ribcage, it can actually help the part of our nervous system that controls relaxation. Close your eyes and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make each exhale a little longer than each inhale.
You already know the most common drinks to help you sleep, but for an even more effective herbal insomnia cure, try valerian tea. This herb is found in health food stores, at pharmacies, or from a qualified herbalist, and when brewed into tea, it can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and produce a deep, satisfying rest. Also taken in capsule form or as a tincture, this organic sleep aid helped about one in 13 insomniacs enjoy a longer night’s sleep (with fewer middle-of-the-night wake-ups) in a Norwegian study. And as for insomnia due to menopause, there’s more good news: 30 percent of menopausal and postmenopausal women got better sleep after drinking valerian tea, according to a recent study from Iran. Find out what your sleep position says about your personality.
You can make 8 hours of quality sleep a regular part of your life by scheduling it. Make sleep part of your to-do list and plan your bedtime like you would any other appointment. You wouldn’t miss a meeting to binge watch TV, would you? Be strict about your sleep appointment in the same way. Keep a consistent schedule for sleep and wake times and soon they will become just a part of your regular routine. Support your schedule by creating a bedtime routine that relaxes you with hot baths, good books or soothing music.
Of course logging your troubles is all well and good, but it's a habit you build in the light of day, during the hours when you're supposed to be studious and bright. It's not particularly helpful when you're wide awake at 4 a.m. At that point, Walia suggests, "jotting down all your worries on a piece of paper so it's out of your head." And try the breathing, muscle relaxation and visualization techniques above.
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Set a regular bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night signals to your body that it's time to sleep. Waking up at the same time every day also can help establish sleep patterns. So try to stick as closely as you can to your sleep schedule, even on weekends. Try not to go to sleep more than an hour later or wake up more than 2 to 3 hours later than you do during the week.
Create the right sleeping environment. Studies show that people sleep best in a dark room that is slightly on the cool side. Close your blinds or curtains (and make sure they're heavy enough to block out light) and turn down the thermostat (pile on extra blankets or wear PJs if you're cold). Lots of noise can be a sleep turnoff, too. Use a nature sounds or white-noise machine (or app!) if you need to block out a noisy environment.
The exception to this rule is new parents who are sleep deprived over a long period of time while also not getting high-quality rest (studies show parents lose about 350 hours of sleep during their baby’s first year). In this case, any sleep you get will become more effective; you’ll be able to fall asleep more quickly and more soundly, and any amount of sleep, from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, will improve your functioning. In fact, your sleep schedule may change to one that is more productive for your current lifestyle, such as segmented sleep or polyphasic sleep as discussed below.
It might seem like a good idea to doze off to your favorite sitcom, but research now shows it’s quite the opposite. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that young adults who watched multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show were 98% more likely to have poor sleep quality and reported experiencing more insomnia symptoms and next-day fatigue than those who didn’t binge-watch. Turns out, binge-watching actually caused them to be more cognitively aroused—exactly how you don’t want your brain to work right before bed. “Turn off the program after one episode and choose shows that won’t stimulate you,” says Dr. Dasgupta.
Even without considering genetics and age, the National Sleep Foundation's 2008 Sleep in America poll found that many adults are apparently not meeting their sleep needs, sleeping an average of only 6 hours and 40 minutes during the week, and about 7.5 hours on the weekends.2 How can you tell if your sleep is adequate and meets your needs? Sleep scientists and physicians have a variety of methods to help determine if you are getting enough sleep.
Light therapy is used as part of sleep treatment plans. If you have trouble falling asleep at night or have delayed sleep-phase syndrome, you may need more light in the morning. Light exposure plays a key role in telling the body when to go to sleep (by increasing melatonin production) and when to wake up. A walk outdoors first thing in the morning or light therapy for 30 minutes may help.
It’s well known that babies fall fast asleep when they’re rocked gently back and forth in a carriage or a mother’s arms. Surprisingly, the same trick works with adults. According to a small preliminary study published in Current Biology, when study participants napped in a hammock-like bed, they fell asleep faster and slept more soundly than when they slept in a regular bed. It seems that the gentle swinging sensation primes brain activity that fosters deep sleep. While you can’t exactly doze off in a hammock every night, try chilling out in a rocking chair before hitting the sheets to mimic the motion and help your body feel sleepy.
Give yourself some dedicated wind-down time. It doesn’t have to be a full hour or an elaborate routine, but try to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes doing something that relaxes you before you try to fall asleep. That could be taking a warm bath or shower, changing into comfy pajamas and sipping a cup of chamomile tea. Or something completely different — so long as it’s relaxing to you.