7. Reduce your overall stress. At the same time, try to do something productive or enjoyable each day. As da Vinci said, a well-spent day brings happy sleep (and a well-spent life brings happy death). While lying in bed, do some deep breathing: breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds, then purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Let out as much air as you can and start again. Deep breathing also helps with controlling pain.
When we can't sleep, we become more focused on it. Panicked by our lack of shut-eye, we make constant changes to improve the situation - whether that's going to bed earlier, having longer lie-ins, or watching TV in bed. Consequently, we spend less time actually sleeping in the bedroom. The result? The connection between bed and sleep becomes weak, and we effectively un-learn how to sleep.
It may sound hippy dippy, but if you focus on it effectively, daydreaming about relaxing scenes can really help ease your mind. During visualization, know that it’s OK if your mind wanders but keep returning your focus to the scene. Try out different methods and audio tracks to see what works best for you. Visualization can also be a helpful mid-day stress reliever to keep in mind.
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
Rather than counting sheep, visualize an environment that makes you feel calm and happy. The key to success is thinking of a scene that’s engaging enough to distract you from your thoughts and worries for a while. In an Oxford University study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, insomniacs who were instructed to imagine a relaxing scene, such as a beach or a waterfall, fell asleep 20 minutes faster than insomniacs who were told to count sheep or do nothing special at all.
“Sleep is not an on-and-off switch,” says the sleep expert and clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, the author of The Power of When. “Your body needs time to unwind and ready itself for shut-eye.” That’s why Dr. Breus recommends practicing a three-part routine called the “Power-Down Hour.” During the first 20 minutes, complete any tasks that absolutely must get done before bedtime. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and get dressed for bed during the next 20 minutes. For the last 20 minutes, lie in bed quietly and meditate. Focus on the rhythm of your breathing and shoo away any negative thoughts during this time.
Many herbal tonics support adrenal health and help balance energy levels, which allow us to work, exercise, and digest during the day, then drop into an alpha state during the night. My favorite herb for insomnia is ashwagandha, which helps to relax the body. Try 500–1,000 mg at bedtime for 6–12 months until you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern. Other effective bedtime herbs include valerian (especially if pain is part of your disturbed sleep quality), passionflower, lemon balm, and California poppy.
Cherries. They’re the only edible source of the sleep hormone melatonin, so consider having a bowlful for dessert. If they’re not in season, opt for thawed frozen cherries or a glass of tart cherry juice. Drinking two glasses daily helped people with insomnia sleep for 90 more minutes, found one study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Mantram is the practice of repeating over and over in the mind certain syllables, words or phrases that help unify consciousness and counteract negative mental states. It is especially helpful for people with restless minds, whose turbulent thoughts keep them from relaxing, concentrating and falling asleep. The repetition of a verbal formula is a way of focusing the thinking mind and counteracting the damage done to both mind and body by thoughts that produce anxiety, agitation and unhappiness.
“This is a stimulus control theory,” says Meltzer. “Everything in life has a stimulus value, even your bed,” meaning your body should recognize that lying in bed means it’s time to go to sleep. To give your bed that value, the only things you should be doing in it are sleep and sex, she explains. “Getting out of bed if you can’t sleep is the hardest one to do, but it’s so important. If you’re spending 10 hours in bed, but only sleeping six, that’s really bad. Your bed becomes a place for thinking, worrying, watching TV, and not for sleeping.”
Fortunately, doing that is easier than you might think. Below, we’ll take a look at the multitude of lifestyle changes—both big and small—that you can make to help you sleep better. We’ll also explore proven herbal remedies that can give you a relaxation boost when you really need it, minus the side effects that tend to come with prescription meds.
Frankly, we feel like spending that energy focusing on falling asleep might just tire us out enough to drop off anyway. But if you're out of other options—and don't want to take medication—it may be worth practicing this technique before bed for a couple weeks and see if you notice any changes. Make sure you're not also doing these other 10 habits that can actually sabotage your sleep, according to our nutritionist.
It’s actually pretty normal to wake up during the night, anyway. In The Canterbury Tales, one of the oldest manuscripts in English culture, they describe “second sleep.” There’s some evidence that we used to go to bed when the sun went down, then wake up for a little bit at night—putter around, make sure we’re not getting eaten by a lion—and then go back to sleep. So it’s pretty normal to like wake up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or whatever.
Some sleep researchers believe that it might be normal to be awake some during the night. (The fact that you sleep straight through the night without budging may again be a sign of inadequate time spent sleeping and increased sleep pressure.) This phenomenon of being awake at night is called "quiet wakefulness" and is often observed when the sleep habits of non-Western cultures are studied. When people sleep in a group in close quarters, there is more time spent awake during the night. This makes sleep a more fluid concept. Time may be spent chatting, eating a snack or engaging others around you. In history, fragmented sleep with periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night was common, reflected in the midnight adventures seen in the plays of Shakespeare, for example.
“Pregnant women see an increase in sleep problems in the first and last trimester. During the first trimester, sleep problems are caused by hormonal changes, and during the last trimester, the baby is larger and creates pressure on the diaphragm, which creates breathing problems,” Chokroverty says. “The baby also puts pressure on the bladder, so a pregnant woman needs to wake up during the night to urinate. Lower back pain and stress and anxiety during the last trimester also cause sleep disturbances.”
See a Doctor. While lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment for sleeplessness, if you’re still not getting enough rest after improving your bedtime routine and trying a variety of relaxation strategies, a physician may be able to help determine if your sleeplessness is merely a symptom of another health concern, and prescribe appropriate treatment.