The following steps are organized to provide you guidance and support in your efforts to sleep better. It can be implemented over the course of a month, with different tasks assigned to each of the 30 days. Major changes are spaced out in the schedule to allow prior tasks the time needed to take effect. Most of the first week, for example, focuses on improving your sleep environment after the recommendation to fix your waking time is in place—but some of the groundwork laid through self-reflection this week will provide a foundation later on. Similarly, as is later recommended, creating a relaxing buffer zone and going to bed when you feel sleepy will take some effort, while simultaneously rearranging the use of substances may come easier.
Everyone needs sleep, but its biological purpose remains a mystery. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
A lot of people don’t understand that these are two very, very different processes. A lot of people probably learned from basic psych in high school that you have these sleep stages: light sleep > deep sleep > light sleep > REM, and repeat. As you sleep more, you get less and less deep sleep, and also if you sleep-deprive yourself, you get more deep sleep.
Research published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports found that listening to sounds from nature, like a rainforest soundscape or a babbling brook, can trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Soothing background sounds can also cover up manmade sounds like voices or traffic, which were shown in the study to have the opposite effect.
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.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (or CBT-I) is shown to be incredibly effective for chronic sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. While sleeping pills and other sleep aids may only treat the symptoms of insomnia, CBT-I helps identify the root of the problem, but it takes time and dedication, with regular visits to a clinician who may give you various sleep assignments to try at home and ask you to keep a sleep diary.
Drug interactions may change how your medications work or increase your risk for serious side effects. This document does not contain all possible drug interactions. Keep a list of all the products you use (including prescription/nonprescription drugs and herbal products) and share it with your doctor and pharmacist. Do not start, stop, or change the dosage of any medicines without your doctor's approval.
Sedative-hypnotic medications (benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines) can cause severe allergic reaction, facial swelling, memory lapses, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts or actions, and complex sleep-related behaviors like sleep-walking, sleep-driving (driving while not fully awake, with no memory of the event) and sleep-eating (eating in the middle of the night with no recollection, often resulting in weight-gain). If you experience any unusual sleep-related behavior, consult your doctor immediately.
Essential oils are extracted directly from the bark, flower, fruit, leaf, seed, or root of a plant or tree. These oils are known for having a wide variety of health benefits, including sleep improvement. Many people toss and turn as a result of not doing enough to destress and relax before hitting the hay, but when it comes to encouraging a good night’s sleep, just smelling certain essential oils can help you wind down and rest better. In an aromatherapy essential oil diffuser, try using lavender, rose, and/or Roman chamomile oils to help you calm down and enter a deep, restorative sleep.
Finally, you may find yourself turning to over-the-counter medications to help your sleep. One of the most common is a naturally occurring hormone called melatonin. It is sold in many pharmacies and herbal supplement stores. It can be highly effective if you have insomnia related to a poorly timed circadian rhythm. As it has a low risk of major side effects (the most frequent is sleepiness), it might be an option to consider. Other herbal supplements (such as valerian root) do not have a lot of research supporting their efficacy.
Some newer medications don’t have the same chemical structure as a benzodiazepine, but act on the same area in the brain. They are thought to have fewer side effects, and less risk of dependency, but are still considered controlled substances. They include zalepon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien), and eszopiclone (Lunesta), which have been tested for longer-term use, up to six months.
This is a very serious matter, as the consequences of poor sleep can undermine your health and sleep deprivation may even lead to your death. There are serious symptoms and physical effects of sleep deprivation, including hallucinations. For all these reasons—and more—it is absolutely worthwhile to get the help that you need in order to sleep well and wake refreshed.
If pretending you’re tired sounds like too much work for you, you might want to look into hypnosis. Get that image of a creepy guy swinging his pocket watch back and forth until you bark like a dog out of your head. We’re talking about watching a five-minute hypnosis video while tucked in your bed. (YouTube is full of them; search “hypnosis for sleep.”) It might sound like a bit of hogwash, but researchers from the universities of Zurich and Fribourg beg to differ. Their 2014 study on the subject concluded that hypnosis can actually increase the quality of sleep. Huzzah.
7. Caffeine is also a stimulant and is present in coffee (100-200 mg), soda (50-75 mg), tea (50-75 mg), and various over-the-counter medications. Caffeine should be discontinued at least four to six hours before bedtime. If you consume large amounts of caffeine and you cut your self off too quickly, beware; you may get headaches that could keep you awake.
Studies have shown that exercise during the day can improve sleep at night. When we exercise, we experience a significant rise in body temperature, followed a few hours later by a significant drop. This drop in body temperature makes it easier for us to fall and stay asleep. The best time to exercise is late afternoon or early evening, rather than just before bed. Aim for at least 30 minutes four times a week. Aerobic exercises are the best to combat insomnia as they increase the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood.
Throughout history, soldiers have faced serious sleep deprivation and have had to make do with squeezing rest in between firefights and in trenches, tents, and moving troop carriers. By necessity, they have to learn to sleep whenever and wherever they get the chance. Exhaustion certainly helps the eyes close, but it turns out the U.S. Army actively teaches this skill too.
Adjustable beds also allow you to change the angle of your upper body and legs. This can be particularly helpful for people who experience conditions like lower back pain or swelling, since these adjustments can reduce back tension and promote circulation to improve comfort. Acid reflux keeps many people up as well, and elevating the upper body can make a significant difference.