Dr. Anna Jetton
Get Better Sleep Tonight
Updated: Feb 20, 2022
It’s 3am again and there you are staring at the ceiling, willing your eyes to close and your brain to sleep. Instead, your brain is turning over hundreds of thoughts, worries, and ideas. It wants to do everything but sleep. Insomnia is frustrating, anxiety-provoking, and certainly exhausting! At some point, everyone finds themselves there.
While sleep needs vary person to person and across age groups, there is consistent evidence to support the idea that lack of sleep can contribute to multiple health difficulties including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, not mention decreased concentration, difficulty remembering, and general mental fogginess. Evidence suggests that sleep is as important as healthy eating and exercise. A lack of consistent sleep can have similar effects as consistently eating junk food and siting on the couch all day. Sleep’s important, okay?
You may thinking, “Yeah. I know. I live it each night! So what do I do???” I have some things you can try (I do!), but first a quick explanation of how our brain sleeps (maybe this will help you doze off … you never know!). Sleep is largely driven by the body’s internal clock, which takes cues from external elements such as sunlight and temperature. The body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is reasonably attuned to a 24-hour period. If our sleep-wake cycle becomes off set, it can take time and CONSISTENT EFFORT to help your body and brain reset the clock. And this is where we start …
Set a consistent sleep-wake schedule:
To reset our internal clock, we usually need to give our brain around 2 weeks to adapt and change. It also requires consistent and persistent adherence to the schedule you choose. This means going to bed at the same time every night and waking at the same time every morning … even on weekends (I’m sorry). It also means doing whatever you can to resist the urge to go to bed sooner on the nights you don’t get as much sleep. It’s only for 2 weeks, I promise. This is usually all that is needed to help establish a new sleep schedule.
PRACTICE: Choose your wake time and your sleep time and then practice every night for at least a couple of weeks. If your goal is to be in bed by 10pm, start winding down an hour before by engaging in a bedtime routine (more to come). You may find that you have some nights where you don’t actually fall asleep until 11, 12, or maybe even later. It’s okay … it’s not fun, I know … but it’s okay. You will still wake up the next morning at your chosen time, let's say 6am. No matter what, you’re getting up at 6. You will be tired, and it will be a hard day, but this is also what will help you get to bed earlier the next night. If you struggle with hitting snooze over and over, try moving your alarm across the room so you HAVE to get up. Then, just move on to your next thing. You're already up!
A similar trick can be used for persistent insomnia, where you choose to go to bed an hour later than you normally want to and wake up at the same time the next day. The intention is to tire yourself for the next night, so you are more likely to fall asleep quickly.
Develop a bedtime routine:
If your intention is to be asleep by 10pm, your goal is to start winding down by 9pm. Developing a bedtime routine can help start this process. A bedtime routine can include a variety of things like light stretching, general hygiene (brushing your teeth, washing your face, etc.), reading, meditation and relaxation techniques, and quiet music. Click here to get my Mindful Moments Practice Guide that can help with some of this!
Notice what isn’t included? This is also the time to turn off screens and other electronics. Our brains need time to let go of the day and come down from the stimulation of electronics. Unplugging an hour ahead of time can help with this. “But all my books are on my tablet!” If you must, get to know where your blue light filter is and turn it on to read. It is the blue light that interferes with our internal clock and melatonin production, which makes sleep more difficult. Same is true for sleeping with the TV on.
Rules for Sleeping:
Some good rules of thumb to keep in mind for sleeping include:
Set the stage: “Calm, cool and dark” tends to help our brains settle down. Ensure you have a comfortable sleeping arrangement. Consider using an eye mask or ear plugs to block extra stimuli. Fans or white noise can also help drown out sounds.
Leave work at the office: If you are bringing stressors (like work for example) into your bed, your brain will start to associate your bed with stress, and we don’t want that!
Along these lines … don’t lay there and struggle, get up: If after 15-20 minutes you find that you are still struggling to sleep it is recommended that you get out of bed and do something quiet and non-simulating (reading is a good choice here). Again, we don’t want your brain to start to associate your bed with stress and anxiety about sleep. We want it to remember this is a restful and relaxing place to wind down and actually SLEEP.
Change of scenery: If you find that your brain is feeling anxious or stressed about sleeping, it can sometimes help to try changing positions or changing rooms altogether if you have to. This may sound crazy, but even flipping around and sleeping at the foot of your bed can be enough of a change that your brain can let go of the anxiety and focus on settling down. When all else fails though, try moving to the couch or another room. Sleep is more important for sure!
Avoid long napping: Napping for longer than an hour during the day will make sleep more difficult at night.
Avoid afternoon coffee runs: Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours and certainly impacts your ability to sleep. It's generally recommended to avoid caffeine after 2pm (or even earlier!). And while we’re on the topic, alcohol is problematic too. It disrupts the REM sleep cycle and leads to restless and less restorative sleep.
Consider your habits during the day: increase the amount of sunshine you’re getting (the sun helps your internal clock reset and prepare for sleep), eat healthy (ideally no sugar, but if you must limit your intake in the afternoon), and get regular exercise (morning is best for this one!).
A word about weighted blankets: There is research to suggest that weighted blankets can help people who struggle with anxiety and insomnia as a result, as deep pressure stimulation can help reduce physiological symptoms of anxiety and help us relax.
A couple of things to keep in mind if you are considering one. First, they are weighted! Think, weighted vest at the dentist's office. Some weigh up to 20 pounds! The standard weight is 13-15 pounds though. YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO GET THIS OFF OF YOU QUICKLY IN AN EMERGENCY! If you struggle to lift 15 pounds, this may not be for you.
This also may not be a good choice if you struggle with claustrophobia or enclosed spaces. There have been some studies to suggest weighted blankets can make these symptoms worse.
Here are some other ideas for setting the stage for a relaxing night of sleep:
Make a “no electronics” rule an hour before bed.
Dim the lights when you’re starting to settle down.
Practice light stretching or deep breathing exercises
Reading, drawing, journaling are other quiet activities you can try that are non-stimulating.
If you’re not lactose intolerant, try warm milk! For one thing it can feel soothing to the brain because it reminds us of being cared for when we were babies. The lactose also breaks down into tryptophan and melatonin which can help make us sleepy too. Warm herbal tea can have the same comforting effect too though.
Do you have other tricks or ideas that help you get to sleep? Let’s hear about it! In the meantime, sweet dreams!