Patty Tucker, PA-C from the Family Sleep Institute says that sleep is natural, normal and necessary to achieve optimal physical and mental health. If you are having regular trouble sleeping you know how poor sleep on a nightly basis affects your days. It’s a struggle to wake up in the morning. Maybe you are late for work or school.
You have trouble concentrating, focusing an d it’s harder to be creative. Your mood suffers when you are sleep deprived. You are more likely to be irritable without good sleep behind you. The tendency to blurt out something you don’t mean or shouldn’t say is much higher when you’re tired.
It’s harder to exercise and it may seem you are always hungry. Certainly your health and your life in general would be better, if you could just start getting some decent sleep.
A few nights of restless sleep before a big event, in a new environment or during times of illness are normal and to be expected in everyday life. The problems begin when “a few nights” becomes “most nights” and any good reason for the sleeplessness has become a distant memory or is a complete mystery.
By definition, a chronic sleep problem has developed over time and existed as a concern for several weeks, at least. It is therefore unrealistic to think it can be repaired in one or two nights. It took awhile to get this bad; it will take awhile to get better. Although this may be disappointing to us with our need for instant gratification, it is true. However, there are simple steps to take to get real results. Here are 10 sleep tips to get you back to a consistent, healthy and normal sleep pattern:
TIP #1: Set a regular time to get up every day (this means weekends, too).
The actual time you choose doesn’t matter that much, but being regular about it does. If you have to be up by a certain time to make it to work 4-5 days a week, then that is going to be your time — workdays and weekends. This is a crucial step, and really, really hard for most people.
The human body, like the squirrel body or the bear body or the chrysanthemum “body” dances with rhythms of the natural world. The sun rises and sets, the temperature goes up and down, the seasons change. We need to get into that dance, move in regular rhythms to become regular in our responses.
TIP #2: Set an “intended” bedtime.
This too should be the same every night so that you can be certain you are allowing adequate time in your schedule for sleep. I say “intended” because you may not be sleepy at the same time every night and, as we shall later see, you should only try to sleep when you are sleepy.
It is absolutely necessary, though to designate a time when all else will be laid aside and sleep will be the priority. We live in a very busy, overscheduled, hyper-stimulated society. Sleep has taken a backseat to everything else and it needs to be given the respect it deserves. Post your bedtime in your PDA. Set an alarm clock in the living room or kitchen that will proclaim your bedtime as surely as the one in the bedroom proclaims your morning. Do not allow the 30,000 other distractions of life to eat into your sleep schedule.
TIP #3: Allow enough time for sleep.
How much is enough? Most humans need close to eight hours of sleep per night. 7 ½ to 8 ½ is a good range to test for yourself. Some will require 7 hours and others 9, but science has shown us that we are likely to die earlier if we do not average at least 6 hours every night. That does NOT mean that 6 hours is enough for a good life, just enough to keep going.
Sleep is an extremely important opportunity for the body to heal, build, restore, re-balance and to clean up tissues, organs and systems. Without enough sleep the simple maintenance functions may not get completed. What would happen if you never took your car to the shop? If you never emptied the wastebasket in your office? If you never restocked your refrigerator?
TIP #4: Create a bedtime ritual.
If you have kids, or if you ever were one, you are probably familiar with this idea. At a certain time each evening, the children are helped or reminded to take a warm bath, change into their snuggy jammies, brush their teeth, read a pleasant bedtime story, recite their hopes and gratitudes, kiss their loved ones and then turn out the lights.
This would be an excellent routine to copy for yourself. The advantages of doing these kinds of things every night, at the same time are twofold:
First the regularity of timing, as discussed in Tips #1 and 2 is reinforced. Having a regular sequence of activities that leads up to “lights out” serves as a signal to your body that the chance for sleep is approaching. This lets the systems begin to reset and ready for their sleep tasks, rather than abruptly trying to change course in midstream.
Secondly, the quiet relaxing nature of the pre-bedtime activities gives you an opportunity to shift gears mentally and emotionally as well. You disengage from the stressors and the pull of daily responsibilities and ease into rest.
Relaxing reading, soothing music, a bath, a massage, an intimate moment with a lover; these all can create an effective “moat” to safely separate your active day and your restful night.
TIP #5: Make your bedroom a Sleep Sanctuary.
When you walk into your bedroom at the end of a full day, ready to start your successful sojourn to slumber you should receive one and only one message: Sleep…..! (OK, sleep and intimacy — but two and only two messages!) If you walk into your bedroom and see a treadmill, a computer, a TV, a telephone answering machine, a pile of bills, a pile of laundry, a pile of anything other than pillows, your brain is getting mixed messages. With so much distraction the brain doesn’t know what you want or intend.
Just like training a new puppy, there needs to be a very clear message about what needs to happen where. Bed = Sleep. Bed = Sleep. Bed = Sleep (and intimacy). That’s IT! So move everything out of your bedroom that does not relate to or promote good sleep. Choose your favorite restful colors. Hang pictures that remind you of relaxed times and places. Make it soft like a hug and quiet like a sanctuary.
TIP #6: Get out of bed if you can’t sleep.
In the beginning, when trying to reset you sleep patterns, you may find that even though you have set regular hours, followed a relaxing bedtime ritual and gone to bed in a tranquil cocoon, sleep still doesn’t appear on demand. Remember it took awhile for it to get inconsistent and erratic, it’s going to take time before it becomes reliable again. In the meantime you have to stay true to your intentions and continue to retrain yourself into better responses.
If you find yourself awake in bed and getting upset about it, get out of bed! Whether this is at the beginning of the night, the middle of the night or in the hour before the alarm, do not teach your brain that it is acceptable to be awake in bed. This goes back to training the puppy-sleep-brain.
Remember the message is Bed = Sleep. If sleep is obviously not there, get up. Go to another room and do something quiet and restful until you feel sleepy. Then go back to bed and try again. If you “wake up” as soon as you get back in bed, then get up again. Repeat until you fall asleep easily.
TIP #7: Control Your Environment.
You will sleep better if it is dark. This may seem to be obvious, but I’m frequently amazed how many people discount this simple fact. The brain gets one of its biggest clues about when to sleep from the daily changes in light. In fact melatonin, the most famous of the natural sleep chemicals, is only produced when the ambient light begins to fade. Melatonin production can also be shut down by as little as seven minutes of light exposure. Streetlights, nightlights, the glow from a computer screen, TV or even the alarm clock can be cutting into your ability to produce adequate melatonin to fall asleep, stay asleep or get back to sleep.
It needs to be quiet. This can be a challenge in some neighborhoods, but good earplugs can be transformational. There are dozens of different earplug designs and you can find most of them at your local drugstore.
Turn off the TV…or better yet, move it out of your sleep sanctuary all together! There are hundreds of people who try to get decent sleep with the television on in the background. These flashing lights and quick dialogues, often with varying volumes between shows and commercials are just the opposite of the environment required for healthy sleep to develop. Remember, the human brain is wired to alert to the human voice. When the ears pick up human voices, the brain wave patterns change to alert status. This is not what you want if you are trying to sleep.
Temperature affects sleep too. The ideal temperature range for sleep is between 72 and 58 degrees. Try lowering the bedroom thermostat a couple notches or trade your blanket for a lighter one.
Where you sleep greatly effects how you sleep. Change what you can to minimize outside disturbances and you may be astounded to discover how much difference a seemingly small adjustment can make. And please, no TV…
TIP #8: Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and sleep disrupting drugs and prescriptions near bedtime.
This is a big one. Each of these substances has a distinct effect in the sleep centers of the brain.
Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate and some pain medications, keeps the brain’s alerting system turned on. The effects can last up to 9 hours! That means a diet cola at 3 pm may be what’s keeping you up at midnight.
Nicotine has similar alerting effects. Cigarette smokers can also experience withdrawal symptoms during the night that can cause restless and broken sleep, especially in the last half of the night.
Alcohol is perhaps the most common self-medication strategy used by people who have trouble falling asleep. This can really backfire, though. It is true that alcohol can lead to some relaxation and quicker sleep onset. However, the sleep that ensues is short on the restorative deep sleep most people want and it carries an ironic Trojan horse that is revealed when the alcohol is metabolized.
The body cannot safely eliminate alcohol in the same form you drink it in. The liver has to change it into other safer chemicals first. One of those chemicals has stimulant properties similar to caffeine! This happens about four hours after the glass of wine, whiskey or brandy hits you stomach. That would explain why you can have a drink at 9, fall asleep at 10 and be suddenly wide awake at 1 am! You will have some difficulty getting back to sleep, too, until the new chemical is cleared from your system.
Obviously recreational drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines interfere with sleep, but even pharmaceutical drugs that seem to cause drowsiness generally do not lead into normally restful sleep. The pills sold as “sleep aids” are usually anti-histamines that can make you sleepy, but they don’t bring about normal sleep either.
There are many over the counter and prescription drugs that also alter sleep patterns in surprising ways. Be sure to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about how these may be affecting you.
TIP #9: Eat well to sleep well.
Sleep is just one of the three legs on the tripod of good health. The other two legs are exercise and nutrition. To do anything well, including sleep, the body and brain need adequate, clean and appropriate fuel. Feed yourself good food that you prepare yourself or know has been freshly made.
Regular schedules are important for healthy meals, too. Avoid large, spicy, fatty or rich foods near bedtime. Dinner should be finished at least 2 hours before your intended bed time to allow time for initial digestion. Lying down with a full stomach is an open invitation to heartburn and acid reflux.
Likewise, it is important that you not go to bed hungry. If your body is hungry, lacking nutrients, minerals and amino acids, your sleep will be restless and the body’s housekeeping chores will not get completed properly if the raw materials for repairing and restoring tissues are not at hand.
There are many different foods that can improve your ability to get to sleep. Warm milk is a famous example. The reason this works is because milk has tryptophan which the body uses to make serotonin. Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals, neurotransmitters, necessary for normal, consistent sleep. Other sources of tryptophan are turkey, soy products and sesame seeds.
There are also foods that can keep you awake; ginger for example. A meal high in protein without balancing carbohydrates, may block serotonin. If you are having trouble sleeping a big meal of spicy ginger beef, just before hitting the sack, would probably not be your best choice!
TIP #10: Don’t worry about it.
Worrying about sleep, stressing over it and making it bigger than is has to be won’t help. In fact that goes for all the other nagging worries in our lives!
We mentioned before, that losing some sleep before a big event, a trip, during a move or any exciting time, is normal and natural. The trouble begins when the sleepless pattern seems to linger when the triggering event or circumstance is no longer present or relevant. For many people the trouble worsens when they start to worry about their during the day as well. What started out as merely a problem soon turns into a true sleep disorder.
Fretting over it, stressing and getting upset over it does NOT make it easier to sleep. If worry and anxiety, about sleep or anything else, is there with you when you go to bed at night, you need to find a way to deal with it in the daylight first.
Stress reduction strategies and techniques include meditation, yoga, martial arts, simple play, counseling, prayer, hobbies and fresh air exercise. Music, guided meditation, creative visualization, progressive relaxation and biofeedback can also be incredibly effective tools.
Patty shares, “One of my favorite tricks is to perform a nightly ‘brain dump.’ When everything seems to be on overload, I will be sure to take time each evening to sit down and write out all I would normally be worrying about in bed. This might include big stuff, like how to pay the mortgage, smaller stuff like remembering if the tires need rotating, as well as stupid stuff like, wondering if my favorite summer shirt will still be in fashion next year. After writing furiously for 10 minutes or so, the scribbling will come to a stop on its own. Later, in bed, when those worrisome thoughts start to come up I can say ‘no, I wrote you down, so I don’t need to think about you right now.’ It really works!”
Patty Tucker, PA-C, Sleep Coach and Consultant and Adjunct Faculty of the Family Sleep Institute, is a graduate of the Stanford School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program. The Family Sleep Institute is the very first comprehensive yet affordable child sleep consultant certification program based on 15 years of experience by the leading Child Sleep Expert, Deborah Pedrick. The Family Sleep Institute lives up to its name as it is truly a “family” to all graduates who go through the program..