Trouble sleeping? You’re not alone. Research suggests that up to a third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, an issue the CDC has labeled a public health epidemic since 2005.
In fact, approximately 20 percent of all car accidents are attributed to sleep-deprived drivers, while only snoozing five hours a night raises a person’s risk of weight gain by 73 percent.
How to catch those Zs? This article will outline nine tips that could help. Before we tuck in, though, let’s take a quick look at what happens when you lay down to rest.
How Sleep Works
James Clear, the author of "Transform Your Habits,” gives insight to how the quality of your sleep is affected by a process called the sleep-wake cycle, which is defined by two important parts during a healthy night of sleep:
- Slow wave sleep (aka deep sleep)
- REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement)
“During slow-wave sleep,” Clear explains, “the body relaxes, breathing becomes regular, blood pressure falls, and the brain becomes less responsive to stimuli.” This phase is crucial for bodily repair, including muscle damage, as well as for promoting immune system functioning.
Alternatively, Clear states that “REM sleep is to the mind what slow wave sleep is to the body: your brain clears out irrelevant information, boosts your memory by connecting the experiences of the last 24 hours to your previous experiences, and facilitates learning and neural growth.”
The National Sleep Foundation explains that a complete sleep cycle alternates every 90 to 110 minutes and is repeated four to six times per night, with REM sleep stages getting progressively longer throughout the duration of your rest. Getting the right mix of sleep is just as important as the quantity, which is why cycled sleeping patterns that promise eight hours spread over several shifts don’t work.
Ready to give your body and mind time to recover? Here are nine natural, proven ways to enhance your ability to enjoy your eight hours:
Tip #1: Keep Your Sleeping Schedule Consistent
Called ‘good sleep hygiene’ by professionals, it doesn’t mean going to bed squeaky clean! Instead, an important aspect of achieving quality, restorative sleep includes keeping to the same schedule, even on days off, which helps your body maintain a consistent sleep-wake cycle.
If you stick to a good schedule and find that you still can’t nod off, experts recommend getting up after about 15 minutes and engaging in a relaxing activity. This way, you can return to bed when you're tired and help yourself avoid becoming anxious about falling back asleep.
Tip #2: Turn Down the Heat
Research shows that a cooler bedroom is often the key to better sleep. In a study by The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, cooling caps were proven to help insomniacs snooze almost as well as those without sleep disorders. For those without insomnia, cooler temps have similar benefits, triggering your body’s “time-to-sleep” symptoms.
However, don’t feel like you have to lower your thermostat to shivering. Personal preference was decided as most important, with a setting of 65 degrees helping the most participants settle off to restful slumber.
» See Also: 25 Hot Sleeper Solutions for Sleeping Better
Tip #3: Get into a Bedtime Habit
Writing for Business Insider, Jacquelyn Smith and Rachel Gillett emphasize, “The last few things you do before bed tend to have a significant impact on your mood and energy level the next day, as they often determine how well and how much you sleep.”
Why? Because doing the same thing each night tells your body when it’s time to relax. This might include utilizing calming techniques, such as taking a warm bath or shower. Others are lulled into relaxation by a good book — however, it’s important to keep the lights dimmed. Adding these relaxing techniques to your bedtime ritual can help promote better sleeping, by easing the transition to a drowsy state.
Additional recommendations include taking time before laying down to reflect on the day, while writing down your thoughts (or, even making a to-do list), and ensuring you go to bed at the same time each night.
Tip #4: Turn Off Your Phone and Laptop
Almost a quarter of Americans text within an hour of bedtime — a habit research suggests may interfere with sleep.
Why be wary of any backlit devices?
Gazing at a glowing screen does double duty to affect your ability to fall asleep: First, backlit screens suppress melatonin production, a naturally-occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. TV, phone or laptop use also stimulates your mind rather than relaxing it. Try listening to music or audio books instead, or practicing relaxation exercises.
Tip #5: Pay Attention to What You Eat and Drink
Daytime habits have a direct impact on the quality of your sleep, especially the closer you get to bedtime.
Try to avoid going to bed hungry or stuffed and if possible, move dinnertime back a few hours. Fatty foods are energy intensive for your stomach to digest and may even keep you awake. The same with anything that’s too spicy or acidic or that might otherwise cause indigestion.
A few beers or a glass of wine won’t help, either. While drinking alcohol may help you nod off a little faster, the carb-heavy liquid gives your body energy as it metabolizes and can disturb sleep long after you’ve laid down.
Not consuming caffeine in the evening hours is pretty obvious for those seeking an easier time falling asleep. However, too much of any liquid can cause restlessness and midnight trips to the loo.
Instead, it’s suggested that a half-glass of water paired with half a sandwich, piece of fruit, or yogurt will help curb cravings without keeping you awake.
Tip #7: Limit Daytime Naps
To nap or not to nap? Some studies show that napping has great benefits, including a near 10 percent leap in mood, alertness, and stamina.
However, the benefits of a nap peak at 20 minutes — just enough time for your brain to dump out useless information, but not long enough to cause problems when bedtime comes around. If you’re overtired and absolutely must rest, take only one nap and schedule it for the mid-afternoon.
Work night shifts? You’ll obviously need to make an exception to this rule. Just be sure to prevent sleep interruption by keeping your window coverings closed.
Tip #8: Be Active During the Day
Regular physical activity of at least 150 minutes per week is proven to help you get better rest, promote falling asleep faster, and enjoy deeper slumber throughout your cycle.
However, the process is more gradual and less immediately gratifying than those who are sleep-deprived might wish. It takes about four months of regular exercise to see an increase of quality sleep averaging 45 minutes per night.
Tip #9: Control Your Anxiety and Stress
Excess stress and anxiety can have a number of detrimental effects on the body, one of which is to make it difficult to fall and/or stay asleep.
If you’re finding it difficult to keep emotions like these under control, it might make sense to seek professional guidance. For example, meditation may help you push aside unwanted worries, or calming exercises could help you recognize irrational fears and restore more realistic thoughts.
Together, you might find that you sleep better and for longer periods of time, without difficulty falling back asleep in the middle of the night.
What About Getting Back to Sleep?
It’s perfectly normal to occasionally wake up for brief periods during the night, but if you frequently struggle falling back asleep, try these tips:
Avoid knee-jerk emotions: If we often experience problems returning to sleep, it’s easy to condition ourselves to react negatively and anxiously as soon as we wake up in the middle of the night. Instead of immediately getting worked up, though, remain in a relaxed position, keep your eyes closed, and calmly focus on the sensations your body is experiencing, such as the coolness of your sheets, the fluffiness of your pillows, or the warm weight of your blankets.
Use relaxation as a tool: The National Sleep Foundation recommends using relaxation techniques like deep breathing (mindfully breathing in and out, while focusing on releasing areas of tension), visualization (using guided imagery to help you release your worries), or even formal meditation, to help you fall back asleep when you’re experiencing difficulty.
Still awake after fifteen minutes? Avoid the temptation of reaching for your smartphone, tablet, or TV remote, since the blue light emitted from these screens can trick your body into thinking that it’s time to wake up. Trying reading a book instead, and make sure to maintain low light levels.
Remember that the best way to return to blissful slumber is to avoid making yourself anxious, as well as over-thinking and analyzing. If there’s something that’s really weighing on your mind, jot it down on a piece of paper and know that whatever it is, dealing with it after a good night of rest will make any problem easier to solve.
If Your Best Efforts at Improving Sleep Don’t Help
Occasional sleepless nights affect nearly everyone. However, if you’ve tried the tips above and are still struggling with sleep problems, you may have a sleep disorder that requires professional treatment.
Consider scheduling a visit with a sleep doctor if, despite your best efforts at natural ways to improve your sleep, you are still troubled by any of the following symptoms:
- Recurring sleepiness or fatigue throughout the day
- Heavy snoring accompanied by seconds-long breathing lapses
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Sleep that doesn’t leave you refreshed upon waking
- Recurring morning headaches
- Crawling sensations in your legs or arms at night
- Inability to move while falling asleep or waking up
- Physically acting out dreams during sleep
Wake Up Rested Every Day
Poor-quality sleep affects every hour of your day. Especially mornings! How you feel depends a lot on getting the quality of sleep your body needs to recuperate. Similarly, natural ways to improve your sleep are often alterations to your day or evening routines.
From keeping a consistent sleep schedule to sweating out stress during the day, natural ways to improve your sleep focus on day-to-day choices, not quick fixes, which improve the quality of your nightly rest.
Then, you can start to fine-tune your sleep to ensure you’re getting what you need.
And the bonus? By taking steps to naturally improve your sleeping patterns, you’ll feel more rested and alert! Allowing you to more easily conquer tasks and fill your day with the things you enjoy, without running your body or mind ragged.