It may not seem like it, but missing sleep is a big deal. Especially if you’re on a string of “who needs sleep?” benders and moving into sleep deprivation.
“Chronic sleep deprivation has lots of negative consequences,” says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Among these consequences are poor cognitive function, problems with attention and concentration, dementia and an increased risk of heart disease. If these are your thing, then have that seventh cup of coffee at 1AM.
On the other hand, if you embrace the benefits of being healthy and effective and want to sleep but it’s simply not happening, some of these techniques might be just what you need.
Make your sleeping space as cool and dark as a tortured artist.
It turns out there’s a flaw in your eyelid design. Even when your eyes are closed, they can still detect light. And light inhibits the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that naturally promotes sleep. So, the darker the room, the better!
Furthermore, cool it. It’s been shown that sleeping in a room that’s 60-68 degrees stimulates the production of melatonin.
Forget that noise.
Whether the noise is coming from the street, upstairs, your sleeping partner or your head (often the loudest), it’s messing with your sleep.
Noise doesn’t affect melatonin production like light does, but it can definitely disturb your sleep. And since we don’t have ear lids, you have to resort to other measures. If the idea of ear plugs doesn’t grip you with the perpetual fear that they will never release, that’s one solution. But you could also use white noise machines or check out some of the guided meditations and relaxation soundtracks for sleep available through the magical internet. There are even soft fleece headbands embedded with ear phones designed specifically for this purpose. Just remember to turn off the blue glow of the screen.
Get up and do something for 10 minutes… like blow bubbles.
“[Blowing bubbles is] like a deep breathing exercise, which helps calm your body and mind,” says Rachel Marie E. Salas, M.D., a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “And since it’s such a silly activity, it can also take your mind off of any potential sleep-thwarting thoughts.”
Maybe you don’t have any bubbles or children around. Or you have a fear of them (bubbles or children). No judgment here. Whatever the case, the idea is to get out of bed and engage in an activity that requires your head and your hands, like working on a puzzle or something creative. What this doesn’t mean is binge watching anything on TV or your laptop since the blue light – much like other light – suppresses melatonin.
Another important aspect of getting out of bed is eliminating the idea of associating your bed with a place where you spend a great deal of time worrying, thinking, watching TV, hatching diabolical schemes, whatever. The only thing you’re not associating it with is sleep.
Take a warm bath or shower, then put on some socks.
You don’t have to carry the funk of a thousand years to benefit from a warm shower or bath. Your body temperature drops rapidly once you exit your soapy haven and so too does your heart rate, digestion and other metabolic processes. Research shows that these decreases can trigger a sleepy feeling and allow your brain to effectively power down as well.
Then slip on some socks. Seriously. “When it comes to optimizing your temperature for sleep, the ideal balance is a cooler core and warmer extremities,” says Ancoli-Israel.
Furthermore, research from Australia indicates that deep sleep is initiated when the core temperature of the body is reached. In order for the core temperature to drop, the body needs to act like a radiator, with heat from the core transferring to the face and extremities. This in turn causes the peripheral skin temperature to rise and then lose heat to the surrounding environment. The warmth of those cozy socks dilates your blood vessels and can help blood flow which will lead to a more optimal temperature for sleep.
Counting sheep by 2’s is so yesterday. Try “4-7-8” instead.
In line with other relaxation techniques for sleep are those that address deep breathing. Many people have found success falling asleep with the “4-7-8 Method”. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, you do this:
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- Repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Thirty seconds of a face full of ice-cold water, a.k.a. the Sleep Facial.
You don’t need to go to spa for this one.
Simply immerse your face in very cold water for 30 seconds. While this might seem ridiculous or possibly masochistic, it turns out that doing so will lower your heart rate and blood pressure and slow your nervous system. This involuntary phenomenon is known as the Mammalian Dive Reflex and it’s an effective way to quickly calm the nervous system and prepare you for sleep.
Force yourself to stay awake.
Just as there’s performance anxiety, so too is there sleep anxiety. And unlike with other things, it seems like the harder we practice trying to sleep, the more likely we are to fail.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to practice a little reverse psychology on yourself. A small study at the University of Glasgow found that insomniacs who were told to lay in bed and try to stay awake with their eyes open fell asleep faster than participants who were told to fall asleep. This is a cognitive technique called paradoxical intention that consists of persuading a patient to engage in his or her most feared behavior to overcome the anxiety.
Trip out on tryptophan.
Current wisdom advises against engaging in late night eating. But this pertains mostly to your garden variety gallon of ice cream, bag of potato chips and medium pizza late night eating.
Stressing your digestive system is not going to help you sleep. But eating small doses of foods with tryptophan could.
We all think about Thanksgiving and the coma-like state induced by turkey, the food most commonly associated with tryptophan. Interestingly enough, breakfast foods like oatmeal and eggs also have tryptophan. But a better bet at night would be to snack on a few pumpkin seeds or a small piece of cheddar, parmesan or mozzarella cheese, all of which have higher amounts of tryptophan than other foods.
Take pre-emptive measures.
Newton’s law of motion says that a nervous system in motion tends to stay in motion. Okay, it doesn’t say nervous system. But the law still applies.
If you arrive upon your mattress after being amped up all day, it isn’t going to be easy to settle into sleep. It would be nice if there were sleep inducing blankets, pajamas and teddy bears, but there aren’t. So try to get into the habit of taking some time each day (10-20 minutes) to practice deep breathing, meditation, yoga or something of that nature to occasionally calm and reset your nervous system.
Then once you settle into bed to sleep, try this relaxation technique.
Tense all of the muscles in the right foot for a count of seven, then release. Do the same to the left foot. Progressively continue through the body in this order:
- Right calf, then left calf
- Right thigh, then left thigh
- Hips and buttocks
- Right arm and hand, then left arm and hand
- Neck and shoulders
With regular practice, this technique will familiarize you with what both tension and relaxation feel like in your body. Once you have this awareness, you can spot tension as it starts to sneak in and counteract it with relaxation.
Give any or all of these techniques a try. With regularity and practice, you too may find success with falling asleep faster.