You’ve had a long and productive day. The house is moderately clean, your family is taken care of, and you felt really good about what you accomplished at work. You’re ready for 8 hours of shut eye, but as you lay down to sleep all of the sudden your mind is racing. Shoot! You’re lying there for about an hour, thinking about every aspect of your life, before you can get to sleep. Why can’t you get a good night’s rest?
Sleep, as you are well aware, is an essential part of life. It’s the time that most of your biological systems shut down so they can be repaired and your energy can be renewed for the next day. This is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you just can’t get to sleep. This can be caused by sleep disorders like sleep apnea or insomnia, in which case you should talk to a licensed professional, but often there are simple reasons that you can’t sleep. Good news! These simple problems can also have simple solutions!
Making lifestyle adjustments like the following can really help your sleeping habits:
Have a Bedtime.
Your body has natural cycles called circadian rhythms. These cycles are the natural routines that your body would fall into if you didn’t have external distractions or pressures. Because you have commitments like work and school and such, you can’t follow your circadian rhythms all the time; however, you can set your body on a different cycle if you have a bedtime. Your body likes routines! If you have a time (say between 10-11 PM) that you set aside as “bedtime” then your body will start getting sleepy at that time. It’s really cool because once this routine is set up; it won’t be interrupted by annoying overthinking or stressing out before bed. Your body will know that it’s “bedtime” and so your brain will follow suit!
Use your Bed for SLEEPING.
If you have been eating, watching TV, studying, etc. in your bed then you may be a victim of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning happens when your brain associates a neutral stimulus with a positive reward, resulting in a specific action. In the famous experiment done by Pavlov, dogs were conditioned to salivate (specific action) when they heard a bell ring (neutral stimulus) because they made the connection that the bell ringing meant they would be fed (positive reward). How does this relate to sleep? If you watch TV in bed then your brain associates lying in bed (neutral stimulus) with watching TV (positive reward), which makes you stay awake (specific action). Basically, your bed becomes a place for your brain to be active rather than a place for your brain to “shut down.” If you use your bed exclusively for sleeping, then your brain will make that association and move towards sleep mode.
Find your Ideal Sleep Environment.
Having a room that is too dark, too light, too hot, too cold, too noisy, or too quiet can make it hard to get to sleep. I say “find YOUR ideal sleep environment” because this can vary from person to person. If you lived in a highly populated area and fell asleep to the sounds of a bustling city every night, then it might be hard to fall asleep in a silent room. You might need some kind of background noise. Conversely, if you are used to sleeping in conditions of absolute stillness, then you will have a really hard time sleeping with lots of noise. You might want to invest in a pair of really nice earplugs. Your preferences are completely subjective, but making sure that they are met will help you get that good night’s sleep you’re looking for.
Don’t Hit Snooze.
During sleep, your brain goes through 5 continually shifting stages. Each stage is characterized by different types of brain waves. The most important of these stages is REM sleep. You can think of this as the sleep stage where all the “major rest” happens. If you don’t get enough REM sleep then you don’t feel good when you wake up. That’s why sometimes taking a nap makes you feel more tired than rejuvenated – you didn’t reach the REM stage of sleep. As the night goes on, your REM stages get progressively longer. The first one might last only a few minutes and then all 5 stages repeat themselves. By the end of the night, your REM stage could be up to 20-30 minutes at a time.
When you hit the snooze button, your brain never gets back to the REM stage of sleep. You kinda flounder around in the first 4 stages without getting “major rest.” It’s much better for your body if you get up when your alarm goes off the first time because you avoid this restless sleep. Ideally, you would wake up naturally after your final REM cycle without the use of an alarm clock, but if this isn’t possible than the next best thing would be to avoid hitting snooze.
Avoid Eating Right Before Bed.
Eating right before you plan to go to bed is a bad idea because food gives your body energy. Having a bunch of energy to burn makes you restless. This is especially true of drugs like nicotine or caffeine. These drugs are stimulants, so they will keep your brain active; which can drive you nuts when the rest of your body is ready to clock out. Alcohol should also be avoided because, although it is a depressant and will make you feel sleepy, it will make your sleep patterns erratic and may deprive you of the REM sleep that is so essential.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when you can’t fall asleep. If you try everything on this list and you are still suffering from sleep deprivation, then you may be experiencing something much more serious and you should consult your physician. Getting a good night’s rest starts with having good habits. As soon as you integrate these habits into your life, then you will be able to sleep worry-free.
Penelope is an avid health and wellness writer who writes on behalf of First Medical Products, a retailer of fine medical supplies for use in the home or doctor's office.