I’m hung over as I write this. No, not from alcohol. I have a melatonin hangover. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep so I took one quarter of a 1 mg tablet. It’s almost noon and my eyes feel a little crossed and I feel like I could easily go back to bed for a few hours. I know better than to take a sleep aid in the middle of the night, but sometimes it’s so frustrating when you’re lying there with your brain going 90 mph and you just can’t drift back off.
Getting good sleep — or trying to set the stage for good sleep — is the health habit I’m probably the most zealous about. I work out regularly and try to eat clean, but I guard my sleep time like a mama bear protecting her cub. If you get between me and my seven to eight hours, you are going to have to deal with my crankiness, depression and lethargy. Sleep is that important to me and a lack of it affects me in a huge way.
Research — not to mention legions of chronically tired parents and long-distance commuters — has shown us that lack of sleep contributes to so many different health problems, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, depression, diabetes, dementia and possibly even cancer. You may even catch cold more often if you don’t get enough snooze time. Sleep is when your body repairs itself. Your muscles start rebuilding after your workout and your brain organizes and files what’s happened during the day and sweeps up any neuronal “dust.” Your body needs that time on the simmer setting to rest. When you deprive it, you’re adding stress to the system. I like to think of it this way: Your body is like one of those thick gym ropes you used to climb as a kid. If you look closely, they’re made of a bunch of smaller strands that have been woven together in different ways to create strength. When you deprive yourself of sleep, those smaller strands start to fray here and there. If one frays or breaks, it’s not a big deal, but if too many do, the whole rope will break.
Trouble sleeping is one of the most common complaints I get from my patients and I’m glad I can help them make positive changes. Here are some of my favorite tips that seem to make the biggest difference for people.
Create a routine. Babies, dogs and, yes, even adults, benefit from a consistent routine, especially when it comes to sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning. The older you get the easier this is because you’re not out clubbing on the weekend, although you may be getting up to take care of a baby. I generally go to bed at the same time every night but on the weekends I might give myself an extra half hour to sleep in. Inevitably, my body makes that decision for me though. If I can get eight hours of solid sleep, I’ll usually be awake way before the alarm goes off, even if it’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday.
Get your workout in.I haven’t found that exercising at a certain time of day increases my odds of sleeping better. I just know that doing it, whether early or later in the day, does make it easier to fall and stay asleep. Some experts caution against working out too soon before bed since it takes time for your body to calm down after an intense sweat session, but experiment and see what works best for you.
Try not to use a sleep mask/blackout curtains. Now, if your bedroom is bright, then dim that stuff down and pull the blackout shades for sure. Your body likes darkness at night and it improves z’s. What I started doing was putting on my eye mask if I woke up and it was starting to get light. It does help me sleep, but when the alarm goes off, it takes me longer to wake up and get moving (I find the same thing in a hotel room with blackout curtains. I’ll sleep longer and feel worse when I rise.) Sunrise gives us a natural cue to start the day. It’s like a gentle nudge versus the shove of the alarm. For me, wearing a mask throws off my sleep rhythm.
Get your “om” on. I can’t say enough good things about meditation. It’s so beneficial and I think it’s stellar for boosting sleep. If you’re one of those people who has trouble shutting off your brain at night, 15 to 20 minutes of meditation before bed can help flip the switch. I even use it when I wake up in the middle of the night. I try to detach from all my thoughts, calm my breathing and find some mental silence. Since stress is such a big cause of insomnia, anything that can minimize it will improve your sleep; meditation helps on that front too.
Don’t look at the clock. My problem isn’t falling asleep, it’s waking up and not being able to get back to sleep. My one must-do strategy, besides meditation: Never look at the clock. I’ve done it enough to know I generally wake at around 4 a.m., but confirming that just makes me anxious about whether I’ll be able to get back to sleep and get in some more good snoozing before it’s time to get up. And heaven forbid it’s 5 a.m.; then I’m in a real panic. I’d rather hope that it’s only 1 or 2 and I still have hours to go.
Choose your sleep aids wisely. Alcohol and sleeping pills aren’t going to help in the long term and can exacerbate the problem (sleeping pills are the third leading cause of unintentional prescription drug overdose resulting in death!). If you have to take something, dietary supplements like L-theanine, valerian, 5-HTP and melatonin have good research to support their effectiveness. (I helped write a whole book on supplements and which ones actually have good-quality research to back them up; it’s called The Supplement Handbook.) There are Chinese herbal formulas that can help as well and they have minimal side effects. Whatever you take, do it before you go to bed, not when you wake up in the middle of the night.
There are so many other tips that can help improve your sleep and a lot of them are common sense. The general rule is to decrease stimulation (e.g., tv, technology, caffeine, drugs) and increase relaxation an hour or so before bed and make your bedroom a no-distraction zone (e.g., no snorers, pets on the bed or snoring pets on the bed).