Falling asleep may seem like an easy task for many but not every person can easily do something that seems so natural. About 1 out of 3 American adults have experienced some difficult in falling asleep and remaining asleep in the past year. As many as 1 out 10 people have chronic insomnia yet only 5% of these people actually seek medical assistance. Sleep problems have a wide array of effects. Not only do you feel tired and less productive but chronic sleep problems can affect every aspect of a person’s life from work to academics and even interpersonal relationships. Difficulty sleeping is a medical problem that can be a sign of some underlying disease. Yet not every person who experiences a sleeping problem has a medical condition that could be causing this disturbance.
There is no denying that modern life has many stresses – physical, mental and emotional – which have a major role to play in sleeping problems. These days money worries and relationship problems are some of the more common mental and emotional stresses that can affect sleep. But not every person with these same stressful factors experience sleeping problems. The question is often “why can’t I asleep” rather than asking “how can I sleep”. As the hours wile away and you are staring at the ceiling until sunrise, try to look at constructive ways not to experience another sleepless night. Simple measures can make a big difference and each person is different. Understanding your body and sleep habits is important to get a good night’s sleep.
Tiredness best for sleeping
Sleep comes more easily when you are tired. All too often we say that we “slept like a baby” after an exhausting day. Low energy levels brings on sleep as a means of recovering. But it is not easy to control the ebb and flow of energy. Naturally a person is more likely to feel energetic after eating a moderately-sized meal, with exercise and after a good night’s sleep. Tiredness is usually a result of having exerted yourself physically and mentally. If your energy levels are still high, it is unlikely that you will fall asleep easily. Three things that you can do to ensure that you are relatively tired by bedtime is :
- Avoid meals laden with carbs at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. Night time snacking is not advisable but make sure that you have a good supper as hunger can hamper sleep.
- Exercise at least few hours before bedtime. A short run, a few laps in the pool or even just a brisk walk for a few blocks can help burn excess energy. Initially following the workout you may feel energetic but exercising after a long day quickly tires you out.
- Never nap during the day. Afternoon naps for an hour or more can easily upset your sleep patterns. Even a short cat nap on the couch can turn out to be a power nap and keep you going for a long time.
Sleep in dark and silence
While it may not always be possible for shift workers to sleep at night, it is important to sleep in a dark room as far as possible. As night falls, the darkness triggers the secretion of an important hormone known as melatonin. This is the sleep hormone and is one important component of the sleep cycle. Melatonin levels directly correlate with the amount of light striking the retina of the eye. Therefore sleeping in a dark room is recommended for people who have difficulty sleeping. Heavy curtains and sleep eye masks/shades are one way of keeping out the sunlight during the day. But if you have the luxury to choose when you want to go to bed then try to sleep at night.
Noise can be just as much of an interruption to sleep as light. Unfortunately hearing is one of the senses that cannot be “switched off” like vision is by closing the eyelids. While asleep your body becomes less sensitive to noise and we all are able to practice some degree of selective hearing. However, silence is one important component for falling asleep and staying asleep. Not all of us have the option to sleep in peaceful environments and using ear plugs, white noise generators or even a noisy electric fan can block out external noise. Listening to soothing music through earphones may be an even better option for some.
Cold temperatures most restful
Most people know that sleeping in a room that is too hot or too cold can upset a full night’s sleep. But what is the ideal temperature? Medical professionals specializing in sleep disorders agree that it is preferable to sleep in slightly colder temperatures. It largely depends on the preference of a person. Most people feel sleepy during colder weather but if it is too cold it may cause discomfort and shivering that can upset sleep. Finding the right temperature is a matter of trial and error.
Ideally a person is more likely to have a better sleep in temperatures lower than what they would find preferable when awake and active. Remember how the cabin temperature is dropped around sleep time while you are on board a plane. Various experts agree that a temperature between 65F (about 18C) to 72F (around 22C) may work well for most people. Air conditioning units these days have climate control which can easily maintain the temperature within the room at a desired level. However, if cold aggravates certain medical ailments like joint pain and sinusitis, it may not help with sleep.
Sleep hygiene is important
Sleep hygiene is not about bathing before bedtime. The term refers to a number of measures that should be undertaken to help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily. Sometimes this may involve having a hot shower before bedtime if this is part of your routine. But sleep hygiene is essentially a list of known factors that helps most people fall asleep. It also involves repeating all the same factors and events that you do on the nights of having a good sleep. In this instance a sleep diary can be very helpful in recording and remembering your patterns.
The generally agreed upon measures, some of which have been mentioned above, includes :
- Avoid large meals before bedtime.
- Stay away from stimulants like caffeine and nicotine a short time before sleeping.
- Exercise helps with sleep.
- Ensure that your bed is comfortable.
- Control the room temperature and opt for slightly colder temperatures.
- Remove all distractions from the bedroom to allow you to focus on sleep.
- Take necessary measures to minimize exposure to loud or disturbing noises.
- Get plenty of light exposure during the day and sleep in the dark at night.
Sleep clock and consistent bedtime
The body has its own internal biological clock where different changes in the body occur according to somewhat of a 24 hour cycle. This is known as circadian rhythms. When it comes to sleep and wakefulness, there are certain dips and peaks – times when a person will feel more sleepy or very alert. The natural sleep drive appears to be between 2am to 4am and 1am to 3pm. These are the periods that we tend to feel the most sleepy and sleepiness can be almost unbearable during these times if we did not have sufficient sleep earlier.
It is important to maintain consistency if you are having difficulty sleeping – consistency in both waking and going to bed. Most of us have to awake around the same time for at least 5 days a week but we have more flexibility when it comes to bedtime. If you are experiencing sleeping problems then fix a specific bedtime and try to keep to it, allowing for about a 30 minute fluctuation either way. This helps to “program” the body and eventually you will find yourself feeling extremely sleepy around the designated bedtime. It is important to ensure that the time you opt to go to bed should allow for a decent night’s sleep – around 7 to 9 hours per night for adults.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on February 2, 2013