Can’t sleep? Join the club. Insomnia affects almost half of U.S. adults 60 and older, says the National Institutes of Health.
Unless certain medical conditions or medications are the cause of your sleeplessness, the most common culprit is anxiety, says Lisa Meltzer, an education scholar for the National Sleep Foundation and associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver. “If you’re anxious and worried, it’s very difficult to relax and fall asleep,” says Meltzer. “When you’re not sleeping well, you’ll be more anxious and you’ll have a harder time regulating emotion. It feeds on itself.”
Want to coax yourself into dreamland as soon as you hit the sack? Try the following scientifically-supported methods, that include relaxation techniques, distraction exercises, and more ways to prepare your body for slumber.
Is there anything reverse psychology isn’t good for? In this case, it may alleviate excessive sleep anxiety. A small study conducted at the University of Glasgow found that sleep-onset insomniacs who were instructed to lay in bed and try to stay awake with their eyes open fell asleep quicker than participants told to fall asleep without this “paradoxical intention” (PI). Participants in the PI group fell asleep easier and showed less sleep performance anxiety.
“I always tell people, sleep is the one thing in life where the harder you try and the harder you work at it, the more likely it is you’ll fail,” says Meltzer. “Reverse psychology is not a long-term solution, but it can help.”
If you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep within 15 minutes or so, get out of bed and do an activity that requires your hands and your head, like a jigsaw puzzle or a coloring book, says Richard Wiseman, professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University if Hertfordshire and author of Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep. Stay away from the TV and digital screens, whose blue light has been proven to suppress melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. “The key is to avoid associating your bed with being awake,” Wiseman says in his 59 Seconds video.
“This is a stimulus control theory,” says Meltzer. “Everything in life has a stimulus value, even your bed,” meaning your body should recognize that lying in bed means it’s time to go to sleep. To give your bed that value, the only things you should be doing in it are sleep and sex, she explains. “Getting out of bed if you can’t sleep is the hardest one to do, but it’s so important. If you’re spending 10 hours in bed, but only sleeping six, that’s really bad. Your bed becomes a place for thinking, worrying, watching TV, and not for sleeping.”
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
Did you know your internal body temperature is integral to regulating your biological body clock? When you’re falling asleep, your body temperature drops slightly, which some experts believe actually helps the process along, according to the Harvard Medical School. The National Sleep Foundation recommends a bedroom temperature of 60 to 67 degrees F for the most sleep-friendly conditions.
“The secret is cool, dark, comfortable bedrooms,” says Meltzer. “Darkness cues the brain to make melatonin, which tells your interior clock that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin cools your internal body temperature, which reaches its lowest point between 2 and 4 a.m.”
Warming your body up with a hot shower an hour before bed and then stepping into cooler air will cause your body temperature to drop more precipitously. Studies show that this rapid temperature decrease slows your metabolism faster and prepares your body for sleep. “Showers can also be very relaxing, so that helps, too,” says Meltzer. If you shower every night around the same time, making it part of a consistent bedtime routine, you’ll see the most sleep value from it, she adds. “Then your body has an expectation of what’s coming next.”
Researchers from a Swiss study published in the journal Nature observed that warm feet and hands were the best predictor of rapid sleep onset. In the study, participants placed a hot water bottle at their feet, which widened the blood vessels on the surface of the skin, thereby increasing heat loss. Shifting blood flow from your core to your extremities cools down your body, working in concert with melatonin.
If you’re anxious or distressed at bedtime, the best medicine may be a face full of ice-cold water. When you’re in a full-on state, your nervous system desperately needs to be reset to help you calm down. Submerging your face in a bowl of cold water triggers an involuntary phenomenon called the Mammalian Dive Reflex, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. Then it’s off to bed with a soothed system.
Championed by best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil—and various wellness bloggers, the “4-7-8” breathing technique is purported to help you fall asleep in under a minute. The method is said to relax you by increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood stream, slowing your heart rate, and releasing more carbon dioxide from the lungs. According to DrWeil.com, here’s how you do it:
Not only does lavender smell lovely, but the aroma of this flowering herb may also relax your nerves, lower your blood pressure, and put you in a relaxed state. A 2005 study at Wesleyan University found that subjects who sniffed lavender oil for two minutes at three, 10-minute intervals before bedtime increased their amount of deep sleep and felt more vigorous in the morning.
“Some people respond really well to scents,” says Meltzer. “If they’re breathing it in deeply, it can help them clear their minds. Also, if it’s part of a bedtime routine, that might be the secret.”
Rather than counting sheep, visualize an environment that makes you feel calm and happy. The key to success is thinking of a scene that’s engaging enough to distract you from your thoughts and worries for a while. In an Oxford University study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, insomniacs who were instructed to imagine a relaxing scene, such as a beach or a waterfall, fell asleep 20 minutes faster than insomniacs who were told to count sheep or do nothing special at all.
“As adults, finding ways to manage stress can get lost, but it is so important,” says Meltzer.
Studies have shown that classical music, or any music that has a slow rhythm of 60 to 80 beats per minute, can help lull you to sleep. In a 2008 study, students aged 19 to 28 who listened to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before bed showed significant improvement in sleep quality. Bonus: They also reported decreased symptoms of depression.
When it comes to sleep, the less blue light you expose yourself to in the hours before bedtime, the better. Light of any kind can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, but blue light waves do so more powerfully, thereby shifting sleep-friendly circadian rhythms, says Harvard Health Publications. Besides electronic devices like tablets and smartphones, the biggest blue-light offenders in your home are likely fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights, which many people use because of their energy efficiency and powerful light. Give yourself a romantic break from all the blue and eat dinner by candlelight.
Got grandkids? That means you probably have a plastic bottle of bubbles around the house. The benefits of blowing them before bed are two-fold: Bubbles are slightly hypnotic to look at and require a process of deep breathing to blow, said Rachel Marie E. Salas, M.D., a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a recent New York Post article. “It’s like a deep breathing exercise, which helps calm your body and mind,” she says. “And since it’s such a silly activity, it can also take your mind off of any potential sleep-thwarting thoughts.”
Recommended by the National Sleep Foundation as a way to fall asleep fast, progressive muscle relaxation involves slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle in your body to help your body relax. The Mayo Clinic describes the technique as follows:
Start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.
“I encourage patients to try progressive relaxation,” says Meltzer. “It’s not enough by itself, but in combination with other things, it definitely makes a huge difference.”
Derived from acupuncture, acupressure is an alternative medicine technique based in the Chinese medical theory that a network of energy flows through specific points in your body. Pressing on these points is meant to restore balance and regulate your mind, body, and spirit. A faculty member from leading natural health university Bastyr University suggests these acupressure techniques to alleviate sleeplessness:
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