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Getting the Sleep You Need

by David Spero, RN

To help your body and mind connect your bed with relaxation, get in the habit of using your bed only for sleep and sex. Don’t read, eat, talk on the phone, or watch television in bed. Once you’ve established sound sleep, you may be able to loosen up a bit.

Whatever you do, don’t try to go to sleep. Dr. Hauri says, “The harder you try to stay awake, the easier you will fall asleep. The harder you try to sleep, the longer you will stay awake.”

In Dr. Bootzin’s plan, it’s also crucial to get up at the same time every morning, whether you’ve slept or not. You’re trying to form a new habit of easy and regular sleep, and a couple of days of tiredness may be a small price to pay.

Be patient. Dr. Kuo says it takes at least two weeks to learn new sleep behaviors. “Changing long-time sleep patterns is a process. It’s not something you can change all at once. If you’ve had insomnia for a long time, it may take at least six to eight weeks to establish improvement. And many people benefit from the help of a sleep specialist.”

Routine, routine, routine
Sleep doctors recommend having a bedtime ritual, or a set of habits you can form that promote sleep. After sitting at a computer or watching TV, talking or doing physical exercise, many people find it hard to go right to sleep. You need to wind down first. You should faithfully go through your ritual every evening, if possible. Rituals vary from person to person. Whatever works for you is OK. Here are some ideas:

  • Dim the lights 20 minutes or so before bedtime (to simulate sunset).
  • Take a warm bath.
  • Have a snack. Most bedtime snacks will work, but avoid spicy food. Warm milk, herbal tea, and turkey are especially good for many people.
  • Do some gentle stretching, but not vigorous exercise.
  • Taking acetaminophen or aspirin at bedtime helps some people stay asleep by lowering body temperature, which triggers sleep-inducing signals in the brain.
  • Pray or meditate.
  • Repeat an affirmation such as, “I have done all I needed to do today.”
  • Listen to restful music or nature sounds or a relaxation tape.
  • Put on socks or down booties so that cold feet don’t keep you awake.
  • Sex can also be a good sleep-inducer for some people.

Some of these things can also help you get back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.

Sleep-promoting lifestyles

What you do during the day makes a big difference in how you sleep at night.

Exercise. Bodies need to move. If you don’t move all day, your body won’t want to stay still at night. Of course, exercise also helps blood glucose control. Exercising too close to bedtime could keep you awake, though, so it may be good to avoid vigorous exercises three to six hours before you go to bed.

Stress. Anything that makes your life less stressful helps you sleep, and vice versa. Relaxation and self-soothing skills are crucial and are taught at most sleep clinics. If worries keep you awake, Dr. Hauri suggests spending 10–30 minutes a day (not in the evening) in a “worry session,” thinking of all your worries and writing some ideas on “worry cards.” You know they’ll be there in the morning, so you don’t have to worry at night.

Blood glucose control. Maintain the best possible blood glucose control.

Excess weight. Overweight makes it harder to sleep and can cause sleep apnea. Another reason to get in shape.

Sunlight. Get some sun exposure during the day. Without sunlight, your brain is not properly cued to produce melatonin, the body’s natural sleep aid. Being unable to see sunlight is why most blind people have problems with insomnia.

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