“I love to sleep! Why can’t I do more of it?” “I just can’t sleep. I lay there for hours and it doesn’t happen.” “I can’t turn off my mind from thinking about all I have to do.” “ I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep.”
Do these sound familiar? It is often the case that people want to sleep more, longer and better but that seemingly simple goal is as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, many would give that pot of gold for a good night’s sleep. Whereas it is possible to force oneself to wake up, it is not possible to force oneself to sleep. Sleep has to be enticed, welcomed and allured by a restful state of mind and body.
In the previous article, the importance of sleep was discussed. It is hard to find anyone who disagrees with that we all must sleep. Now let’s start to look at ways to increase the likelihood that a good night’s sleep will occur.
The most important part of success is making good sleep a priority. All too often people find such good and plausible reasons why getting to bed has to take second, third or even fourth place among the necessities of life. I like to follow the 8-8-8 rule. That means a day is allocated to have 8 hours of work, 8 hours of personal and leisure time and 8 hours of sleep. That is a harmonious and healthy balance.
Check out your average schedule. For many it looks like 10-12 hours work, 8-10 hours personal and sleeping gets whatever is left over. Of course life has its demands. That is true for us all. However, there is a funny thing about biology – it doesn’t care what your reasons are. Your body needs the sleep it needs and no amount of arguing, pleading, cajoling and rationalizing will make your body reduce its sleep requirement to accommodate your will. Bribing doesn’t work either. You know – “I just have to get through this stressful time / deadlines / big project etc., and then I will take a nice holiday.” You can’t bank sleep, as if you have some kind of biologic overdraft protection.
It is never a good idea to pick a fight with your biology. You will loose every time. Even those times it seems as if you have the upper hand, you don’t. Your body has the ultimate leverage if you don’t abide by biology’s rules – it can and will make you sick. Making sleep a priority gives you the motivation to make the necessary efforts for better sleep.
Good sleep starts hours before your head hits the pillow. Creating a good environment for yourself that promotes sleep is what is known as “sleep hygiene.”
It is just common sense to make your bedroom and bed completely comfortable. However, it is a surprise how many people are sleeping on an old, lumpy or in some way uncomfortable mattress or are using pillows that were made during the Crimean war. Your body will keep you awake or wake you after a short sleep if your mattress or pillows create even minor aches, tension or stiffness. If your mattress is more than 10 years old, and certainly if it is more than 15 years old, it might be time to lay down on a several new ones in a nearby store. Most pillows should be replaced every 3 – 4 years. You may be just a few dollars away from a better night’s sleep.
Just as good athletes (and horses) need a cool down after exertion, so too does your mind and body need “cooling down” or winding down time from the business of the day before starting to sleep. Too often work duties, household demands, kids’ and spouse’s needs, computer work and other activities continue right up until bedtime. Then the required cooling down period starts when you are trying to sleep and will not allow you to drift off. In fact, frequently the more you try to sleep, the more active your mind seems to become. Additionally many people experience falling asleep after dinner in front of the television only to find they become fully awake when they get up and go to bed.
It is best to allow yourself a minimum of about 2 hours of fully relaxing activities before bedtime that do not include the computer, iPhone, iPad, smart phone or other electronic devices. Listening to music, reading a book or drawing, taking a warm bath or other quiet activities that relax your mind are best. The last 30 minutes should be done while in bed. As you become more peaceful and relaxed, sleep will take over; therefore it is a good idea to be in the place where you will sleep.
I can hear the objections now. How is it possible to squeeze two hours out of the day to relax before bedtime? If you are one of the lucky people who can fall asleep before your head touches the pillow, and stay asleep all night, then this is not necessary for you. For others, who can’t fall asleep or wake in the night, this is a very helpful, even essential step.
Now a word about electronic devices. Hardly anything is as disruptive to good sleep than electronic devices that can assess websites, emails and texting. I take that back – a brass band playing in your bedroom might be worse, but not by much. Whether a person is aware of it or not, having the smart phone nearby always keeps the mind alert and expectant, states that are incompatible with a sleepy mind. When it comes to getting prepared for sleep, there is no such thing as a “quick check of my emails” or “just answer a few text messages.” Doing any of these will wake up your mind and short circuit any attempts slowing down your mind necessary for sleeping. Banish these sleep-disrupters! Not only remove then from your room, but banish them from your thoughts too.
To review – –
1) Make good sleep a priority
2) Sleep hygiene – creating a comfortable, soothing sleep place
A) Comfortable bed and bedroom
B) Pre-sleep wind-down period of relaxation
C) Remove electronics
Most likely there is little I have said that is new or remarkable. It is all good sound advice, most of which you probably already knew. The problem is that knowing it isn’t enough. It won’t help unless you do it – – – every night. It is easy in concept, difficult in execution.
In the next article, I will discuss sleep aides, both “natural” and pharmaceutical, jet lag and other issues. Of course, I am a big fan of good sleep, but not to the extent that I designed this article to assist in you falling asleep while reading it.
©2016 Linda Johnston, MD