When it comes to being healthy and living a vibrant and energy filled life, sleep seems to be one of the most elusive aspects to conquer. Certainly we know that getting a good night’s sleep is important - crucial, even, to good health. But it’s not as simple as just deciding that you are now going to start sleeping better. At least that’s how it often seems.
Want to eat healthier or with more variety? All it takes is some planning and follow-through. Want to exercise more? It’s just a matter of making time for even 10 minutes a day, and scheduling it in.
But you want to sleep better? Well that’s another story, isn’t it?
Isn’t it time to say enough is enough?
Allow me to share with you the things that I have found to be most powerful when it comes to regaining your control over the night. The following points have worked wonders for me (certainly some more than others, or for different periods of time), and I trust they’ll be of benefit to you.
10 Ways To Improve Your Sleep And Take Back Control
- Increase your Vitamin D levels
I wanted to start with this point because I suspect it may be one of the less obvious techniques to resting easier. You’ve probably heard a lot about Vitamin D lately – a lack of it is being linked to an increasing number of health complaints, the reason for which is the fact that nearly every cell in your body has Vitamin D receptor sites. This means that it can affect every cell dysfunction in your body, as well as every hormone.
One hormone that is crucial to good sleep is melatonin. Melatonin should be released as you wind down for bed – think of it like your body’s natural ‘off-ramp’. Well, with insufficient Vitamin D in your body, you make it virtually impossible to produce adequate melatonin. You can increase Vitamin D by exposing yourself to a little early morning sun (bright light sparks melatonin production) each day, by eating foods high in it (although it’s tough to get enough through diet), or by discussing a supplement with your health practitioner.
- Cut back on the stimulants
Common sense, right? And yet how often do we find ourselves reaching for the (extra) cup of coffee far later in the day than we know we should? Couple that with a little more sugar than would be considered ideal, or perhaps even something as potently disruptive as an energy drink, and you know you’re setting yourself up for another vicious cycle of poor sleep and a sluggish next-day start.
It takes at least 4 hours for half of the caffeine in your system to be metabolized, another 4 for half of that, and so on. So you can see how drinking coffee late in the day can disrupt sleep. My recommendation is to cut the caffeine and stimulants after 2pm. Be strict on this, and it will pay off for you!
- Have some tryptophan for dinner
There are certain foods that will help to improve your chances of sleeping well. When your Mom told you to drink a glass of warm milk before bed, she was on the money – that works for many people (although not a good idea if you have dairy issues!). The reason dairy works is that it contains tryptophan – a natural sleep agent also found in oats, bananas, turkey, and almonds.
Aside from foods high in tryptophan, many health experts advocate foods high in complex carbohydrates (oats, bananas, root veggies, wild or brown rice) as being helpful for sleep. The only catch is that this may not be a great idea if fat loss also a goal for you.
- Avoid eating or drinking alcohol closer than 2 hours to bedtime
This is practical advice that a lot of us know makes sense – yet for some reason it can be a tough one to follow through on. Often we associate downtime (TV time!) with snacking, and this can go on right up until bedtime. Logically it makes sense that if your body is focused on digesting food or alcohol, it cannot simultaneously wind down and enter a state of deep sleep.
The process of digestion may also inhibit the release of growth hormone, an important hormone for deep sleep as well as for building lean muscle and burning fat. Proteins and healthy carbohydrates (such as root vegetables, brown or wild rice) tend to leave the stomach faster than what fats will do.
- Relax your senses
There’s nothing like bright lights and pumping noise to help you get a great night’s sleep, is there?! Not! It stands to reason that overloading your brain with ‘daytime images and noise’ is not really a great recipe for rest. Let me be clear – watching television and using the computer right up until bedtime is a sure-fire recipe for night-time twitching. If you must watch your shows, try to choose comedies over dramas or violence- those will excite your nervous system more. Ideally, turn off the technology an hour or so before bed and enjoy some conversation or reading.
- Set the bedroom mood
I’m not talking about any hanky panky, although if that gets you nodding off then by all means! What I meant though, was creating an environment for sound sleep. A pitch black room is optimal for melatonin production, and even that red light on your alarm clock can be disruptive without you realizing it. Either get technology out of the bedroom, or wear a sleep mask. I’d suggest doing both. It’s also important to consider the temperature of your room, and making sure you’re comfortable (if you hate your pillow, invest in a new one rather than ‘making do’). If noise is an issue you may need to use earplugs.
- Still your mind
A busy mind may keep you focused and productive during the day, but you’re not doing anyone any favors by running your to-do list while in bed – not least yourself. One of my favorite tricks for quieting the mind is to jot down 10 things I’m grateful for before bed. Another technique, which I also learned from my mentor Charles Poliquin, is to write down one thing you learned for the day, one kind thing you did for someone else, and another kind thing that somebody did for you. It’s very effective.
- Drown out your thoughts
Try using a sleep or relaxation track like this free one over at pzizz.com. Pzizz offers a full system, but you can grab a free 15-minute sample of their sleep or energizing track and download it to your iPod. This worked very well for me for about a month steadily, and after that I continued to use it off and on. There are many equally great sleep tracks out there on the internet, so do a search and try several of them – if writing your grateful list doesn’t work then listening to sleep audios may just drown out that busy mind!
- Have a morning workout
We are designed to be at our most active and energized first thing in the morning. As a former insomniac I know how tough it can be to get motivated to get going after a horribly restless night. Your eyes feel like they’re full of sandpaper, and your head is pounding. Every muscle feels weak and exhausted. Oddly though, you seem to come alive by night-time. This is a classic sign of a reverse cortisol curve – your circadian rhythms are back to front! Rather than supporting the perpetuation of this situation (try saying that 3 times fast!) you can fight back by reminding your body when energy should be ‘up’. Try working out in the morning – even for 10 minutes – and your body will thank you for it. Creating an ideal circadian rhythm will help you to wind down naturally at night, and wake up feeling fresh in the morning.
- If all else fails, seek professional help
If you’ve tried all of these steps and you still struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, consider getting professional help. To paraphrase sleep expert and author William Dement, “even 2 or more nights of poor quality sleep is a serious issue and demands treatment”! Don’t do what I did, and determinedly push through for weeks, months or years on end, thinking that you can manage or that you will get over it.
Do you have any favorite sleep techniques that you’d be willing to share? Bring it in the comments – as weird and wacky as you’d like!