For something that’s meant to be instinctive and so-easy-that-babies-can-do-it, sleep certainly doesn’t mind playing hard to get at times. It can be a bit of a punk like that. Here’s how sleep is meant to happen – your body temp starts to drop and melatonin – the sleep hormone that tells your body that it’s bedtime – starts to rise. Your blood pressure drops, your heart rate eases back and your breathing finds a steady beat. Then … sleep. Restful, restorative, glorious sleep. Easy right? Yeah no. Not at all.
As a third of us who are getting less than six hours a night already know, sleep doesn’t always follow the rules. Here are some ways to bring sleep back into your life like it wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
How to get blissful zzz’s.
Establish the association: bed = sleep.
The brain loves associations. Like, loooves them. If your bed has become the place you toss and turn, worry, and try to wrestle your eyes closed these are the feelings that will be triggered when you settle for sleep – not the restful, peaceful, blissful, exquisite … okay – stopping now. The goal is to break the association between bed and restlessness and have bed trigger feelings of relaxation and calm. To make this happen, the only things that should happen in bed are sleep and sex. Be patient though – this might take time. It took time to build the association so it might take time to undo it.
If you don’t fall asleep in 20 …
If you don’t fall sleep in about 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing for a while until you start to feel sleepy. Try to stay away from screens and go for a puzzle, a book or a mindful colouring book. Staying in bed when you’re struggling to fall asleep will only strengthen the association between bed and restlessness – and you know how that ends up.
The blue light from screens is interpreted as daylight by receptors in the eye that are there to regulate our internal body clock and tell us when it’s time to go to sleep. Even if the lights are out, staying on a screen – whether it’s texting, emailing, shopping, or reading – will delay sleep. Research has found that people who read e-books release less melatonin (the hormone that helps you fall asleep) so they stay awake for longer. Because they take longer to fall asleep, the next morning they feel less alert than those reading a more traditional book. Particularly for adolescents, screens have been associated with shorter sleep, higher daytime sleepiness and poorer grades. This can happen with as little as 12 minutes exposure to a device.
A bedtime ritual – (because sometimes a little same-same is good for you).
Find a bedtime ritual will help your body get into sleep mode. Work out one that feels lovely for you – a warm shower, a relaxation exercise – whatever will give your brain a gentle warning that it’s time to wind down.
Go to bed at a consistent time.
Researchers have found that a consistent bedtime is one of the most important factors in getting a good sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. This will work better for you than having some late nights and some trying to catch up. Try to make your bedtime one that will let you get at least seven hours consistently.
Get the worries out of you.
Your body knows how to sleep, and it wants to, but your mind can get in the way. If bedtime is like a welcome mat for worries, regrets, guilt – anything that’s hard to let go of, get them out of you. Do this by either writing in a journal or by making a list of the things you need to remember. Let your mind know those things it’s hanging on to have been taken care of for the night.
Oh, so this is what ‘relaxed’ feels like.
Your body can hold stress and tension without you realising it. By tensing and relaxing your body, the contrast between the two can help you to feel the difference, making it easier for your body to find calm. Here’s how. Lay down and close your eyes. Pull your toes up towards the top of you and hold them there a count of ten. Relax for 10. Tense for ten. Repeat this about ten times.
Slow the beats.
Research has found that listening to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before bed can significantly improve sleep quality. can trigger your brain to synchronize your heart rate with the musical beat, and classical does this best. Music or songs that have string based instruments with minimal brass and percussion can calm the sympathetic nervous system, and decrease anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate. Music around 60 beats a minute seems to bring on a relaxed state by causing heart rate to synchronise with the music. (60 beats a minute is at the lower end of resting heart rate.) The music used in the study, was a collection of classical music including popular pieces from Baroque to Romantic (The Most Relaxing Classical, 2 CD, Edited by Virgin 1999). The authors suggest that it may work to bring on sleep by relaxing the muscles and providing a distraction from worrying or stressful thoughts.
Then there’s this little gem … ‘Weightless’ by Marconi Union is officially ‘the most relaxing song’, according to science. Sound therapists and Manchester band Marconi Union used proven elements of scientific theory to produce the quintessential relaxation track using proven elements of scientific theory. Research by the British Academy of Sound Therapy found that it was able to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) remarkably. The song begins at 60 beats a minute and gradually slows to around 50, at which time the listener’s heartbeat automatically falls into line with the beat. ‘Weightless’ is eight minutes long but the ride is a blissful one. You can listen to it here (but make sure you’re not driving while you’re listening!).
Use your breathing to quiet your nervous system – two ways.
• Deep breathing.
Breathing deeply into the belly helps soothe the nervous system by calming the fight or flight response. If bedtime has become a place of angst, or if this is where your head does its very best worrying, breathing deeply will initiate the relaxation response. This reverses any of the physiological changes that come with stressful or anxious thoughts. It’s an instinctive response so you don’t have to believe it will work, it just will. When you are lying down, breathe and feel your belly and feel it rise with every breathe in. Feel is fall with every breath out. Keep repeating until you start to feel settled.
• 4-7-8 Breathing
According to Harvard-trained physician, Dr Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 breathing technique can bring on sleep in under a minute. Here’s how it works:
Place the tip of your tongue behind the top of your front teeth, and keep it there for the exercise.
>> Completely exhale through your mouth with a ‘whoosh’ sound.
>> Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for a count of four.
>> Hold for seven.
>> Exhale through your mouth, with a whoosh sound, for a count of eight.
>> Repeat the above sequence three more times (inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8).
If you have trouble holding your breath, it’s okay to speed things up a little but make sure you keep the ratio of 4:7:8. (Try 2 : 3.5 : 4, for example.) You’ll feel your heart rate slow as you do this. By controlling your breathing your body is getting the oxygen it needs, and getting rid of the carbon dioxide it doesn’t. See Dr Raymond Weil demonstrating the technique here.
According to Bastyr University, these acupressure techniques will help you to fall asleep – and they can be done at home. Here are the options:
• Apply a minute of gentle pressure to the small depression between your eyebrows, just above your nose.
• Press the small depression on top of your foot between your first and second toes. Keep pressing for a few minutes until you feel a dull ache.
• On the bottom of your feet, find the point that is about about one third back from the tips of your toes, and press for a few minutes.
• Massage both of your ears for about a minute.
Let your mind relax mindfully.
According to the National Sleep Foundation these mindful techniques will bring calm to your body and mind:
• Mindful breathing.
When you close your eyes, pay attention to your breathing. Feel the air coming into to you, through you, down into your belly and then feel yourself exhale. As you do this, check your body for anywhere you feel tension. Imagine that tension leaving your body with your exhale. If your mind tries to grab on to a worry or a thought, imagine yourself letting it go and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
• Mindful sensing.
A racing, traveling mind is the enemy of restful sleep. By focusing on your senses in the now, this can keep your mind wandering to the what-ifs that haven’t happened yet, or overthinking the things that have already happened. Feel the breath moving into you. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel the sheets against your body. What can you smell in the air around you?
Research has shown that moderate aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety in people who were struggling to fall asleep. In the study, the moderate exercise was 50 minutes on a treadmill at a moderate pace. The pace will be different for everyone and will depend on fitness.
Increase your fibre intake.
Low fibre and high saturated fat and sugar have been associated with lighter, less restorative sleep and more sleep wakings. A study with a bunch of adults in the normal weight range found that when they amped up their fiber, they had more time in deep, or slow wave sleep. Higher fat was linked with less slow wave sleep and increased sugar was associated with waking up more during sleep. People fell asleep quicker after eating meals lower in saturated fat and higher in protein.
And finally …
What you do during the day as well as what you do immediately before sleep can all impact on how easily you fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep you have. A few tweaks can make a difference between tossing and turning and blissful zzz’s.