There’s a lot out there about how to get a good night’s sleep: establishing a rock-solid bedtime routine (low lights and chamomile tea, anyone?), getting regular exercise (no later than two hours before your desired bedtime), limiting caffeine after noon (before noon doesn’t matter as much, since caffeine has a six-hour half life), limiting alcohol (you may think it makes you sleepy, but it has a delayed rebound effect that wreaks havoc on sleep architecture, making it difficult to stay asleep), decreasing daytime stress (using such tried-and-true methods as yoga, mindfulness exercises, and eliciting the relaxation response), making your bedroom as dark and comfortable as possible (no TV! no fights in bed!), etc. But in my recent research into insomnia, I’ve discovered a few new helpful tidbits:
- Increase your body temperature fluctuations: our body temperatures naturally rise and fall throughout the day and night, and we get sleepier as our body temperature drops (one reason why an evening bath can be helpful: we fall into a deeper sleep as our body cools down). Good sleep is correlated with increasing the number of rises and falls in body temperature throughout the day, so punctuating our sedentary ways with even moderate activity can help with sleeping well at night.
- Expose yourself to light in the morning or the afternoon: our natural circadian rhythm lasts more than 24 hours: it’s designed to be reset every morning by the sun (sunlight entering our eyes decreases melatonin levels, resulting in a rise in body temperature and wakefulness). If you have trouble falling asleep at night, exposure to light in the morning (or using a lightbox) can help reset your circadian clock. If you have trouble with early morning awakening, getting some light in the late afternoon can help (maybe by taking a walk: exercise and light-two birds with one stone!). It’s important to know that even on a cloudy day, the amount of light entering your eyes is much greater than what you get sitting indoors (spending the majority of our lives inside may be a big reason why insomnia is such a problem for us in this day and age).
- Forget the eight-hour myth: sleep requirements vary with age, and it’s not true that everyone needs eight hours of sleep to function well. Researchers have found that people need on average 5 ½ hours of sleep at night to function adequately during the day. This is called core sleep, and all of our deep sleep (the phase of sleep during which tissue, bone, and immune system maintenance take place) happens during this core sleep time. Any sleep beyond this is considered extra sleep. Extra sleep makes us feel better for sure, but studies have shown that it is not necessary to daily functioning.
- Question whether you’re really an insomniac: if you have trouble falling or staying asleep but function well during the day, you’re not technically an insomniac: you are just a person who requires less sleep (and doesn’t know it yet, maybe because you’ve bought into the eight-hour myth)! If you can accept this and limit your time in bed, you will spend less time tossing and turning (which can lead to associating your bed and bedroom with wakefulness), and you will have more time to do the things you enjoy!
References-both of these books are fabulous:
Jacobs, Gregg G. 2009. Say Goodnight to Insomnia. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY.
Brown, Marie A., and Jo Robinson. 2002. When Your Body Gets the Blues. Rodale Books .