Dark circles under your eyes. Extra pounds around your waist from craving high-calorie foods. The struggle to focus on your work and just get through the day without emotional outbursts.
You know the alarming picture of what sleep loss will do to you all too well.
It’s not like you haven’t tried all the usual advice for getting a good night’s sleep. You stopped drinking caffeine after lunchtime and you wake up and go to bed at the same time each night. Heck, you even bought the most comfortable mattress and pillow you could find.
And still you find yourself tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, debating whether you should quietly get up for a while or stubbornly keep your eyes closed in the hope of finally falling asleep. Unfortunately, following standard sleeping tips is no guarantee for getting plenty of shut-eye when you have a medical condition, when your baby keeps you up all night or when your internal body clock is disrupted from working the night shift.
For people with chronic illness, insomnia is an all-too-common problem. Many health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and an overactive thyroid, can disturb your natural sleep – wake cycle. Having trouble falling asleep can also be the result of the pills you’re taking or of simply not being able to lie down comfortably due to seriously aching joints and muscles.
If the basic go-to-sleep ideas have failed to get you a good night’s rest, experiment with these 6 unconventional tips to beat insomnia naturally.
1. Avoid overstimulation before bedtime
Do you feel pumped-up instead of sleepy after a fun evening of chatting with your friends? Does watching a thrilling movie keep you up at night?
Most people should avoid overstimulation at night to fall asleep without difficulty, but some of us have a more sensitive nervous system that’s easily aroused by all the sensory information around us. If that’s the case, late-night activities such as checking your work email, having a heated discussion or exercising shortly before bedtime are getting your body and brains ready for action just when you should be winding down and preparing for sleep.
Averting this kind of ‘hyperarousal‘ is easier said than done in our always-on, always-connected world. One way to switch off an overly busy mind and relax your body is to designate a cut-off time for stimulating activities:
- Stop burning the midnight oil: quit working on mentally challenging projects after 8.30 pm, so your head isn’t filled with frantic thoughts when you hit the sack. Give your mind a well-deserved rest by tuning out in time.
- Does playing competitive games or watching the news stir up your emotions, giving you an unwanted energy boost? Then try to avoid engaging in late-night activities that excite you, whether that’s ignoring phone calls after a certain time or changing the channels when a TV program upsets you.
- No matter how tempting it is to check the latest social media updates one last time, stop bringing your smart phone or iPad to bed with you. The blue light coming from electronic screens let’s your brain think it’s day time and therefore suppresses the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin. What’s more, turning off notifications or putting your phone on airplane mode an hour before bedtime will help you unwind in the evening and sleep better through the night, without the constant disruptions and distractions. Do you really want to read on your Kindle in bed, yet struggle to get a good night’s sleep? You could try throwing on blue-blocking sunglasses to enjoy your nighttime ritual without the adverse effects.
Making a conscious effort to relax an hour before bedtime is easiest when you can stick to your regular routines. But of course there will be times when you have stay up late for a work deadline or you’re dancing the night away at a fabulous party. My advice: Don’t immediately go to bed when you’re tired but wired, even if it’s the middle of the night, but take your time to wind down with a simplified version of your usual nighttime ritual (check tip #4).
2. Find the right balance of mind-body relaxation
Have you ever been physically exhausted, but when you climb into bed your mind is bored, searching to be entertained? Or maybe your brain feels like it’s gonna explode after a long day of meetings and yet your body doesn’t show any sign of sleepiness?
When you’re living with limited energy due to chronic health problems, you may be forced to choose each day what you’ll focus on: will you do something physical like household chores or physical therapy today, or will you put your mind to work? Even many healthy people come home from a mentally-demanding job, only to drop onto the couch for an evening of channel surfing, with their tablet within reach.
This kind of one-sided strain can definitely make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Too little exercise during the day and mulling over things in your head are known to cause insomnia or make it worse. So how can you find that sweet spot of feeling both physically and mentally relaxed?
- Physically exhausted but so bored you’ll lie awake thinking all night? Distract your mind with some light reading material, listening to (fictional) audiobooks or by flipping through art books.
- Mentally drained but not sleepy? Go for a short walk after dinner or do some soothing yoga exercises before bed to relax your body. If even the gentlest physical activity is too taxing, just circling your joints (feet, hips, shoulders and hands) and massaging your feet might help you fall asleep easier.
3. Identify the best time to take your medication and supplements
Many prescription pills and over-the-counter drugs can interfere with your normal sleeping pattern, from nicotine patches and blood pressure medication to asthma drugs and anti-depressants. Even seemingly innocent supplements such as St. John’s wort or ginseng may induce insomnia, while other medications like pain killers and antihistamines can cause long-lasting drowsiness. If you suspect that your pills are making you lose sleep, ask you doctor or pharmacist for advice on the best time and ways to take your medication.
4. Condition your body for sleep
Most advice on beating insomnia tells you to use your bed for sleep and sex only – nothing else. You see, when you watch TV from bed – or worse, send work emails – your brain unconsciously associates your bed with stimulating activities and wakefulness rather than with dozing off.
On the other hand, a sleep-friendly bedroom (cool, dark, quiet and well-ventilated) and a personalised bedtime ritual can function as a signal that it’s time to go to sleep, prompting your body to prepare for a good night’s rest. For example, when you consistently drink a cup of chamomile tea and soak in a lukewarm bath (not hot) before bed, these habits will slowly become a cue for sleeping.
So how can you create a soothing nighttime ritual that helps you sleep better? Choose little routines that already have a relaxing effect on you: have a warm glass of milk, write down 3 positive things that happened that day or sprinkle lavender oil on your pillow. Make it specific, so your mind and body strongly link your new bedtime routine to snoozing. This will take time, so try to consistently stick to your ritual.
5. Getting – and staying – comfortable in bed
Do you often find yourself tossing and turning, because you just can’t get comfortable in bed? Lying down in an awkward sleeping position can hinder your blood circulation, cause muscles cramps or exacerbate existing pain, resulting in a vicious cycle of insomnia and aching.
Switching to a suitable sleep style could provide all kinds of health benefits, besides waking up well-rested. For example, resting in ‘the ‘savasana pose’ (sleeping on your back, with your legs and arms rolled outward) works well for your spine and back health, because it lets your mattress support your back. If you prefer to sleep on your side, don’t tuck your bottom arm under your head – it tenses your shoulders and neck, cutting off the blood flow in your fingers. Instead, lie down in a semi-fetal position with your arms resting comfortably in front of you. You can put a pillow between your knees to keep your legs hip-width apart to prevent back pain.
Another great way to let go of aching tension in your body and sleep better is to practice a body scan. For this mindfulness exercise, you simply focus on the sensations in your body, starting at your feet and slowly moving upwards. Where do you feel discomfort or pain? Tune in to that area while you breathe deeply and calmly. Let the air move freely through your body as you increasingly let go of tension in your legs, back, shoulders, neck and jaw. Mindfully doing a body scan will activate your natural relaxation response and brings your nervous system back into a state of equilibrum – perfect for a good night’s rest!
6. Dealing with the dark moments of lying awake at night
Watching the clock tick away the hours, one by one, night after night, is an unsettling experience. You start calculating: “OK, if only I manage to fall asleep before 2AM, I will get through tomorrow.” When that moment comes and goes, all the bad things in your life can start to feel like the end of the world. The restlessness and loneliness will creep in to your mind.
The ironic thing about getting a good night’s sleep is: the more you try to force it, the less likely you are to doze off. Stressing over being a zombie the next day certainly won’t help you fall asleep, no matter how understandable your concerns are. Don’t make your situation any worse by constantly thinking “Oh God, I’m gonna be a wreck tomorrow!”.
Accepting a sleepless night becomes a little easier when you find a way to stop yourself from worrying or replaying your problems over and over in your head. You can quiet your racing mind with relaxation techniques like deep belly breathing, meditation and visualisation. Distracting yourself by listening to soft music or a non-stimulating audiobook might also help, but keep your exposure to (blue) light and backlit screens to a minimum.
I’d love to know, what helps you fall and stay asleep at night? And if you’re struggling with insomnia, how do you deal with those dark hours of tossing and turning?
If you’ve found these unconventional tips helpful, please share them with your insomniac friends.