Instead of worrying about these things while you drift off to your dreamland, it is better to manage your sleep cycle while you’re awake to get the maximum benefit from the hours you spend behind your eyelids. Worry can often keep you from falling asleep when you want to. I have eight fantastic tips you can use in any combination to help you rest easy.
1. Essential oils & aromatherapy
Being aware of your sensory surroundings can help with falling asleep easily. Along with sight and hearing, a tranquil olfactory space helps put your body at rest. With your sleep space as dark as possible and at the sound level you prefer, tranquil and calming aromas such as lavender, valerian, and sandalwood will help release chemicals into your blood stream that aid in relaxation and calmness. I like to spray my blanket and pillow with lavender essential oils after I make my bed in the morning, so when I go to sleep at night it’s not too strong, but creates a soothing atmosphere.
While you do not want to burn a candle all night, aromatherapy candles can be used before sleep during your evening wind-down. Also, there are some scented epsom salt baths that can help you relax your body and mind. My favorite is cedar, sandalwood, and myrrh.
This gentle modification can be the nudge you need to make your sleep space more tranquil. As we’ll see, your space can either enhance or detract from you quality of sleep, so it is wise to make your surroundings as peaceful as possible.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes the individual to have an irregular breathing pattern while sleeping. There are two types of sleep apnea, obstructive apnea, which is caused a soft palate obstruction, temporarily stops respirations and then is resumed with a snoring or choking sound. Central sleep apnea, caused by the brain not sending the correct signal for inspiration. Obstructive sleep apnea is made worse by weight gain.
By incorporating exercise into your daily routine, you can not only control for weight issues that could lead to sleep disorders, but also keep your body running within a good metabolic range so when you do go to sleep, it is restful. Keeping your heart healthy isn't just about maintaining a good weight range, but also keeping all your other body functions in check. Even a 20-30 minute walk every day can help your body regain some normal function. Exercise releases hormones that elevate the mood and mental alertness, so it is best to exercise during the day, rather than right before sleeping.
After working out and just before bed, my favorite thing to do is roll out the soles of my feet. You can either do this with a tennis ball or I like to use the tiger tail, which is a hard foam stick that you can roll over sore muscles. The foot contains points that correspond to the entire body, so these nerve endings help the whole body relax. If you are on your feet all day or do exercises that take a toll on the feet, it is a nice way to help you relax.
While many of us feel sleepy following a big meal, the increase in blood glucose levels and metabolic processes does not help with restful sleep. What you eat and when makes a big difference on how well you fall asleep and how restful the sleep is. Not only is melatonin good for helping you sleep, but also the molecules that help melatonin production, such as vitamin b6. This helpful mineral can be found in fish, potatoes, bananas, sunflower seeds, and cremini/shitake mushrooms. Keeping a well-rounded diet in mind helps facilitate the body’s normal production of chemical messengers that naturally help you sleep.
Some general guidelines for what to especially avoid before sleeping are TACOs: tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and over-the-counter sleep aids, especially medicines that have other purposes like cold medicine. Avoid alcoholic beverages, especially in excess, before going to sleep, as they will leave you with less restful and make you prone to apneic sleep. Try not to consume caffeine in the afternoon or with dinner, as that will also disrupt your ability to sleep by evening. If you are in the habit of an afternoon pick-me-up, consider gradually changing your caffeine intake to a cup of green tea. I used to drink 2-3 cups of strong, black coffee a day, now one cup of coffee will have me buzzing and busy. Remember you can build up a tolerance to caffeine very quickly, so practicing moderation can keep the effects of caffeine helpful rather than making your body crash.
Perhaps it is a no-brainer that an acupuncture blog endorses acupuncture to help with your woes. It might not be so obvious, as not all of our clients who have trouble sleeping come in for just sleep problems. Whether the treatment is for insomnia or relieving symptoms of pain or stress that can cause difficulty sleeping, acupuncture will help you feel more relaxed and can improve overall wellbeing. Even improving other disruptive areas of your life seemingly unrelated to sleep could help you get a good night’s rest.
Often, the prescription for healing is a good night’s rest. I was surprised to find after I injured my IT band from running, the best thing I could do to speed up recovery was to sleep like a champ. The 7-8 hours a night I spend in healthy brain waves helps my body rest and regenerate. Acupuncture naturally pushes my body to do what’s right for it: sleep. Recent studies have also shown that sleep helps your brain do its three basic nutritional functions: take in glucose and oxygen and take out waste from metabolic processes. Eating, breathing and pooping for the brain, basically. The amount of waste in the brain’s fluid (known as cerebrospinal fluid, CSF) before sleep and after sleep went from very high levels to almost completely cleaned by the time participants woke up.
According to Chinese medicine, the body cycles through different energetic phases for each organ. The systems that are most active during the hours of 9pm-5am are responsible for detoxing and cleansing the body as well as replenishing and storing qi and other vitals energies for the next day. While there is not a qi clock in the sky regulating this, everyone’s body follows a similar pattern that undergoes regeneration somewhere during that time frame. It is best to maximize sleep during these hours to really revitalize your qi and energy reserves, which work to help all of your other organ systems function normally throughout the day. Acupuncture can really get the qi flowing by opening up blockages and maximizing the effectiveness and restfulness of sleep.
The body runs on 24 hour circadian rhythms that tell our brain when to produce certain hormones for sleeping, for eating, and for being active. A naturally occurring hormone that prepares the body for sleep is melatonin. The production of this essential hormone takes place in the pineal gland in the midbrain. Its production can be limited by exposure to blue lights, which I will talk about more in-depth tomorrow. Since we spend our days in front of many blue lights and screens, it is easy for this essential hormone to gradually stop being produced and slowly change our body’s natural signal to go to sleep. Also, if you work in a profession that requires you to work a night shift, your body’s natural melatonin production can disrupt your circadian rhythms, which can keep you from sleeping when you want to (which might be when you get home at 7am).
The natural way of getting your brain to make melatonin is by ensuring your sleep space is as dark as possible. Stay away from blue lights and screens before you get to sleep, wear sunglasses on your drive home in the morning if necessary. If you have a television or computer in your room, make sure it is turned off. Another easy solution is to take melatonin supplements, which produce a natural sleep response in the body. Consult your doctor before taking any supplements to learn if there would be any drug interactions with medications you may already take.
It’s pretty hard to avoid a screen these days. When I take a break from working on my computer, I find myself looking at my smart phone or even my e-reader. For some it’s just the television, for others, it’s every type of device imaginable. Even though these items help with our everyday tasks and productivity, they can have serious effects on your mood, ability to concentrate, and how restful your sleep is. The constant engagement of your prefrontal cortex and other neurologic pathways can over-stimulate the brain making it harder to ‘turn off’ at night. Further, these devices operate mostly on blue light wavelengths, which is a signal for the brain to stop melatonin production. Melatonin, as I mentioned is the signal for sleep.
There are various smart phone, computer, and tablet apps that help get your brain ready for sleep. I use twilight for Android, which adjusts your phone to red light as the day gets darker. You can see the difference in the screen intensity around 7pm when it's dark out in the photo above. For Mac products and desktop PCs, there is f.lux. For teens using e-readers, including the iPad or Surface, it is better to stop usage before sleeping and stick to paper books, as the brain from age 12-19 undergoes rapid growth and change in its connectivity. When these negative pathways are reinforced, they stay into adulthood and get harder and harder to change back to good habits, which may have never developed neurologically in the first place.
According to feng shui, it may be better to keep your devices outside of the bedroom to begin with. I used to have a rule that I would not look at a screen an hour before going to bed, which simply turned into a habit for me. The bedroom should be used for only sleep and sex, which means professional and personal use of devices should be kept separate. If you watch TV before going to sleep, do it in another room. This physical division prepares your body for sleep.
There are some forms of yoga that will really wake you up, which typically include sun salutations. It’s a good way to get your heart pumping and to get your workout in for the day. But yoga can also be a gentle, relaxing practice as well. I once had a yoga instructor say, “If you’re not breathing, you’re just doing acrobatics.” Some gentle stretches along with deliberate, deep breathing techniques can ease tension and pull you into a meditative state. Consider some relaxing stretches before going to bed, especially poses like a forward fold, that send blood to the head and the head below the heart to relax your whole body.
Also, on the other side of sleep, stretching when you wake up helps you really wake up. If you’ve ever seen a cat or dog wake up from a nap, the first thing it does is to stretch out its legs. These poses help to promote blood circulation and to lubricate your joints with fluid. It is important for restful sleep to wake up at the right time in your sleep cycle. Just like the wind down before going to bed, it is a good idea to wake up gradually and follow a ritual.
There is no way to avoid sleeping. It works to clean out toxins that are byproducts of normal cellular processes in the brain, so you really need it to stay healthy (and to live). Since this is part of your daily routine, it is best to make habits that reinforce good sleep. I mentioned that I spray essential oils on my pillows when I make my bed in the morning, that’s one part of my sleep routine. It is best to start winding down an hour to 20 minutes before getting in bed. By mentally preparing for sleep, you can avoid intrusive thoughts that may emerge when you go from 100 mph to shut eye. Before getting under the covers, you might hold a few different relaxing yoga poses for ten seconds each, have a room-temperature glass of water, or read a book. Putting together all the tips over the past week: making an idea environment, eating and exercising well, ensuring great melatonin production, and winding down with stretches, you have a sleep ritual plan practically already in place.
According to feng shui, the Chinese concept of physical arrangement of your living space affecting the good and bad energy available to you, the bedroom should be reserved for sleep or sex. That means no work, food, etc. should be taken to the bed. By creating a distinct personal zone for yourself, you create another physical layer to the sleep ritual. This will also add vigor to your work or professional life, as these domains should get their own spaces as well.
As important and necessary sleep is to a good quality of life, you must accept that there will be times when you cannot sleep properly. If you are stressed or in pain, it will not be easy to sleep. If you are tired and worried, it may seem like torture that all you want to do is sleep. And other times, it may seem impossible to wake up. Sometimes when a big life event hits or no life event has hit in a while, all you’ll want to do is sleep and sleep. Both extremes of fitful sleep and over-sleeping are not good for your overall wellbeing, but can be tolerated occasionally. When irregular sleep patterns become regular, you should become proactive about changing your sleep ritual to benefit your waking life. If you’re looking for more tips or information about sleep, check out our Pinterest board, which has some information from all over the internet.