How to Improve Your Sleep and Fight Insomnia

January 16th, 2009

Sleep is one of the easiest ways to improve your health and well being, but getting a good night of rest is more involved than you may realize.

Cortisol: A Bad Nightmare

Cortisol is a hormone that’s released in response to stress and prepares your body to deal with it. Among other things, it keeps you awake and alert which obviously inhibits sleep. Light and stimulation are the two primary triggers for cortisol and it doesn’t take much of either to promote it’s release. Even the illumination from the numbers on a digital alarm clock or the slightest bit of frustration or excitement is enough. And because cortisol can remain active in your body for up to two hours, it can keep you lying awake in bed for quite a while.

Melatonin: Your Bedtime Buddy

Melatonin is a hormone that acts like an antagonist to cortisol. Although they don’t directly influence each other, they are typically released at opposite times and have opposite effects. Just as cortisol release is triggered by light, melatonin release is triggered by darkness. The primary functions of melatonin are to help you sleep and assist your immune system. Promoting the release of melatonin prior to bed will help you fall asleep easier.

How to Sleep Well

As you may guess, good sleep habits are primarily focused on stimulating melatonin release and suppressing cortisol release. The following are some practical tips for doing so.

Unwind Before Bed

Take some time, preferably a half hour or more, to relax and release all of the days tension from your body and mind. Be sure to avoid anything that is stimulating. This time should be dedicated to getting yourself into a relaxed state that will prepare you to fall asleep. Some good choices for accomplishing this are meditation, listening to soothing music, reading under a dim light, or doing mild forms of exercise such as stretching, Tai Chi, or Qigong. Another option is to listen to and follow a guided relaxation program such as Sleep Now, and you can even do this while lying in bed.

Develop A Routine

The human body thrives on patterns. By establishing a routine that you repeat each night before bed, you body will begin to associate the routine with sleep. The time you use to relax before bed can be part of your routine as long as you’re consistent with what you do. The resulting association will trigger your body to prepare for rest and will increase the effectiveness of your relaxation in helping you fall asleep quickly.

Be in Bed by 10 PM

Your body’s circadian rhythm is closely tied to the cycle of each day. Because this relationship impacts the effectiveness of your sleep, getting to bed abnormally late or waking up abnormally early can prevent you from getting quality rest even if you sleep for a duration that would normally be sufficient. Furthermore, since most people work standard business hours and get up early on weekdays, getting to bed past 10 PM usually results in an insufficient amount of sleep.

Avoid Bright Lights Before Bed

As I already mentioned, light stimulates the release of cortisol, and as a result, can make it difficult to fall asleep. Within an hour or more of going to bed, dim your lights to the lowest level that is adequate to see and avoid television and computer use. Although many people like to watch television or use the computer before bed, they are both intense sources of light that shine directly on your eyes.

Avoid Stimulating Activity Before Bed

Any type of activity that requires you to be alert is counterproductive to falling asleep and should be avoided during your unwinding time. Even if it’s an enjoyable activity. Intense physical activity such as playing a sport, working out, or manual labor should be avoided for at least a few hours prior to bed. If you have healthy adrenal glands, engaging in intense physical activity too close to bedtime will keep you wide awake for a long time. Even if it doesn’t, it may reduce the quality of your sleep.

It’s important to avoid mental stimulation before bed as well, and this is an additional reason to avoid television and computer use. Much of the programming on television and many of the things you do on the computer are stimulating and will trigger a cortisol release. This is a bad by itself, but it also magnifies the negative effects caused by the bright light.

Sleep in Complete Darkness

Research shows that the faintest bit of light can stimulate a cortisol release. If you have any light coming from digital displays or leaking through your windows from street lights, chances are your sleep is going to be of poor quality. As a result, you may not feel refreshed in the morning and you may even wake up in the middle of the night. To avoid this, cover or block your digital displays, use black out curtains on your windows, and avoid using a night light. Although this may sound like a lot of effort for little return, I have heard many counts of it making an amazing difference.

Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

As I already mentioned, your body prefers to operate in a rhythm. When you go to bed and wake up the same time every day, your body begins to physiologically reinforce your habits. This is why it’s difficult to stay up late when you normally go to bed early, or likewise, why it’s tough to get up early when you typically sleep late. By allowing your body to fall into a rhythm, it will support your sleep schedule and you’ll have an easier time falling asleep and waking up. Conversely, if you don’t follow a consistent schedule, you’ll be continually forcing your body to readjust, and as a result, both falling asleep and getting out of bed are likely to be difficult.

The common example of this is going to bed much later on weekends than on weekdays. Although it’s not always practical to stay on your weekday schedule during the weekend, it’s best to at least keep it as close as possible and avoid staying up late without good reason.

Stay informed of new articles by email!