Catching Some Zzzz's

Published on: 4/10/2014

A few tips for the sleep-deprived

Everyone’s had them – those nights where you toss and turn, your mind racing, unable to find that elusive combination of body position and mental calm to drift off into blissful unconsciousness. While your body can bounce back from one or two rough nights, if you’re short on sleep for extended periods, the effects can really add up. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, mood disorders, inability to concentrate, reduced performance and higher risk of accidents, and even potentially long-term harmful effects in your body, including weight gain and high blood pressure.

So, what’s a tired person to do? Here are some tips to help you drift off to dreamland. (Of course, if you’re experiencing long-term, severe insomnia, see your physician to rule out a medical cause, such as sleep apnea.)

  1. Prepare your body and mind for sleep before you tuck under the covers. Numerous studies have shown that establishing a regular night-time routine cues your body for sleep. As much as possible, be consistent, and keep as close to a regular schedule as possible. Some research indicates that the glow from electronic devices (TV, computer, tablet, smartphone) can stimulate our minds, so it’s often recommended to shut down an hour before going to bed. Many people find the routine of preparing and drinking an herbal tea is a good way to slow their minds, and chamomile tea in particular is often accredited with calming effects.
  2. Adjust your sleeping environment. First and foremost: darker is better. Your body only produces melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle, in darkness. If your windows let in a lot of ambient light, consider using heavier, light-blocking drapes. This is another good reason to turn off the TV before bedtime – so-called ‘blue’ light is the most disruptive to melatonin production. Another adjustment you may want to consider is changing the temperature in your bedroom. Our bodies need to cool off a little in order to fall asleep and stay asleep, so dropping the thermostat during the night-time hours makes sense for more than just your heating budget. Oh, and keep your clock facing where you would have to move a little bit to check the time. Nothing keeps you awake like watching the numbers tick forward and thinking ‘If I fall asleep right now, I’ll get 6 hours of sleep. Now, 5-and-a-half. Now, 5.’
  3. Consider counting. Actually, try counting backwards, from 1,000 to zero. Count slowly, though, one number on each exhalation. When I’ve done this, I’ve never made it past the low 800s. (Starting at 100 never worked for me – by the time I was down in the 30s, I’d start getting irritated that I wasn’t falling asleep, and that would keep me awake the rest of the way.)  The recitation of the numbers occupies the mind just enough that it doesn’t dwell on stressful or anxious thoughts, and isn’t interesting or challenging enough to keep you awake.
  4. Keep the bed for sleeping. If you’re just not falling asleep, get up and move to another location. Lie on the couch for a change, try reading a little, write in a journal, or do something not very stimulating. The idea is for your body not to associate being in bed with wakefulness. Some people actually have a divided sleep cycle, falling asleep early for a few hours, waking for an hour or two, and then sleeping again. As long as the total sleep is close to your level for optimal function (7 to 9 hours for most people), a little break in the middle is just fine. So if this is your pattern, allow yourself to be awake a little while without becoming upset, which is not at all restful.
  5. Keep a notepad and pen handy. If you have a worry that’s bothering you, or think of something important that you must remember to do tomorrow, writing it down can reduce the stress association with it. Often, you don’t even need to turn on the light in order to write – just a few words can be enough to cue your memory for whatever is needed.

If you’re having occasional trouble falling (or staying) asleep, try some of these ideas to help your body restore your natural sleep cycle. While a few sleepless nights can be common, especially when going through a stressful period in your life, chronic long-term sleep deprivation can have serious effects on your mind and body. The effects of just one hour less than your optimal level a night, sustained over the course of the week, can have a cumulative impact on your body as severe as staying up for one entire night (and ‘catching up’ on the weekend doesn’t help regular sleep patterns, either). Establishing supportive routines and changing your sleep environment can go a long way to helping you get a fuller, more restful night’s sleep.