It’s 2 AM. You’re wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling. You flip to one side. Then the other. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to sleep. Your day starts in a few hours, and you haven’t had a wink of sleep.
That’s alright. A large coffee is all you need to get through tomorrow. Then, it repeats again.
You are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from insomnia. According to the CDC, about 4% of adults in the US take sleeping pills.
Going to sleep doesn’t have to be an ordeal every night. Before you decide to try sleeping pills, try these tips and tricks.
Can’t sleep? It could be your diet.
Is your growling stomach keeping you awake? You might find yourself wandering into the kitchen to browse the refrigerator. Be careful what you choose! Sleepy minds don’t make the best snacking decisions.
1. Keep midnight snacks light and fresh
Fatty, heavy foods are difficult to digest and will keep you awake longer. Go with light snacks. All you need is something to hold you over until breakfast.
Before you browse the refrigerator with fork in hand, try these light, healthy options:
- Nuts-pistachios, almonds, cashews, or walnuts
- Nut butter on whole grain crackers
- Cottage cheese
A note on kiwi and lettuce…
Kiwi is one powerful bedtime snack. It is high in antioxidants and serotonin. That means they can help you fall asleep and sleep longer.
Have you heard the claim that lettuce makes you sleepy? Scientific evidence suggests that it does! In a 2017 study on mice, romaine lettuce proved to improve sleep duration. That’s because romaine lettuce is high in antioxidants which help your body to combat insomnia. Try munching some romaine with your dinner, or as an after-dinner snack, close to bedtime.
2. Get your sleep nutrients.
A surprising amount of sleep health comes down to getting the right nutrients every day. Include these foods in your diet, and over time you may see positive changes in your sleep health.
Some nutrients are more helpful than others when it comes to sleep. In fact, vitamin B, vitamin C, and magnesium deficiencies can result in sleep problems. There is a theme going on, here— antioxidant rich nutrients will help you sleep.
- Black beans
- Leafy greens
- Citrus fruits
- Sunflower seeds
- Butternut squash
3. Take care of your microbiome.
There is a community of 10 trillion microbial cells living in your gut. These microbes help to regulate sleep, weight, and energy levels.
Your microbiome’s connection to hormonal health makes it vital to your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. That’s because your gut bacteria play a role in your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
Taking care of your microbiome means making an effort to help the good bacteria flourish. You also want to increase the diversity of the types of bacteria within your microbiome.
You could also take a probiotic supplement. Make sure you’re not sacrificing quality for a low price. Look for a product with a high number of diverse organisms.
4. Boost your serotonin levels with tryptophan
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It plays a role in many bodily functions, such as sleep, emotional health and digestion. For many people, a serotonin deficiency will cause sleep issues.
So how do you make sure your body makes enough serotonin? Tryptophan.
A healthy, varied diet includes enough amino acids. Tryptophan is an amino acid in many foods, which helps to increase your serotonin levels.
If you’re fighting the blues along with insomnia, take a look at whether you’re getting enough tryptophan to support your serotonin levels. You can work with your functional medicine doctor to check your serotonin levels at home with a simple urine test.
Boost your serotonin levels with these lifestyle changes and tryptophan-rich foods:
- Get more sun exposure
- Get regular exercise
- Eat fruits and seeds
- Eat dairy
5. Mellow out with melatonin.
Circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It is what makes us wake up in the morning and sleep at night. If your circadian rhythm is out of balance, you might not feel tired at night, and want to sleep late into the day.
Melatonin is produced in your brain, and also in the gut. In fact, there is about 400 times the amount of melatonin in your gut than in your brain. That means our gut health plays a big part in sleep.
The best dietary sources of melatonin are:
- Nuts-the highest melatonin source for vegetarians/vegans
6. Make complex carbs a part of your dinner.
Continuing in our dietary makeover for sleep, let’s look at your dinner plate. Are complex carbohydrates a part of your evening meal? If not, they should be!
Complex carbs raise your serotonin and tryptophan levels. Remember, those are two important physiological components to sleep.
They also make you sleepy by raising your blood sugar, followed by a drop. It’s best to eat complex carbs about four hours before bedtime.
Here are some sleep-smart choices:
- Whole wheat breads, pastas, and cereals
- Barley, quinoa, couscous, oats, and brown rice
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, green peas
7. Rethink that nightcap
Alcoholic nightcaps make us sleepy. Or, at least we think they do. A nice wine, beer, or mixed drink to help you sleep seems logical. But that sleepy feeling doesn’t mean you will sleep better.
Alcohol before bed will make you drowsy at first. After that, your body will not enter into the deepest phase of sleep. That’s called REM (rapid eye movement). Studies show that total REM sleep is decreased when a person drinks alcohol before bed.
There are lots of alternatives to alcohol when it comes to nightcaps.
8. Drift off with a cozy warm cup
Instead of alcohol, try a warm cup of something relaxing.
Warm milk is an ideal drink before sleep for all ages. That’s because the protein in milk is high in tryptophan, which helps your nervous system and sleep hygiene.
9. Avoid caffeine late in the day.
Speaking of beverages, you may wonder about caffeine. Some people claim that caffeine doesn’t affect their sleep and may have a cup after dinner.
People do metabolize caffeine at different rates. But, no one is completely immune to caffeine’s stimulant effects. If you’re looking to improve sleep you should avoid it late in the day.
Scientific evidence shows that we should cut off caffeine six hours before bedtime. That’s because caffeine has a half-life of six hours. So half of that 4 PM pick-me-up will have cleared out of your system by 10pm. The other half will still be active and influencing your body’s nervous system. If you stop at 2pm, you’ll have rid your body of half the caffeine by 8 or 9 PM. As to the impact of the remaining half, that depends on how much caffeine you consume and how quickly your body can process it.
Sleep and exercise: a close connection
In addition to a healthful, varied diet, exercise helps to promote sleep.
10. Exercise outside in the morning.
To get the most out of your workouts, go outside as much as possible. Morning workouts are best for sleep improvement. Sun exposure early in the morning helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, the natural waking and sleeping rhythm of your body.
People who exercise in the morning tend to have more efficient sleep cycles. This study examined the effects of morning vs. evening exercise on sleep. It showed that people who work out in the morning have a 25% greater drop in blood pressure in the evening. This drop in blood pressure is important to your body’s ability to rest..
Morning exercise also gives your body a cortisol boost. A healthy cortisol curve should be high in the morning and low at night. This can prevent or help to heal a more serious condition called HPA-axis dysfunction, or adrenal fatigue.
11. Take brisk, daily walks.
Your workouts don’t have to be intense to benefit your sleep health. Even regular walking can improve your sleep! A brisk, daily walk can help to increase melatonin levels.
One study on postmenopausal women found that moderate exercise is great for sleep. The study showed that with 3.5 hours of exercise per week, they had an easier time falling asleep. All you need is 30 minutes for five days a week!
What’s more, walking boosts creativity, helps you to improve problem-solving skills. Walking also improves focus and concentration. What more could you ask for in a workout?
Daily habits for sleep
12. Create regular morning and evening routines
Working out and eating healthy are a great start to better sleep. Setting a regular rhythm to your meals and workouts will help you even more.
Keeping regular morning and evening routines can train your brain to know when it’s time to sleep.
Start by setting a regular time for sleep and getting up. This will help your brain separate daytime activities from nighttime relaxation.
Listen to your body. If you are an early bird, then get up early. If not, be reasonable and compassionate with yourself. Whether you get up at 5:00 or 8:00, consistency is the most important part of AM/PM routines.
Your goal is to set your mind for the day ahead and bring it down for sleep. Set aside enough time for yourself to enjoy and wind down at night. If you aim to be asleep by 9:00 PM, that might mean starting at 8:00 or 8:30.
Here is an example of a morning routine:
- Wake up
- 15-20 minutes of meditation with sun exposure (build up melatonin reserves!)
- Start on daily tasks/go to work
Your pre-sleep routine could look like this:
- Take a warm shower
- Brush teeth
- Journal for 5-10 minutes
- Gentle stretch
- Relaxation techniques
Give it a try! The first few days of a new routine are hard, but consistency pays off.
13. Be mindful of your naps.
Should you squeeze a nap into your daily routine? It depends.
Naps can help, but they could also hurt. If you want to have a power nap, make sure it is less than 30 minutes. Anything longer could interfere with your sleep cycle.
You also want to avoid napping late in the day. It is tempting to doze off on the couch for a few minutes after a tiring day at work. Napping too close to bedtime can keep you up later.
For those of you who work nights, naps can help keep you more alert at work and on your drive home. The benefits of night-shift naps are highest when employees are permitted to nap at work. This research is not popular among employers, but proves that naps are effective!
14. Take a warm bath.
A warm bath in the evening calms your mind and body. Scientific evidence shows that people who take a warm bath or shower before bedtime sleep better.
How soon before bed should you bathe? And for how long? According to the study above, 1-2 hours before bed for as little as 10 minutes can help you fall asleep faster.
Mentally Prepare for Sleep
Preparation for sleep means calming your mind along with your body. Remember that you can’t solve tomorrow’s worries right now. Doing mental exercises in letting go will help to train your brain that it’s time for sleep.
15. Keep a journal.
A recent study looked at whether journaling helps adults fall asleep.
There were two groups.
- One group journaled about tasks they had completed earlier that day.
- The other group wrote to-do lists for the next day.
As it turns out, the to-do list group fell asleep faster! The more specific their lists were, the faster they fell asleep. Try it for yourself!
16. Repeat a reassuring mantra.
If you’ve written your to-do list and still can’t sleep, you can create a sense of relief through self-assuring words, meditation, or both. For example, if you’re thinking about something on tomorrow’s to-do list, you can say, “I’m dealing with this.” Or, “I’ve done enough for that today.”
17. Use the tense-and-release exercise.
This relaxation exercise will help you to flush out the day’s tensions:
- Go through each muscle group of your body. Tense up your muscles, and release.
- Start with your legs, working all the way up to your face.
- Practice deep breathing while you do this. Inhale through your nose, and feel your belly rise. Inhale until you can’t any more. Exhale with control through your mouth as your belly falls. Try to be mindful of your chest. It should not be rising or falling like your belly. That is shallow breathing. Repeat at least three to five times, until you feel relaxed.
18. Keep an attitude of gratitude.
Is anxiety making your mind go in circles? You can help worries subside by focusing on gratitude. What are five things you are grateful for? What are your favorite, soothing memories? Think of the things that never fail to make you happy.
19. Try a focus exercise.
Here is a very simple exercise you can do right in bed. Pick an object in your room, and focus on it. Notice everything you can: its size, shape, color, and what its use.
This focus exercise grounds you and helps to center your thoughts. Your thoughts will shift from tomorrow’s worries to something right in front of you. This exercise involves your imagination, and tires you out in a calming way.
20. Sing a song.
Preparing the mind for sleep is all about calming yourself down. Remember how milk works for sleep? It’s a psychological connection to something comforting from your childhood. Reciting a familiar song is like a mental cup of warm milk.
Try to go far back. Think of a song someone used to sing to you as you fell asleep. Or, just think of your favorite, calm song. This should occupy your mind with happy, sleepy thoughts!
Create a Designated Sleep Zone
Is your bedroom designed for sleep? Preparing your mind and body for sleep is just a part of getting ready for bed. Having a proper sleep environment is key.
21. Dim the Lights
Phone notifications, hallway lights, appliances, and city lights lead to poor sleep quality.
If artificial lights outside are a problem, consider getting blackout curtains. These can make a huge difference in sleep duration. Even small lights can keep you awake. If you are a night-shift worker, these are worth the investment.
Little lights can also keep you up. Try covering appliance lights. Close your bedroom door. Every little bit counts!
22. Ditch the screen.
Most of us are guilty of staring at our phones late into the night.
It is tempting to reach for your phone to help calm your racing mind. Did you forget to check your email or send a text? Chances are, it can wait until tomorrow.
Screens keep you awake longer. Light is for energizing us, not sleeping. In the case of our phones and other devices, the problem is with blue light specifically. Blue light at night disrupts your circadian rhythm. If you must use your phone before bed, check for a blue light filter. Most devices have the option, and using one before bedtime makes your device a little less sleep disruptive.
23. Get a flashlight.
If you do need to get up in the middle of the night, don’t turn on the overhead light or use your cell phone. Use a real flashlight.
Sleep experts recommend flashlights because they will not stimulate you as much as overhead lights and blue light from mobile phones. The flashlight will only illuminate the area you need to see, instead of the whole room.
24. Keep it cool.
In addition to darkness, a cool environment is important for sleep quality. Try lowering your thermostat by a few degrees at night. The human body has a natural drop in temperature during sleep.
The ideal sleeping temperature is 65-72 degrees. This is very important for women in menopause! Hot flashes are notorious for ruining a good night’s sleep. Keeping the room cool will help you to be more comfortable even if you do have a hot flash.
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Pay attention to the many factors which may cause your sleep issues.
Above all, be compassionate, realistic, and understanding with yourself. Make healthy lifestyle choices, and be proactive to get help with your sleep quality if you need it.
If you’re monitoring your lifestyle choices and still unable to sleep, there may be an underlying medical issue. Or, you may just need to work with a compassionate professional on improving your lifestyle.