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People can encounter many obstacles that consistently prevent them from getting a good night’s sleep, which affects their health, daily performance and overall quality of life. From emergencies that cost you a night or two of sleep or sleep disorders that regularly leave you feeling exhausted during the day and anxious during bedtime, to bad lifestyle habits that interfere with your circadian rhythm – it’s very easy to lose sleep for a variety of reasons.
Visiting a doctor is always the best course of action if you identify sleeping problems, no matter how they manifest (i.e., whether you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up on time, etc.). Regardless of what type of diagnostic method they opt for, the advice you get will often sound the same, at least partially. A lot of what causes sleeping problems lies in our daily life, and the habits that we adopt almost without noticing. Those habits could include eating unhealthy food, avoiding exercise, spending too much time in front of screens, staying up late to watch films, or any other similar thing. During your examination(s), you are asked questions about your lifestyle that help the doctor determine where you’re making mistakes.
One of the most common suggestions for dealing with sleeping problems of any kind (including those caused by sleep disorders) is to establish a bedtime routine or engage in sleep preparation. In this article, we will go over common sleep preparation practices and tips on how you can help yourself fall asleep without the use of risky prescription medication or over-the-counter solutions. Let’s get into it.
How It All Works
Sleep preparation is a flexible process in that you can customize your routine based on your personal preferences, medical history and a variety of other factors. The only common factor ends up being the time invested into this routine each day. Most doctors suggest starting a bedtime routine about an hour before you get into bed, but that’s only because people’s schedules usually don’t allow more. Ideally, you’d start unwinding around two hours before trying to fall asleep, and slowly remove sources of stimulation that keep you awake.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia works this way, too. The idea is that a good bedtime routine and some stimulus control helps you make a mental connection between your bed and sleep (and sex). If you can eliminate sleep-destroying habits in the evening and avoid using your bed other than for sleeping and sex, it can reduce your sleep onset latency without you even noticing. Sleep preparation often also comes down to creating a healthy sleep environment that keeps distractions away and improves things such as air circulation and the levels of lighting in the room. We will list off various things you can try to establish a bedtime routine that suits you specifically.
Natural Sleep Aids
If you’re afraid of prescription medication for sleep (and we don’t blame you, it comes with a variety of really unpleasant side-effects), there is a safer alternative you can try – natural sleep aids. Understanding natural sleep aids requires having a solid grasp on how your circadian rhythm works, so we’ll explain it briefly here. The circadian rhythm is maintained by a sort of biological master clock that’s located in your brain stem. This clock uses light receptors to tell the time of day to convince your body to start winding down for the night when the time comes. Many processes in your body depend on this rhythm, and things like appetite, blood sugar regulation, and libido are all easily connected to it. However, there are many ways to disturb your circadian rhythm, which throws your entire body off balance (figuratively) and causes potentially severe health concerns. Once your circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can be very hard to get it back on track without serious discipline (and often help).
For the purposes of sleep, the main process that is hurt by a disrupted rhythm is melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that forces you to fall asleep eventually, and its production can be crippled by things like alcohol consumption and excessive caffeine intake, among other factors. Natural sleep aids aim to improve your melatonin production, relieve anxiety and induce relaxation through ingredients such as tart cherry juice (which can and should be consumed on its own if you can find it near you), lemon balm extract and valerian root. Some products just give you a straight shot of melatonin directly, which helps you fall asleep quicker once the effect kicks in.
If you can’t afford these aids, you can rely on more accessible substances to improve your chances of falling asleep quickly. We’ve mentioned tart cherry juice, but milk is probably in your fridge right now, and it can be used as an improvised sleeping aid if you implement it as part of your bedtime routine.
Creating the Ideal Sleeping Environment
Environmental factors in your bedroom or outside your window have a huge influence on how well you can sleep during the night. For example, the difference between noisy traffic outside and perfect silence is massive in the context of falling or staying asleep. While this is the most expensive part of sleep preparation, every penny is worth making sure you can get enough rest to stay healthy and productive at work – appropriate bedroom accessories can “pay for themselves” through this benefit. The first step towards solving problems in your immediate sleeping environment is to identify them. Once you’re aware of what’s damaging your sleep, you can get products that solve those problems for you.
If you have to deal with noise while trying to sleep, no matter where it comes from (i.e., from other rooms or the outside), you want to invest in something that either reduces that noise or drowns it out. White noise machines or bedroom fans are popular options for many people, as we’re often more capable of relaxing when exposed to a consistent source of sound (usually a car engine, bedroom fan whirring, etc.). Keeping a bedroom fan active also helps improve air circulation, which is essential for healthy sleep. A stuffy room can single-handedly cause a headache for some people, so its effects on sleep should not be ignored – and since opening windows might expose your home to burglars, a fan could be the ideal solution.
Speaking of burglars, home security can play an indirect role in hurting your sleep prospects. Feeling like your home is never safe creates a lot of anxiety and stress, which can destroy your sleeping schedule. For this reason, it may be wise to invest in security cameras, door bolts, window bars and similar ways of keeping unwanted guests out. Being prepared for emergencies such as floods and fires can also contribute to a sense of safety and help you relax.
Blue light and electronics interfere with your biological clock by making it confused about the time of day. It is no coincidence that people who watch TV a lot or spend a ton of time in front of smartphones or computer screens tend to have poor sleep quality overall. If you can afford to do so (that is, when you’re not expecting an important call or alarm), turn off your smartphone during the night, or at least place it on the opposite side of the room. The same goes for any personal computers or TV monitors; everything should be turned off for at least an hour before you go to bed if you can help it.
Physical Well-Being and Relaxation
One of the questions you can expect to encounter when you visit a doctor and explain your sleeping problems is related to how much exercise you get. Exercise plays an important role in your body in multiple ways, from muscle development and immunity to improved hormone balance and relaxation during sleeping hours. No matter what’s causing your sleep problems (including a full-blown sleep disorder), the chances are that regular exercise is a great habit to pick up if you want to alleviate the problem. Make sure not to overwork yourself, as this can cause pain for as long as several days, which naturally keeps you from falling asleep easily, even with a top-quality mattress supporting your body. Additionally, avoid any intense exercises in the evening hours, and instead perform them in the morning or early afternoon to avoid putting stress on your body when it needs to unwind.
Exercise isn’t the only option, however. Planning your diet is equally important, as eating sugary, greasy or otherwise unhealthy food is harmful to your sleep onset latency and sleep quality in general. Above all, steer clear of alcohol and coffee in the evening hours – these two substances are listed as contributing factors to a massive number of sleep disorders and similar problems. A light meal in the evening is not a bad idea, as going to bed on an empty stomach doesn’t help you get good rest.
Relaxation techniques are an excellent way to improve your bedtime routine. These include different meditation techniques, breathing exercises, yoga routines, and similar activities. Don’t exert yourself too much, and focus on stretching and relieving pain and pressure from your body. Meditation can also train your mind to create a positive association with your bed, so you can avoid feeling bedtime anxiety. If you’re dealing with back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain or any similar problem, getting a massage is a great idea from time to time. Naturally, you should aim to avoid the pain before it can occur, so invest in a good mattress for your chosen sleeping position and avoid putting a lot of weight on your joints if you don’t have to.
A trip or two each week to the local sauna can do wonders for your body in many ways, and sleep quality is one of them. You don’t have to make it a daily thing, but make sure that you head in one or twice per week for decent results. The increased body heat starts to drop once you leave the sauna, and that effect pairs well with how your body naturally gets colder as it starts to switch to “sleep mode.” Some toxins and metals like mercury also vacate your body primarily through sweat, so a combination of healthy, planned exercise and sauna visits can keep you healthy and ready to doze off in the evening.
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Tanya is a professional writer and editor with a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago. Tanya has been fighting insomnia for most of her adult life, and she knows firsthand how vital a good night’s rest can be for people with sleep problems.