The (Ultimate) Guide to Better Sleep from a Former Insomniac

The (Ultimate) Guide to Better Sleep from a Former Insomniac

 

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Being a Type A individual has its upsides and downsides.  On the plus side, it drives me to get. stuff. done.  I mean, you can’t get through physical therapy school and pass boards without being at least a little Type A!  (And also a little crazy, but that’s a different issue entirely!  😉 )

On the negative side, my personality occasionally leads to sleepless nights.  A racing mind or being unable to wind down enough to sleep used to be huge issues for me.  I ran myself ragged during undergrad and grad school because of the sheer amount of things on my to-do list plus my desire to do them well.  No matter how much I got done during the day, I still couldn’t bring myself to go to sleep at night, even when I desperately wanted to. I would lay awake staring at the ceiling into the early morning hours several nights per week.

My health suffered significantly because of the unhealthy patterns I had fallen into.  I was often sick and I struggled with anxiety attacks.  The unrelenting stress plus lack of quality sleep also exacerbated some chronic health conditions I can otherwise manage.  

Once I graduated, I realized that something had to change.  I couldn’t live the rest of my working life in a state of sleep deprivation.  So, I set out on a mission to get better sleep.  I tried all of the things that I had learned about in pre-med and physical therapy school.  I read books, blogs, and news articles.  I asked friends (many of which are medical professionals) for advice.  I tried out everything until I had finally found something that worked for me.  By putting these tips into practice, I’m finally able to sleep well on most nights.  (I’ll have an restless night every once in awhile, but now they’re few and far between.  And that’s perfectly normal!)  

Make sleep a priority.

  • Getting great sleep is just like anything else- if you don’t prioritize it, it won’t happen!  This means that occasionally you’re going to have to disappoint people and miss out on social opportunities.  It’ll be okay.

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule.

  • Aiming to fall asleep and wake up at roughly the same times helps to regulate your body’s circadian rhythm.  I’ll give myself a little leeway on the weekends, but never more than an hour one way or the other.  

Create a bedtime routine you can stick with.

  • We’ve all seen certain social media personalities’ extremely elaborate nighttime routines and thought to ourselves “Who in the world has time to do that every evening?!”  The answer is no one.  No one has time to take an hour long bath with $75 worth of bath bombs and pixie dust, then slather on 40 different Korean face creams.  That being said, a consistent bedtime routine can be tremendously helpful when it comes to getting better sleep.  I like to have a cup of tea while I chat with my husband, take a warm shower, then read for about 20 minutes in bed.  This helps me to wind down and mentally detach from work and other daytime activities.

Put down the phone!  

  • Social media is a deep, dark hole that’s easy to fall into and not so easy to climb back out of.  I try to stay off all social media sites after I’ve started my bedtime routine.  Otherwise, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram for hours.  
  • I also don’t keep my phone in my room at night at all.  Instead, I charge it on the counter in the bathroom adjacent to my bedroom.  This way, I can still hear it if it rings but I can’t see it if the screen lights up.  As research continues on the harmful effects of electromagnetic frequencies, I’ve decided that it’s probably not good to have something sending and receiving signals next to your head all night, every night.

Make your bedroom as dark as possible.

  • Remember the circadian rhythm I mentioned earlier?  It’s the roughly 24-hour cycle that many of our biological processes revolve around, with sleep being the most commonly known. While these processes are ultimately controlled by our hormones, these hormones are influenced by our environment.  For instance, light entering your eyes at night can “trick” your brain into thinking that it’s daytime.  Since your brain thinks you need to be awake, it won’t produce as much melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy).  This can be a potential cause of insomnia. However, one easy way to prevent this from happening is to remove as many sources of light from your bedroom as possible.
  • Get blackout curtains. Don’t use a nightlight unless absolutely necessary.  (I keep a flashlight within arms’ reach, just in case I need it.)  Turn alarm clocks around or put them on a high shelf you can only see if you sit up. I even resorted to covering the light on our carbon monoxide detector (just the light, nothing else) with a couple of layers of electrical tape. That darn thing was bright!  I’ve been amazed at how just these few simple changes have led to much better sleep.

Eliminate as much blue light as possible after the sun goes down.

  • Light waves in our environment have different wavelengths.  You’ve probably already noticed that some light seems “warmer” and some seems “cooler”.  The light emanating from the fire in your fireplace seems much warmer than what’s coming from the fluorescent light in your kitchen, for instance.  This cooler light is made up (at least in part) of blue wavelengths.  Daylight has a lot of these blue wavelengths in it.  When your brain senses blue light coming in through receptors in your eyes, it knows that it’s time to be awake.  This is great… when it’s actually daytime.  The problem is that screens (computer, tablet, phone, etc.) and fluorescent lighting also emit large amounts of blue light, effectively tricking your brain into thinking that it’s daytime when you’re exposed to them at night.
  • This doesn’t mean that you have to give up all of your electronics and huddle around a fire after sundown like a caveman.  (Although, that sounds like fun if someone will bring marshmallows!)  You can install programs on your devices to filter out blue light.  F.lux is one program for Windows that I’ve used and would recommend.  I also enabled Night Shift on my iPhone from sunrise to sunset.  You might also consider investing in some amber/orange glasses like these, called “blue blockers”.  I haven’t felt the need to do this yet because I have filters installed on all my devices  and I’m not around a lot of fluorescent lighting.

Get outside as early in the day as possible.

  • While blue light can be detrimental to our circadian rhythm if we’re exposed to it later in the evening, it can actually help us get better sleep if we’re exposed in the morning.  Research has shown that getting sunlight soon after you wake up can not only make you feel more alert, but actually help to reset your circadian rhythm so you get better sleep at night!

Set the thermostat around 68 or even lower.

  • Your body temperature naturally falls as it prepares for sleep.  You can help it along by keeping your room cool.  Hubby installed a window AC in our bedroom so we didn’t have to cool the entire apartment.  (We tried running the central AC for one month.  We were NOT happy when we got the electric bill.)

Exercise, but not too late in the day.

  • Although we don’t know exactly how, moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to help those of us that struggle with insomnia to get better sleep.  However, this can backfire if you work out too hard too late in the day.  During my clinical rotations, I often wouldn’t get home until 7-8pm.  Just like a good little student physical therapist, I would try to squish in a short but intense workout before bed.  This just left me amped up and unable to sleep.  I’ve come to find that if I want to do an intense workout, I need to have this done before 6pm.  If it’s later than that and I still haven’t exercised, I’ll opt for a long, relaxing walk instead.

Stop caffeine by 2 pm.

  • Eliminating caffeine before bed seems pretty obvious, but that afternoon latte is probably sticking with you later than you thought.  Research has shown that caffeine’s half-life (the time it takes for half of the caffeine you ingest to be metabolized and eliminated) is around 6 hours for most of us.  That means that if you want to start heading towards bed at 8pm, you have to be done with your last macchiato at 2pm.

Switch to herbal tea instead.

  • Instead of drinking coffee in the afternoon, switch to herbal tea instead!  I recently talked about my favorites here.  I usually drink a cup of this tea before bed and I’ve found that it helps a lot!  Usually I make it with only 4oz of water so I don’t have to go to the bathroom a few hours later.  

Have dessert with lunch instead of dinner.

  • We all know that eating dessert doesn’t do good things for our blood sugar, but this can also do bad things for our sleep.  Eating dessert too close to bedtime can spike your blood sugar and give you a burst of energy, which is the last thing you need when trying to fall asleep.  To compound the problem, when your blood sugar falls again you’ll be left feeling anxious, shaky and hungry.  If I must have something sweet after dinner, I’ll have a small piece of dark chocolate.  

Utilize essential oils strategically.

  • Sometimes I’ll diffuse a small amount of a relaxing essential oil, such as lavender.  I’ve learned the hard way that more is not better in this case. If it’s too stinky (even a good kind of stinky), I can’t sleep.

Supplement with magnesium oil.

  • Magnesium is a mineral that has been shown in research to help you get better sleep.  I’ve only had marginal success with this personally, but I know people have been able to get much better sleep when they starting applying magnesium oil before bed.  I haven’t found one I’m in love with yet, so I’m hesitant to provide a recommendation for any particular brand.  Make sure you don’t apply it to any sensitive skin because it can sting a little.  I like to spray it on the bottom of my feet after I get in bed.  

Think relaxing thoughts!

  • Don’t watch or read anything too exciting before bed (think Friends instead of Game of Thrones).  I always try to avoid anything with lots of strategy and intrigue, as I usually end up wrapped up in the plot and unable to fall asleep for a few hours.

Still can’t sleep? Don’t fight it!

  • It’s unrealistic to think that every night will be a perfect night’s sleep.  Even the healthiest people among us are bound to have a night where they can’t sleep well for whatever reason.  And that’s okay!  Our bodies were created to adapt.  Once I stopped willing myself to sleep and getting frustrated because it didn’t work… I actually fell asleep!

 

I realize this is a pretty extensive (but not exhaustive) list of tips.  Don’t think that if you aren’t able to do all of these perfectly you won’t get a great night’s sleep!  These are just the various things that I’ve tried over the past few years, some of which have worked better than others.  I simply wanted to share them so you could pick and choose what’s right for you!

xoxo,

Kristina

P.S.- Have you tried any of these tips?  Did they work?  Anything else you’d add to this list that’s worked fo you?

 

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