We all know that getting enough sleep is central to our health and wellbeing, and sleep experts have come up with a long list of rules and suggestions for improving your sleep.
But what’s essential for one person may not be as important for another, so what I tell my patients is to figure out what helps you sleep most comfortably.
I developed my own personal bedtime routine when I was a resident and frequently had trouble sleeping after an overnight shift. After a warm shower, I turn on the electric blanket about ten minutes before bedtime, so the bed is nice and toasty when I get in, and I spray my pillow with lavender vanilla aromatherapy mist to set the mood and help me relax. Then I get in bed with my iPad mini and watch Game of Thrones or whatever show I’m currently on, and after a little while I’m ready to sleep.
This goes against the standard advice, which recommends avoiding devices like tablets and computers because they emit blue light, which can disrupt your circadian rhythms. But it works for me – I’ve fallen asleep through so many episodes of Scandal! So what I tell my patients is to find their own recipe for sleep success.
1. Change Your Environment
Start by thinking about what’s keeping you awake, and then address it. Do you need a new mattress or pillow? (If it’s been more than a year, it’s worth investing in a new one.) Are you stressed thinking about what happened that day and bracing yourself for tomorrow? Maybe relaxation tapes or podcasts would help. Are you exercising during the day? This can be key, as physical challenges can make your body more “fit” to rest more at night.
Many people swear by eye masks and ear plugs, while other people can’t stand them; it’s a very personal thing. Eye pillows work for me – I use a lavendar oatmeal infused soft eye pillow that can be heated up before use. But you can also use blackout shades to make the room really dark. A fan or white noise can also block out sound if you don’t like ear plugs.
2. Create a Routine
Following a regular set of steps lets your body know it’s time to shut down. Even when I don’t feel tired, when I follow my bedroom ritual I can feel my heart rate slowing down and my body getting ready to rest.
Another thing that also works well for me is playing the piano before bed. Just 10-20 minutes on the keys and I find that I fall asleep faster and sleep through the night. If you play an instrument, great, but anything you enjoy and that distracts your mind can work too. I know a lot of people who do Sudoku or crossword puzzles before bed. Definitely try to avoid alcohol before bed – alcohol may make you feel sleepier at first but can and will wake you up later in the night.
3. Stay on Schedule
My husband wakes up at 4:30 in the morning for work and finds he gets irritable if he doesn’t keep up that schedule on the weekends. Even when we’re on vacation he sticks to the same routine because that’s what his body is used to. While there’s a temptation to skimp on sleep during the week and catch up on weekends, it’s better to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. In fact I find when I sleep more on the weekends it has the opposite effect and I feel more tired.
4. Prevent Insomnia
If you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep, sometimes eating a carb-filled snack helps. Go back to bed and turn on a little bit of relaxing music. And try to avoid anything that can wake you up, like turning on lights, checking your phone or going on Facebook. If you’re worried about tomorrow’s tasks, keep a pad and pen next to your bed and write it all down, so you can get it out of your head. Then promise yourself you’ll do it tomorrow, set it aside, and prepare for the sleep that awaits.