With winter hard upon us and the holiday season well past, many of us are finding ourselves struggling to get a good night’s sleep. There are plenty of reasons for this. First and foremost, our work schedules are crazy, and between working long hours and stress haunting our dreams, sleep is a rare commodity. If you have kids their holiday breaks are over and they’re back in school, with projects and meetings that make them overbooked, and by extension so are you. Add to that the facts that come with the cold weather and shorter days: fewer hours of daylight can cause a mild form of seasonal affective disorder, and sleep apnea can be exacerbated by colds, flu, and the dry air from our heating systems. It’s no wonder that our sleep is so disturbed!
Though the solutions below won’t provide a complete answer if your sleep problem is chronic or medically based, they can go a long way towards helping people who have just gotten into bad habits or whose sleep problems are minor.
There are a number of different scents and herbs that are known to be both calming and relaxing, and the one that is probably the most widely used and accepted is lavender. You can purchase an essential oil diffuser for as little as $15 and add a few drops of lavender oil before bedtime. Scientific studies have linked lavender to a decreased heart rate and lowered blood pressure, and one study even showed a 22% improvement in the level of restorative slow-wave sleep in women who inhaled it right before bed.
There are numerous studies linking a better night’s sleep with exercise, but in order to get this benefit you have to be smart about it. Do not make the mistake of working out within a few hours of bedtime, as that can have a stimulating effect that will work against you. Studies have shown that the best impact of exercise is derived from exercising at around 7:30 in the morning. The exception to this may be practicing yoga, with its emphasis on deep breathing and stretching: a slow-paced yoga class taken shortly before bedtime may actually serve as a sleep aid.
Try the Mediterranean Diet
There are a number of health advantages that have been linked to following the Mediterranean Diet, but improved sleep is one that has not gotten as many headlines as weight loss and better heart health have.. Still researchers studying the impact of following this diet, which emphasizes eating fruit, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and combining it with half an hour of daily walking, have found that it has a profound impact on patients suffering from moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. The improvement was significant, reducing the number of episodes of apnea per hour by eighteen. Scientists’ interpretation of this result attributes it to the decrease in the amount of belly fat.
Look for Hidden Stimulants
Most people who are having problems with sleep immediately cut the amount of caffeine that they are taking in during the course of the day, particularly the caffeine they may have been ingesting close to bedtime. But caffeine and other stimulants are hidden in a number of popular medications, including antidepressants and painkillers. If you’re not certain about whether your medicines are working against you, do a little research online, or ask your physician. If there are stimulants in medications you are taking by prescription, don’t just stop taking them – ask your doctor to provide you with another option.
Be Smart about What you Eat
Just as your medications may be working against you, the same may be true of the foods that you’re eating. Chocolate contains caffeine, and remarkably, so does decaffeinated coffee. Many people think that if soda isn’t a cola then it isn’t caffeinated, but orange soda, cream soda, some root bear and other non-colas contain caffeine.
Beyond caffeine there is the issue of where the foods you are eating close to bedtime fall on the glycemic index: the higher they fall, the more the foods increase the production of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps us sleep at night. So which foods are highest on the glycemic index? Starchy foods such as potatoes and rice. Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition praised the impact of high glycemic foods, saying that they improved the speed at which study participants fell asleep by 49%.
Choose the Right Sleep Position
Though most of us sleep on either our back or our side, studies have shown that side sleepers get the best sleep and suffer the lowest number of sleep apnea episodes. Stomach sleepers report the highest degree of restlessness, and sleep apnea episodes are highest for those who sleep on their backs.
Improve your Light Exposure
The impact of shortened daylight hours cannot be overemphasize, and neither can the negative impact of artificial light at night. Both have a negative effect on your body’s understanding of when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep, but the good news is that there are a number of ways that you can fight back. Increase your light exposure during the day by taking walks at lunchtime and taking off your sun glasses – your eyes need to register as much sunlight as possible. Make sure that your windows in your house are letting light in when you are there during daylight hours, and try to position yourself close to a window at work if it is possible. Light therapy boxes are also extremely effective.
As for artificial light keeping us up at night, studies have shown that the light emanating from our televisions, computers, cell phone and tablets are all sending messages to our brain that it is time to wake up rather than go to sleep. So do regular light bulbs. Try shutting off electronics a few hours before bedtime, dim the lights a bit, and if you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, use a flashlight instead of turning on the light.