For millions of people, a good night's rest seems beyond the realm of possibility. Instead, these people suffer throughout the day from sleep-deprivation and fatigue, hoping that loud music, coffee or energy drinks will get them through the day. Unfortunately, these tactics can lead to another night filled with restless, disturbed sleep and the vicious cycle starts anew the following morning. For people who suffer from this depressing, depressive cycle of restless nights and lethargic, sleepy days, slight changes in lifestyle can lead to a host of successful sleep strategies.
The greatest challenge, and support, for a good night's sleep is a person's mattress. This is the first place that anyone having troubles resting and sleeping should look. If a mattress is more than ten years old, it is time to shop for a new one. Shopping for a mattress is not as difficult a challenge as most people want to make it; though horror stories abound, finding a mattress that will support the body properly will lead to a much improved nightly experience.
For innerspring mattresses--by far the most common type of mattress--studies have found that medium-firm types will lead to an increased sense of rest after a night of sleep. To avoid feeling stiff and sore upon waking, the mattress should cradle the shoulders and hips and allow the spine to remain straight; for back sleepers, support of the lumbar region is also important. More importantly, a mattress that cups the body properly helps the mind relax, thus bringing about sleep more quickly after lying down at night.
When considering an innerspring mattress, it is important to note the spring count; the higher the number, the more support given a reclining body. Individually-wrapped springs are also important for people who sleep with partners, pets or have children invade their sleeping spaces during the night. This will help to reduce the amount of motion transfer felt through the mattress, which will limit the amount of wakefulness or waking during the night. A pillow top mattress might add comfort and support to the sleeping body, as well, thus improving the overall sleep experience.
For other types of mattresses, one should know that foam mattresses are excellent at supporting the body, but the tiny air bubbles that comprise the matrix of the foam can also trap in body heat. This might not be an issue in the winter, when cooler nights lead to the desire for cozier sleeping conditions, but during the summer a foam mattress can raise the temperatures around the body to make sleeping uncomfortable. With foam mattresses, dressing appropriately for the weather and the conditions is almost as important as the mattress itself. For people who prefer waterbeds, it is important to make sure that the vinyl liner of the bed is durable and that it has enough bladders within the mattress to ensure that sleepers do not get seasick during the night, either through the movement of a sleeping partner or by the sleeper's own motions.
Just as important for a comfortable night's sleep as the mattress is the pillow. A pillow should support the head and neck in a way that will help keep the cervical through thoracic vertebrae of the spine aligned. Something that lends additional support to the cervical area will help keep the spine straight. People with down allergies should steer clear of true feather pillows, for obvious reasons, but there are plenty of other materials that are just as supportive and breathable. People who prefer to stack or fold pillows should look for slightly thinner pillows crafted of durable materials that will not break down as the shape of the pillow is changed constantly by the sleeper trying to maximize comfort.
Depending on the type of mattress one owns as well as the season and the weather, dressing appropriately for sleep will help ease the body into falling asleep and, more importantly, help the sleeper remain asleep. Tight clothing is never a good idea while in bed, as it can constrict the body and lead to tingly sensations in hands, feet, fingers and toes. Loose-fitting, comfortable clothing made from breathable fabric, such as cotton, is generally considered the best fit for sleepwear; however, if a person constantly wakes up during the night feeling too warm, sleeping naked is recommended. The body is not constrained in any way and the cool feel of the sheets on the skin can aid in relaxation.
The temperature of the bedroom can also affect sleeping. Keeping the temperature lower, around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, will help the body stay cool while also allowing for the comforting feeling of being snuggled under sheets and blankets to be experienced. For obvious reasons, a darker bedroom will help the body relax and ease into sleep; even if living in the city, heavier curtains that block out most of the artificial lights will help the brain to realize that it is night time and begin to switch off so that it falls asleep.
Excessive stimulation should also be avoided while trying to sleep. Watching television prior to bed can cause the brain to remain active even if the television is shut off. The same can apply to music. If the television is left on throughout the night, the brain will recognize the source of the external stimulation and want to react to it. If the television or radio is absolutely necessary, then timers should be set on both to shut off after person has fallen asleep. In fact, it is advised by most sleep consultants to rid the bedroom of most electronic devices, including computers and video game systems. For safety, a phone can be kept on the bedside as well as an alarm clock to provide a safety net for waking at the proper time in the morning.
However, the glow of an alarm clock's face can brighten the bedroom to the point of distraction, not to mention furthering the insomniac's desire to watch the time slipping by as they obsess over not having yet fallen asleep. For these situations, the clock face should be turned away from the sleeper, or perhaps a t-shirt or other cloth can be laid over the clock to help mute the glow coming from the timekeeping device.
The light levels within the bedroom play crucial roles in allowing the brain to know that it is time for sleep, but the sound level can be equally as important from a different standpoint. As the brain relaxes, it will switch back "on" when exposed to loud noise levels. However, low, soft or "white" noise can help drown out louder sounds which will kick start the brain back into wakefulness. Though low levels of music might seem relaxing, the brain will try to listen to the music and, if a favorite song comes on, react to it. Sound effects, such as night sounds, the gentle noise of water lapping at the shore, or the night songs of frogs and crickets can be soothing and help the mind relax enough to welcome sleep quickly and easily.
For most people, it takes fifteen to thirty minutes to fall asleep, but this can be longer if the person is active right up until the point of bedtime. Instead of pushing the limit and, almost literally, burning the midnight oil, taking a few moments to relax before going to bed can help to prepare the mind and body for sleep. Tucking into bed and just lying between the sheets for a little bit prior to trying to sleep will allow the body to gradually relax. For some, reading a book--pleasure reading, in this case, and not something for work--will help to calm the mind and chase away stressful thoughts prior to trying to sleep.
Another possible activity to calm the mind and relax the body could be to simply sit and meditate or calmly relax in a chair prior to bed. Some quiet time, where the mind is not plagued by the thoughts of the day or worries about what tomorrow holds, will help relax the body and the mind, which can result in falling asleep more quickly as well as promote restful sleep throughout the night. Stretching out before going to bed will also help to loosen muscles, reduce stress, and allow the body to relax more into the mattress; this can provide a sensation that the springs or foam of the mattress are carrying away the worries of the day, furthering relaxation. A warm shower before bed, also, can help to loosen sore muscles and assist in promoting relaxation, leading to better sleep, as well.
Snacks should not be eaten more than an hour prior to bedtime, and these should be light. This is a snack, after all, and not a fourth meal! Something that is low in fat and protein but high in carbohydrates will help to cause the brain to experience a sated feeling which will lead to the upregulation of serotonin, a body chemical that sends signals to the brain that it is time for sleep. The snack should also not by spicy, nor should it contain caffeine. Spicy foods and excessive fats may lead to heartburn later in the night, and caffeine is a stimulant that will actually help prevent the brain from falling asleep.
For the most part, heavy meals and exercise should be avoided prior to sleep--the exception being sexual activity. Having sex will help to release endorphins, a class of hormones that are known to lower stress levels as well as promote happiness. It will also help a person feel tired. Strenuous exercise earlier in the evening, however, will help the body to gradually relax and "cool down" so that, later, it is ready for sleep.
Drinking caffeine in the evening is also a common problem for people suffering from sleep deficiencies; sometimes these same people will later turn to alcohol to help calm their bodies and induce sleep. While small amounts of alcohol can, indeed, cause fatigue and sleepiness, large amounts of alcohol can cause the brain to realize a foreign substance is in the bloodstream. It will then kick the metabolism into higher gear to rid the body of this foreign object; not only will the sleeper find him or herself with a brain that refuses to calm down and go to sleep, but they will also find that they need to get up and use the restroom often. Nicotine, from cigarettes or other tobacco products, is also a stimulant that will cause the heart to race and the brain to try to rid the body of the stimulant.
It is not just foods that are high in caffeine that can cause sleep disruptions; eating a well-balanced, healthy diet will lead to an overall better sleeping experience. More importantly, it is important to realize that the perception that people who sleep later or longer are fat and lazy is truly a misconception. For one thing, in order to accommodate the added time spent awake, the body must produce more insulin for people who do not get eight hours of sleep, which can predispose these people toward obesity and also help them run a risk for developing diabetes. There are numbers to back this up, as well. Those who sleep for less than four hours a night are 73% more likely to be overweight than those who get seven to nine hours--or more--of sleep. On the other hand, people who are obese tend to not sleep well due to discomfort or sleep apnea; eating a healthier diet and getting more sleep can help not only to improve the overall comfort of lying down but also to better the quality of sleep during the night. It seems as though sleep deprivation and obesity tend to go hand-in-hand. Improving one will help to improve the other.
In short, there are several key tactics that can help a person better their sleeping experiences.
- Check the mattress. Older mattresses are going to not support the body properly, causing aches and pains throughout the night and upon waking.
- Diet and health. Exercise in the evening, even if for only thirty minutes, to help the body naturally grow tired later in the evening. Avoid nicotine and caffeine in the late afternoons; avoid excessive alcohol consumption in the mid- to late-evenings.
- Keep the room cool, dark and quiet. Add thicker curtains or blinds to windows, turn the thermostat down, and add in some white noise to help relax and avoid sharp, loud, or disruptive noises.
- Try to eliminate electronic media from the bedroom. Televisions, computers, tablets, gaming systems and radios can all be overly stimulating and make it more difficult for the brain to switch off and prepare for sleep. Cover the face of digital alarm clocks, or turn them away from the bed and use timers for radios and televisions if they are needed.
- Add in extra time to gradually fall asleep. Sit and meditate, light a candle to help soothe your senses, read a book for pleasure or find some other mindless task in order to help unwind and prepare for a blissful night's sleep.
- Avoid strenuous exercise or work late in the evening. Unless it's sex. Sexual intercourse or even masturbation will help to release stress-reducing endorphins into the body's nervous system, helping to lower stress levels and creating a happy, calmed mind ready for the pleasures of sleep.
By following these easy steps, a refreshing and full night's sleep can readily be had. Not only will the quality of sleep increase, but an improvement in overall quality of life should follow. Sweet dreams!