Do you have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep? Do you tend to wake up feeling unrefreshed and feel tired throughout the day? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be experiencing insomnia.
Everyone from time to time experiences poor sleep quality, and most go through the occasional day feeling like they didn’t get any sleep the night before. For most, these short-term bouts of insomnia are infrequent and typically tied to acute stressors. Unfortunately, 1 in 10 adults complain of chronic insomnia which means they experience poor sleep at least 3 nights a week for a month or longer. Common causes of chronic insomnia include chronic stress, nighttime pain or discomfort, and depression. Rotating shift work, night shifts, mental health disorders, and co-occurring medical conditions are all significant risk factors for insomnia. As you can see, insomnia can be both a symptom or a disorder in and of itself.
Trouble sleeping may also develop because of poor sleep habits. Often, these poor habits arise from compensatory behaviors to deal with nonrestorative sleep such as going to bed too early, taking naps, or overuse of sleep medications.
Instead of using these unhelpful strategies, here are some evidence-based techniques shown to improve sleep quality. The more of these techniques you try and consistently use, the better your sleep is likely to be. However, it is not necessary to use all of these strategies—use what makes sense for your life. If after trying these strategies for a few weeks you are still struggling with nonrestorative sleep, you may want to consider talking to your primary care doctor and/or a behavioral health specialist.
Sleep enhancement tips:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. It’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day—even on the weekends! If you need to adjust your sleep schedule, try to restrict it to only an hour in either direction (e.g., stay up an hour later but get up at the same time the following morning).
- Go to bed only when truly sleepy. As importantly, if you’re unable to fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy. The key here is to not stay in bed. Only return to bed when you feel that you’re going to fall asleep. Relatedly, if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring in a dimly lit room until you’re ready to try again.
- Avoid afternoon or evening stimulants. Caffeine, nicotine, and certain medications (e.g., thyroid and ADHD medication) can interfere with our sleep. Caffeine in particular can disrupt our sleep and should be avoided for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime. Similarly, while alcohol is a depressant as it is being metabolized, the individual components it breaks down into (i.e., metabolites) are stimulants and therefore alcohol should never be used as a sleep aid.
- No naps. As tempting as a nap may be, it can disrupt our sleep cycle. If you feel that you must take a nap, limit it to no more than 30 minutes and always take it before 3pm.
- Eat healthy and exercise. Yes, what you eat can affect your sleep. Certain foods may help us sleep better (such as turkey), while other foods like fatty meals and spicy dishes may disrupt sleep. Importantly, regular exercise can also help improve the quality of our sleep. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve nighttime sleep quality.
- Don’t watch the clock. Many who struggle with their sleep tend to watch the clock too much. Frequently checking the time during the night can actually cause stress because it often reinforces negative thoughts such as “I’ll never get to sleep” or “If I fall asleep now, I’ll only get 4 hours of sleep—tomorrow is going to be terrible.”
- Create an inviting space. A comfortable bedroom is incredibly important for sleep quality. You want to limit light and noise, and make sure the room is neither too cold or too warm. It is also important to eliminate electronic light, particularly blue light, as this can also disrupt your sleep cycle.
- Journal. Sometimes people have a difficult time falling asleep because they think about the next day’s tasks or worry. Journaling about an hour before bed to help clear your head may be helpful to prevent these thoughts from keep you awake.
In addition to these strategies, you might consider a smartphone app. Yes, there’s an app for that! Two of my favorites are Relax Melodies and CBT-i Coach. I also strongly recommend Virtual Hope Box. While this free app is not a sleep app per se, it does have features that may help you sleep to include brain games (for when you’re worrying about something) and a “Relax Me” feature which will teach you several different forms of relaxation.