20 tips for beating sleep problems

Two-thirds of us sometimes find it difficult to get to sleep. Here are 20 tips for getting a good night's rest.

Sleep and stress

Almost two-thirds of people have difficulty sleeping, according to a recent survey conducted by NOP on behalf of Stressbusting. Stress is one of the commonest causes – and, for that matter, symptoms – of sleep problems. Here are 20 tips for beating insomnia and getting a good night’s sleep…

1. Keep regular hours

Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day will train your body to sleep better by getting it into a regular rhythm. Disruptions to what scientists call your “circadian rhythm” have been linked to a variety of sleep disorders.

2. Keep a pen and paper by your bedside

If you can’t stop worrying, it’s often useful to write down your thoughts and try and forget about them. Either make a list before lights out of things that you need to tackle the next day, or do this if you’ve woken up during the night.

3. Get some fresh air

Studies show that those who get their fair share of natural daylight tend to sleep better at night.

4. Take regular, moderate exercise

Yoga, tai chi or simply going for a brisk walk or swim are all ideal. But note that taking vigorous exercise too close to your bedtime can hinder rather than help sleep.

5. Make sure your bedroom is not too hot, cold, noisy or light

An overheated, underventilated bedroom can wake you in the middle of the night. Likewise, try to make your bedroom both as quiet and as dark as possible. A comfortable bed – not too hard, soft or small – and pillow will also help create a good sleeping environment.

6. Avoid excess alcohol

A small nightcap might help you wind down and actually get to sleep but alcohol is likely to interrupt your sleep later in the night.

7. Avoid coffee and tea – especially in the evening

Both are stimulants, which can interfere with falling asleep and prevent deep sleep. Even the smaller amounts of caffeine in fizzy drinks like Coke can harm sleep.

8. Avoid over-indulging

Eating too much late at night can ruin your sleep patterns. Our digestive system more or less shuts down at night; eating a large meal just before bed can confuse your body and make it difficult to get to sleep.

9. Don’t smoke

Yes, it’s bad for sleep, too. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers take longer to fall asleep, wake more often and often experience more sleep disruption.

10. Drink a cup of herbal tea

Unlike “ordinary” (i.e. Indian) tea, it will relax rather than stimulate you. Chamomile and valerian are both mild sedatives and should help you fall asleep.

11. Have a hot, milky drink

A glass of warm milk is one of the most popular folk remedies for sleep problems. Most scientists agree that drinking a warm glass of milk before bedtime can help you get to sleep. Whether this is just the placebo effect, however, or if more complex science is involved, is hotly debated. A quick word on hot chocolate: it contains small amounts of caffeine and so should be avoided.

12. Eat bananas and avocados

Both are good sources of vitamin B, which can help those sleep problems that are caused by adrenal stress. You can also buy a good vitamin B complex – or Astragalus, the herb favoured by Chinese healers – from a health shop and take it at bedtime.

13. Sprinkle a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow

A 2010 study at the University of Vienna found that lavender oil had a “significant beneficial influence on quality and duration of sleep”.

14. Make love

Sex is nature’s best soporific. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s a lot more fun than staying awake.

15. Try to relax before going to bed

A warm bath – especially on cold, winter nights – will gently warm and relax you. A spot of yoga, deep breathing or listening to soothing music can also help relax both the mind and body. Some people like listening to tapes of whale noises or womb sounds. Your doctor might be able to suggest a helpful relaxation tape.

16. Use ‘trigger pictures’ to relax you

Try to conjure up mental images of a favourite or fantasy place or moment – such as, say, a great birthday party or idyllic holiday spot – as a way of triggering feelings of relaxation and well-being.

17. Play mind games

Counting sheep is the most famous such technique but there are countless others, such as the following:

  • Imagine a room covered wall-to-wall and floor to ceiling with black velvet.
  • Describe your home village, town or city in the greatest possible detail, as though to a complete stranger.
  • Keep repeating ‘Sleep, Sleep, Sleep, Sleep’ very slowly until you drop off.
  • Numb the brain by making it perform a dull, boring task, such as repeating the words ‘Pooh’ and ‘Bah’ in ever increasing numbers. The ‘Poohs’ must always be two more than the ‘Bahs’, giving the following sequence:
  1. Pooh
  2. Pooh Pooh Bah
  3. Pooh Pooh Pooh Pooh Bah Bah… and so on.

18. Take sleeping pills, but…

Sleeping pills can, of course, help you sleep. However, warns Dr Roger Henderson in his book, Stress Beaters – 100 Proven Ways To Manage Stress, “Sleeping pills do not cause natural or restful sleep and there is always the risk of becoming dependent on them. If you do need them, this should be for the short-term only, to help break an abnormal sleep pattern.”

19. Read a book

Reading a book is one of the best ways to distract your mind from the problem of sleep. Reading can help both physically and mentally. Not only will you start to forget the worry of not getting to sleep, your eyes will also start to feel tired.

20. Don’t just lie there… do something

If you can’t sleep, don’t just lie there fretting about it. Get up and do something that you find relaxing – browsing the internet or watching TV or whatever – until you feel sleepy again. Then, when you start to feel tired, go back to bed.

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