Sweet Dreams: Tips for Good Sleep

What helps you fall asleep when you struggle with insomnia? Try these healthy habits and remedies.

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Taking a walk in nature is a great way to reduce stress and get exercise.

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An occasional episode of insomnia can make it difficult to handle the day, but regular episodes of insomnia make it difficult to handle life. The causes of insomnia are varied, and both psychological and physiological factors can be present. Environmental and dietary factors also play a role, and statistics show that, for unknown reasons, insomnia is more common in women than men.

Insomnia is classified in two broad categories: sleep-onset insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), and maintenance insomnia (frequent or early waking). Treating either type of insomnia should begin with an awareness of your needs. Not all people require the same amount of sleep, for example, and some may think they have a problem only because they don’t fit the norm. Sleep cycles can vary among people and throughout a person’s life. While one person may require only four hours of sleep, others need 10 hours to feel refreshed.

Lifestyle Changes

The first and easiest way to remedy sleep problems is to address some of these underlying lifestyle factors.

1. Health

Sleep disturbances can have physiological causes, so treating the cause can solve the sleep problem. People suffering from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, for example, can experience fluctuations in blood sugar levels during the night. The brain needs a constant supply of glucose to function, and a drop in blood sugar signals the body to produce hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate sugar release. The resulting rise in blood sugar may wake a person (a small amount of fruit upon waking will relieve the symptoms). Serotonin is a natural chemical associated with inducing sleep. Sometimes, deficiencies in tryptophan, vitamin B6, niacin, magnesium or other nutrients can inhibit the formation of this hormone. Sleep apnea is another common sleep disturbance that is caused by a physical condition. It is important to have a correct diagnosis. If you have recurrent sleep issues, ask your health-care professional to run tests to rule out physiological causes of sleep disturbance.

2. Daytime stress

Many people get wound up working to achieve their goals during waking hours, but trouble occurs when stress built up during the day is released at bedtime—they lie with their brains racing, unable to shut off the mental background noise. In Chinese medicine, this type of insomnia is called “disturbed shen qi,” or a disturbed mental spirit. Releasing stress before bedtime by taking a brisk walk, doing a yoga routine or meditating, or taking a warm bath with calming essential oils can be more effective (and safer) than taking a sedative. Also, be aware of stimulants ingested during the day such as caffeine, sugar or nicotine; try cutting back to see if that relieves the problem.

3. Sleep surroundings

The sleeping environment can have an important bearing on both types of insomniacs. Noise, an uncomfortable bed, a snoring partner and light are obvious distractions. One often overlooked factor is temperature. Most people sleep more soundly in a cool room. Research by the University of South Australia in 2004 showed that the body needs to drop its core temperature in order for sleep to initiate normally. Experts often recommend 60 to 65 degrees as an optimal sleeping temperature.

Exercise Your Way to Sleep

Have you ever noticed that you sleep like a log on days when you are very physically active (after swimming, long hikes, moving and carrying lots of boxes, etc.)? Being physically active increases the body’s production of adenosine, which helps us fall asleep at the end of the day. This is because adenosine is produced as a byproduct of the body metabolizing energy, and the more energy we expend the more adenosine we build up. Even 20 minutes of vigorous walking has been shown to significantly improve sleep in people with chronic insomnia, shortening the length of time it took to fall asleep and increasing the length of sleep. Ideally, work out for at least 20 minutes, or for sufficient time to make you feel hot, about three hours before you want to sleep. As your body temperature cools it acts as an additional signal telling the body to sleep. However, raising your core temperature through exercise immediately before trying to sleep will probably increase the time it takes you to fall asleep.

Four-Hour Sleep Cycle

Some people find better sleep success with four-hour sleep cycles, rather than the more conventional seven to eight straight hours. Some professionals even advocate limiting sleep to four hours, then adding 15-minute cat naps every four hours throughout the day to aid wakefulness. Others find success in sleeping four hours, then waking for an hour or so to do a quiet activity, then returning to sleep for an additional four hours. Evidence exists that this was the norm for our human ancestors. In the end, finding the individual sleep cycle that works for you is most important. If you find you wake regularly after four hours of sleep, consider getting to bed an hour earlier, then adding an hour of quiet wakefulness to your nighttime routine; alternatively, get up after four hours and add short naps to the rest of your day.

Bonus Tips

These additional tips for a better night’s sleep were provided by the expert herbalists at Gaia Herbs.

1. A nourishing beverage

At the end of a long day, take a few minutes to sip on a warm drink. Try golden milk, a traditional calming, anti-inflammatory beverage. To make it, heat milk over low heat. Once hot (but not bubbling), whisk in 1 teaspoon each of turmeric powder, powdered ginger and cinnamon, plus black pepper (1⁄2 teaspoon or to taste—it tastes good and aids absorption of turmeric). Turn off heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of coconut oil and honey to taste. Or, consider a tea formulated for sleep enhancement.

2. Essential oil blend

Try creating a sleep-inducing blend with the following essential oils: 9 drops marjoram essential oil, 8 drops vetiver essential oil and 14 drops of lemon essential oil. Combine these oils with 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil and place in a diffuser a half hour before bed, or use this blend as a calming bath or massage oil.

3. Work on your adrenals

Healthy adrenal glands are important for our bodies to effectively manage stress and in turn aid in getting good sleep. Consume foods such as avocado, coconut, nuts, seeds, cheese, beef and free-range chicken to help support your adrenals, or try taking a supplement such as Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health Nightly Restore, which helps the body repair and restore as you sleep.

Find more tips on how to achieve a restful night's sleep:

Sweet Dreams: 4 Nutrients for Sleep
Sweet Dreams: Herbs and Natural Treatments for Insomnia