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I’ve been experimenting with natural sleep remedies for a couple of years now, and it occurs to me that there should be a post regarding basic sleep hygiene – the core of everything to do with good sleep. This has got to be the center of whatever you do, so adding tones and hypnosis and meditation probably won’t do squat if you haven’t laid a solid foundation.
A Note About Sleeping Pills
What I’m going to say here is about all the sleeping meds you might possibly take – from prescription benzodiazepines like Valium or Ativan to over-the-counter aids like Advil Nighttime. They are all band-aids to sleep – not cures for insomnia.
Sleeping pills don’t address the underlying issue, they just mask it. All they tend to do is postpone the inevitable – which is to come to grips with your actual insomnia.
As if this wasn’t enough – some sleeping pills have a nasty side effect of causing additional insomnia (called rebound insomnia) when you try and wean off them after a short (say, 1 month of continuous use) period. The benzodiazepines are famous for this – and it took me over a year to finally wean off the Ativan I was on for sleep.
Most of the sleeping medications (prescription and non-prescription) have a next-day hangover effect. Sometimes this hangover is worse than insomnia it set out to treat.
If you’ve been on a sleeping med continuously for more than a month or two, and you need it to get to sleep, your brain is at work fooling you. You have already built up a tolerance for the medication, and the reason you “need” it is psychological, not medical. Your brain craves the “fix” of the sleep med, and it refuses to sleep without it. Chances are that if you toughed out the “rebound insomnia” from withdrawal from the drug, insomnia would be gone.
Occasional use of sleeping pills when you have a night of insomnia isn’t that big a deal. It’s only when you start to rely on them for getting some sleep that they become a problem.
If you really want to treat your insomnia long term, then sleep hygiene is the very first place to start…
SLEEP HYGIENE 101
There are about eleven basic things you can do tonight to set the stage for any other sleep management activities you want to add. These could be considered the essential few activities you should focus on at first:
- Start a sleep log. At first, it can be really simply – a matter of writing down on a piece of paper beside the bed “How Did I Sleep Last Night” and give it a score from 1-10 alongside the date. As you start experimenting with the steps below, you can add some additional data (I find a spreadsheet is a straightforward way to monitor all this).
- Use the sleep log (or another, separate notepad) as a place where you can write down anything that’s on your mind throughout the night. Somehow, when we write stuff down, we tend to stop the “mind chatter” about it.
- This may seem silly, but it works. Get up at the same time every day, including weekends. And don’t fool yourself that going to bed extra early actually means more sleep. For an insomniac, it could mean “more staring at the ceiling.” One of the advanced techniques to battle insomnia is to set an early morning wake up (every day) with a late-night bedtime (i.e.: 1am bedtime at 6:30am rise time).
- Identify your bed with sleeping and with sex. That’s all. No reading, no watching TV, no working, no nothing. The reason we do this is to get our brain to start associating the bed with sleep. This will only happen if we do this from here on in … it may take a few weeks for our brains to understand this.
- This is about your bedroom. It needs to become a place of refuge. That means it cannot be too warm (cold is better). It should be neat and uncluttered. It needs to be dark and quiet at night – use white noise of some kind if it isn’t silent. Make sure that the bed is comfortable, and the blankets keep you a constant, welcoming temperature all night – not too hot, not too cold. The lowering of our body temperature is one of the cues to start sleeping, so if the room is cold, it helps. Just as long as you are warm under the covers.
- Turn off the TV, the computer, and the smartphone about an hour before your bedtime. They all produce blue light, and that kind of light tells your brain that it’s morning, not night-time. I would think that an actual book or a Kindle would be just excellent (no reading on your iPad).
- Get some exercise every day – 30 minutes minimum. You need to make this a habit so that you feel really guilty when you don’t do it. Take a walk or ride a bike if you can’t do anything more energetic. Don’t get this exercise too late in the day (within 4 hours of bedtime) because it increases your body temperature – and we’re counting a lower temperature for night.
- De-stress at night. Bedtime is not the time to have an argument with your spouse or to think a lot about that big meeting at work. Figure something out to deal with this stress at bedtime. This is actually where meditation can become part of your routine – if that’s what it takes to eliminate the stress, then that’s what you need to do. Some people find that simply writing down their worries before bedtime helps them to “forget” them for a few hours.
- Kick the pets out of your room. Whether you realize it or not, a pet on the bed, or in the place anywhere, can be very disruptive. Even when you think they have no effect on your sleep, they probably do. See if there is some way to make them comfortable elsewhere in the house where you cannot hear them as they move around during the night.
- Establish a night-time routine. Item #6 (no TV) should be a part of this routine. Again with the brain – the intent is to teach it that there’s a ritual of sorts that we go through every night, so it can associate this ritual with going to sleep. Make sure that part of your routine includes turning down the lights as you approach bedtime – it’s the night!
- Get some sunlight in the morning – wake up and open the drapes. Eat your breakfast by a window that gets direct sunlight. If it’s dark and gloomy where you are, invest (or make) a lightbox. Note that your average living room’s light level is about 50 lux. The average office can be up to 300 lux. Sunlight can be up to 130,000 lux!
- Don’t watch the clock! Turn the clock away from you so you can’t see it. There’s nothing worse than waking at 3 am and knowing it’s 3 am.
THE NEXT FEW
Once you have those first eleven covered, there is some “fine-tuning” you can do to either increase the effectiveness of basic hygiene or add an entirely new component.
- You can use binaural and isochronic tones to help both targets the insomnia centers in your brain and to maintain focus you in the process of meditation. Both activities can leverage your ability to de-stress at night (or any time during the day). They’re readily available on the web for your smartphone or MP3 player – and generally, cost $1-$2. If you want to really dive into the meditation end of things.
- Focus on what you eat and drink in the evening. There’s some thought that eating a light snack that’s high in carbohydrates and proteins (not fat) a couple of hours before you sleep can help. Limit the entire meal to about 200 calories – examples would be some yogurt or a bowl of cereal and milk. Of course, drinking too many fluids or overeating food too close to bedtime will only increase the chances that you will be up in the middle of the night visiting the washroom. And/or gaining weight!
- Experiment with some of the “natural” plants that are said to help induce sleep. These include Valarian, Lavendar, and Kava. There are others, too, but these seem to be the most popular ones.
- Try melatonin as a sleep aid. Although this isn’t a natural supplement like Valarian or Kava, it is a naturally occurring hormone in your body. Its production is triggered by darkness (so it’s called the “darkness hormone”) and turned off by light. It appears to be quite safe, and some people swear by its efficacy.
These fifteen tips should be an excellent start to your basic sleep hygiene – even though some of them could be considered “advanced.” They are (with the possible exception of melatonin) completely holistic and should have no ill effects whatever – so experiment with them and see what happens – trust the sleep log!