Sleep is an integral component of self-care, yet it can be easily overlooked in a culture that prides itself on being alert, active and awake.
The irony is that healthy sleep can contribute to increased alertness during the daytime. While many individuals have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep from time-to-time, the good news is that there are several natural ways to improve the quality of your sleep.
If you find yourself suffering from insomnia—a sleep disorder characterized by problems falling or staying asleep—despite adhering to the points covered in this article, it may benefit you to consult with a health professional specializing in sleep problems.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to have difficulties sleeping, integrating the following practices into your life can support your health, energy, mood, memory and wellness.
1. Meditate and relax. The practice of mindfulness meditation is an effective method of reducing stress, supporting sleep quality and overcoming the problem of insomnia without reliance upon medication.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and observing your mind and body with openness and acceptance. Being mindful of the body’s sleep signals, such as nighttime tiredness, yawning and spontaneous eye closure, can help you transition to sleep at the right time.
Mind-body practices that facilitate deep bodily relaxation, such as receiving massage, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, breathing exercises and autogenic training, help reduce the arousal and tension that can interfere with sleep. When you lie down, focusing upon sensations of heaviness, softness and relaxation can transport you to sleep. Learning to relax deeply can also reduce the suffering associated with sleep problems.
Mindfulness meditation and the practice of being mindful in everyday life can train you to be present, accepting and nonreactive to the stresses, conflicts and challenges that are a normal part of life. The less emotionally and physically reactive you are, the more you’re able to cultivate a calm mind and a relaxed body. How to sleep through the night? Calmness and relaxation during the daytime can support your nighttime sleep.
Mindfulness will also increase your awareness of how your body, thoughts, emotions, attitudes, behavioral patterns and other experiences influence the quality and duration of sleep.
For example, if you’re someone who is prone to engaging in emotionally charged texting or phone chats during the late evening hours prior to bedtime, mindfulness can assist you in tracking and changing that pattern, if that is your intention.
When you practice mindfulness, you will also become more aware of your negative thoughts and perceptions about sleep. You don’t even have to change your thoughts to experience a greater sense of peacefulness; what’s most important is that you’re aware of your negative thoughts, which gives you the possibility of letting them go or just letting them be and focusing your mind elsewhere.
Further, mindfulness will support you in cultivating attitudes such as acceptance, kindness, compassion, gentleness and non-striving. Acceptance and non-striving are particularly important attitudes, as negative judgments about sleep problems and striving to get a good night’s sleep can activate the central nervous system, which can intensify sleep problems. The attitude of, “I better hurry up and get to sleep” is not recommended.
2. Maintain a sleep-wake schedule and bed boundaries. Sticking to a consistent sleep-wake schedule is one way to positively influence the quality of sleep by normalizing your circadian rhythms, which regulate several key physiological processes of the body, including sleep and wakefulness.
To support the quality of a good night’s sleep, it’s important to create a boundary that limits your bed to two functions: sleep and sex. That means no TV viewing, radio listening, texting, laptop usage and other technological activities while in bed.
Your body and mind can become conditioned to various things. It’s far better to condition yourself to fall asleep in your bed than to condition yourself to stay awake, as is the case when reading emails in bed. If you find yourself awake in bed for more than 20 minutes, get out of the bed and do something relaxing that involves limited exposure to light. Then, return to your bed when you feel tired or after 20 minutes have elapsed.
3. Change your negative sleep story. Understandably, the narrative surrounding sleep disturbances can be anxiety-provoking, negative, despair-inducing and at times catastrophic. Worry, frustration and hopelessness can complicate the picture.
In addition to applying mindfulness to negative thinking associated with sleep disruption, you may also benefit from changing your negative thoughts about sleeplessness. For example, instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to feel terrible in the morning,” tell yourself, “Since I’m awake now, I’m going to just breathe calmly and relax.”
Even if you don’t have problems sleeping, changing your story about sleep can create greater ease at bedtime. For example, watch out for thoughts that make sleep into a necessary evil and instead practice viewing sleep as a natural process that preserves your health, vitality and memory.
4. Exercise. Physical exercise is an excellent complement to the passive surrender required of the sleeper. Physical exercise can relieve stress and anxiety, discharge muscular tension, and prepare the body and mind for sleep.
While it’s not a good idea to exercise strenuously for several hours before bedtime, gentle yoga stretches and the slow movements of qi gong or tai chi can be used to shift you into a slower rhythm during the later evening hours. Moderate exercise can be integrated into your daytime hours to support nighttime rest, relaxation and sleep.
5. Seek social support. Human beings are social animals. We function better emotionally and physically when we’re connected to social support systems. Positive emotional support from family and friends can relieve stress and contribute to a sense of safety and belonging.
For those who struggle with sleep problems, disclosing this issue to a friend, partner, family member, physician or therapist can be an important first step toward greater self-care and healing. Such a disclosure can lead to self-compassion, which allows you to recognize that your sleep challenges can be met with an attitude of acceptance, self-kindness and openness.
6. Consume food and beverages with care. What and how you eat and drink can impact the quality of your sleep. For example, eating high-fat, spicy and high-calorie foods prior to bedtime can disrupt sleep.
What you drink can also impact the quality of your sleep. While alcohol can make you sleepy, moderate to high consumption of alcohol degrades the quality of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the state of restorative sleep that is associated with dreaming. So, although you can fall sleep under the influence of alcohol, the overall effect is not conducive to staying asleep or feeling restored upon awakening.
Drinking caffeinated beverages can be very disruptive to sleep, as caffeine is a stimulant that can contribute both to problems falling asleep and difficulties staying asleep. Although some individuals can drink a cup of coffee prior to bedtime without a problem, that’s not the case for most people. Ideally, it’s best to limit moderate consumption of coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks to prior to noon.
7. Alter your brain chemistry, naturally. Close to bedtime, electronic stimulation in the form of computers, a television and smartphones can greatly disturb sleep. The light from these devices reduces your brain’s melatonin production; melatonin is a neurohormone that regulates your sleep and wake cycles.
One way to naturally manipulate the brain’s melatonin production—without taking a supplement or medication—is to abide by this principle: Light during the day, dark during the night.
Exposing your naked eyes to indirect sunlight during the day is an excellent way of lowering the production of melatonin. A reduction of melatonin is associated with increased alertness, which is normally desirable during waking hours, and can positively impact your mood.
As day turns into night, lower the lights in your home and reduce your exposure to electronic devices. Use blackout shades in your bedroom or a sleep mask to create complete darkness, which will increase your brain’s melatonin production in support of deep sleep.
The biological rhythms of your ancient ancestors were not challenged by the modern technologies of today; yet, that ancient rhythm continues to exert an effect upon your daytime alertness and nighttime sleepiness. If you tamper with it too much, the quality of your sleep can become jeopardized. If you honor your natural rhythms and align yourself closer to the light of day and dark of night, your brain, energy and sleep may very well benefit.
8. Prepare the sleep space. Your bedroom can be a sanctuary providing you a quiet, soothing, nurturing place for letting go of the concerns of the day. Bedroom spaces for supporting sleep are clear of clutter, calming to the senses and not infiltrated by electronic devices.
Remove the clutter from your bedroom. Move computers and television sets to another room; if that’s not possible, cover them with a cloth prior to bedtime.
Day Leads to Night
All of the points covered in this article are about your behavior while awake. Therefore, remember that the royal road to healthy sleep is paved during the daytime. Viewing healthy sleep as a key to self-care is an excellent place to begin this journey.
Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and instructor of qi gong and tai chi. Through his company, Mindfulness Travels, he provides continuing education to massage therapists and psychotherapists. His work on mindfulness and mindful movement has been presented at international conferences and retreats.