Get Some Sleep! 5 Tips to Bust Through Insomnia and Improve Your Mental Health

If you find yourself struggling to fall or stay asleep, you’re not alone. Insomnia, the chronic inability to get sufficient sleep, is a common problem affecting millions of Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 study, more than a third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep on a daily basis.  Sometimes this is because you can't fall or stay asleep, and sometimes sleep deprivation is part of a lifestyle that is purposeful (such as staying up late to study or watch TV) or necessary (such as waking every few hours to care for an infant). Lack of sleep is not only at the root of serious medical conditions like obesity (just 4 hours of sleep deprivation causes you to eat an extra 900 calories), high blood pressure and heart disease, but getting a decent amount of sleep on a regular basis is crucial to your mental health. Here are five things you can do to get better sleep:

1. Just Two Things in Bed Make sure that your bed is used only for two things: sex and sleep. By using your bed almost exclusively for sleep, your body will associate your bed with rest and relaxation, making it easier to fall asleep.  If you are having difficulty sleeping, resist the temptation to stay in bed tossing and turning because this will cause your brain to associate your bed with the stress of sleeplessness.  Instead, leave your bedroom altogether and read or relax in a different setting.  When you start to feel sleepy you can return to your bed.

2. Exercise Regularly Getting regular exercise (the recommended thirty minutes a day, five days a week) will help you promote healthy sleep habits. Your post-exercise temperature may promote falling asleep, and exercise in general will help eliminate insomnia by decreasing arousal and anxiety.

3. Eliminate the "Usual Suspects" - Naps, Caffeine, & Alcohol Short naps are helpful for some, but for others it impacts their ability to fall asleep. If you’re struggling with insomnia, avoid naps during the day. Caffeine, a known stimulant, may keep you up longer than you’re aware. You may need to limit or avoid caffeine entirely if it prevents you from falling asleep. And, while alcohol is a sedative and may help you fall asleep initially, it disrupts your sleep by disregulating your blood sugar.  When you drink alcohol it raises your blood sugar for several hours, and then it crashes as your body attempts to recreate homeostasis. This causes cortisol, the stress hormone, to flood your brain and body and create a wakeful, "high alert" state, which is the opposite of what you need to sleep!

4. Create a Nighttime Routine & Pro-Sleep Environment Creating a regular nighttime routine will help your body get into the habit of winding down and relaxing as it prepares for sleep. Create a nighttime routine an hour or two before bed. Maybe have a glass of warm tea, do some gentle stretching, change into your pajamas and read a book every night before bed.  You will start to associate your routine with sleep and bedtime.  Make sure you go to bed around the same time every night too, including weekends.  You can also create a pro-sleep environment by keeping your bedroom on the cooler side (70 degrees or lower), and eliminating all sources of light, such as light from electronics.

5. No Screens Before Bed Probably the most important thing you can do before bed is to avoid all screens.  This includes TV, computers and smart phones.  The blue light from the screens hits your retina signaling your brain and body that it is "daytime," resulting in the suppression of melatonin, the hormone your body produces to signal and promote "the sleep and repair mode" of your 24 hour cycle.  Instead, your body will be flooded with cortisol, resulting in a disrupted and restlessness night's sleep.  The good news is that you don't have to give up watching TV or using your computer at night!  You can avoid exposure to blue light by wearing "blue blocker" glasses, which can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $14.  The connection between light and mental health is so powerful that I will devote my entire next blog post to this topic.

Changing old habits and establishing a new routine is never easy. But as you make changes and sustain new practices, it will get easier. Before long you’ll have a new set of healthy habits, and you can finally settle in for a good night’s sleep.