You might think having difficulty sleeping is just a part of getting older. With a never-ending to-do list, increased stress, and the advent of new aches and pains that seemingly pop up out of nowhere, it could feel inevitable – and maybe even normal or expected – that you’ll have trouble nodding off at night.
Except, it actually isn’t normal at all. It’s true that many of us struggle with getting the recommended 7-8 hours of nightly shuteye. But often, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep is the result of a series of lifestyle choices that snowball together to yield night after night of tossing and turning.
Over time, this can add up to all kinds of problems, such as fatigue, trouble concentrating or remembering, moodiness, low motivation, and energy.
So how can you nip your sleep problems in the bud? Here’s what you need to know for how to sleep through the night naturally and wake up refreshed in the morning.
Reasons You Wake Up at Night
There are all kinds of things that can disrupt your sleep. It’s not uncommon to get struck with a bout of short-term insomnia in the face of major stress, illness, or severe pain. Changes to your normal sleep schedule, like jet lag or a different work schedule, can make it harder to nod off, too.
Sleeping trouble can be the result of some medical issues, also, like asthma, allergies, or acid reflux, and of course, sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea. In these cases, it’s usually a matter of finding a solution to the root of the problem before you’re able to truly achieve deep, restful sleep.
The Issues with Sleeping Pills
While sleeping pills may seem like a quick fix when you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s easy to build up a tolerance to their sedative effects. Over time, it’s also common to become dependent on sleep medications, which lowers your confidence in your body’s ability to sleep and can make insomnia worse.
Maintaining a Consistent Sleep Cycle
Consistently practicing good sleep hygiene is so important. Try to establish an appropriate bedtime that allows you to get enough sleep to feel well-rested when you wake up. For most people, the prime bedtime for getting a full night’s sleep is between 10pm and 11pm.
We’ve all fallen victim to the weekday/weekend snooze shift – but the constant schedule change and effort to catch up on missed sleep is destroying your chances for a solid night of quality shuteye.
Make Exercise a Priority for Better Sleep
If you’ve ever spent the day doing absolutely nothing in front of the TV, you know that by late afternoon, you usually end up feeling even more sluggish than you did when you first sat down on the sofa. As a result, it’s usually quite difficult to asleep at night.
Active people tend to sleep better – of course, there’s an obvious reason for this: moving around wears you out more than sitting still does. Exercise helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety among people with insomnia.
You don’t have to run marathons or spend hours in the gym every day to reap the benefits. Moderate exercise like walking, jogging, or riding a bike for 20 minutes a day is a great place to start.
Harness the Power of Natural Light
The body’s internal clock is dictated by the 24-hour cycle of day and night. When the brain senses changing light cues, it tells your body to produce more or less of the sleep hormone melatonin. During the day, you produce less melatonin, so you feel energised and alert. At night, you produce more melatonin, so you feel sleepy.
That’s why natural light exposure during the day can help you sleep better. but if the only time you see the sun is when you’re walking to or from your car, you might not be getting enough. Furthermore, the light that comes from electronic devices suppresses the production of melatonin, so you end up feeling energised when your head hits the pillow rather than sleepy.
To increase your odds of sleeping better, maximise your exposure to daytime natural light and minimise your exposure to night-time short wavelength light (e.g., blue light) as much as possible.
Use Naps Throughout the Day to Your Advantage
A daytime nap won’t necessarily make up for not sleeping enough at night, but it can boost your mood and alertness, as well as give you the energy that you need to get through the rest of the day.
Short naps (around 20-30 minutes) earlier in the day can be a tool to help keep your sleep cycle from getting thrown off. Avoid napping too late and if you struggle with insomnia, don’t do it. Experiment with different ties and lengths to find the naps that leave you feeling refreshed and replenished, but that still let you sleep at bedtime.
Eat Healthy Foods to Promote Sleep
We all know that steering clear of caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime can significantly up your odds for having a good night’s sleep. Certain foods can help you sleep even better:
- Kiwi fruit
- Brazil nuts
Have a Bedtime Routine, and Get Comfy
A bedtime routine doesn’t have to complicated – simple activities such as taking a warm bath, reading a book, journaling, and stretching, work just as well. Bedtime routines serve 2 important purposes:
- They’re meant to be relaxing, so you naturally start to feel calmer and less alert.
- They form a behavioural association, giving you the signal that it’s time for sleep.
It is very important that your environment is comfortable, so make sure to keep it cool, dark, quiet, and avoid electronic devices when getting ready for sleep.
Advice From the Experts
Most of us experience cycles of non-rapid eye movement/rapid eye movement (NREM/REM) sleep every 70 to 90 minutes across a typical night of sleep, and we usually wake after REM sleep. Many of us wake and then fall back to sleep without noticing. However, some of us remain awake for a short time before sleep returns. This “bi-phasic sleep” (waking twice during the night before falling back to sleep) or “poly-phasic sleep” (waking multiple times and then falling back to sleep) seems to be the natural pattern. It is well documented in the pre-industrial era, is found today in societies without electric light, and has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments.
So, we need to rethink our interpretation of “insomnia” and disrupted sleep. Research suggests that if we wake, sleep is likely to return if it is not sacrificed to social media and/or other alerting behaviours. The key point is that waking at night need not mean the end of sleep. If you wake, don’t get stressed. Stay calm. Some find it useful to leave the bed, keep the lights low and engage in a relaxing activity such as reading, listening to music, then returning to bed when sleepy again.
Cool air gently blowing over the face and those flushed cheeks, ideally from a nearby fan, is the most effective way of keeping us cool during hot nights, as it’s the brain, rather than the rest of our body, that really matters and needs to keep cool to provide for better sleep. Sleep is by the brain largely for the brain and is why there is more to this cooling that might at first seem.
The underlying mechanism is a natural, temporary diversion of some of the blood leaving the brain to our red and perspiring cheeks, allowing that gentle breeze to cool (mainly through sweat evaporation) the cheek’s blood that then drains into the large internal jugular veins either side of the neck. The key, here, is that these veins run alongside a carotid artery carrying blood to the brain from the heart, and like a cold-water pipe running right next to a hot pipe, the now cooler jugular vein can absorb heat from the carotid, thus indirectly reducing the temperature of the brain’s blood supply, allowing for a cooler brain to aid uninterrupted sleep. By the way, another benefit of that fan is the potential calming effect of its quiet hum.
When in the morning after a night’s sleep we ask healthy adults who are good sleepers how often they woke up, the answers vary but average about two times. These are the awakenings we remember. When we record brainwaves during sleep, we find that good sleepers may wake up much more frequently, up to 20 times, and most of these awakenings are very short and not remembered. So, waking up during our sleep isn’t something we should consider atypical or something to worry about. However, the number of awakenings correlates negatively with how we experience the quality of our sleep, and when they become too frequent or too long it may point to a sleep problem.
How to reduce the number of awakenings? Common sources are:
- Environmental – noise, too low or too high temperatures in the bedroom, light, snoring bed partners
- Physiological – need to go to the bathroom, sleep apnoea, reduced sleep pressure
- Lifestyle-related – alcohol, coffee
- Internal mental processes, worries about all the things that can go wrong tomorrow. Many of these sources of awakenings can be targeted and this will make it more likely that you sleep through the night without waking up too many times