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If you’re just not sleeping well, there are some pretty effective things you can do to make it better

It’s been said that the biggest single cause of insomnia is lying awake worrying about not getting to sleep. Actually, from all that I’ve read on the subject, there seems to be a lot of truth in that.

Like most people, I do have the occasional sleepless night and what I’ve found on sites like the Mayo Clinic and the National Sleep Foundation all seem to stress one particular piece of good advice. The main take-aways seem to be “don’t sweat it if you miss the odd night’s sleep here and there” and, maybe more important, “don’t let one or two sleepless nights knock you off your normal sleep cycle.”

The trap that people fall into, according to the experts, is basically that you have one or two sleepless nights, which causes you to change your sleep patterns and which, in turn, causes you to have even more sleepless nights.

For example, the day after one of those nights, you might feel very tired and drowsy in the afternoon or early evening and decide to take a nap. You sleep for an hour, but you wake up feeling more tired than before, and you’re also unable to fall asleep again when you go to bed later.

Or, the day after, you find yourself tired and worn out in the evening and decide to go to bed a couple of hours earlier than normal. You fall asleep – but wake up again at 1 AM and toss and turn the rest of the night.

Either way, changing your sleep pattern has turned one sleepless night into a much bigger problem.

The thing to do, it seems, is first of all not to worry too much if you just can’t get to sleep some nights, and second of all to make sure you stay on your normal sleep cycle no matter what. If you normally get up at 6 and go to bed at 11, stick with that. This also applies on weekends if you’re tempted to sleep in until 9:30 on Sunday morning to “catch up” on your sleep – you could end up paying for it twice over that night when you can’t get to sleep at your normal bedtime. (Apparently sneaking in an extra hour or so on weekends is considered okay, but not too much more than that if you’re struggling with sleep on weeknights.)

When you’re not sleeping, you’re not as effective at work – not to mention that you feel awful all day. And then you worry about not being effective, not getting things done, and feeling awful. Which keeps you up. So the main thing here is to break that cycle.

Of course, there are lots of other things that can make a difference. The Healthy Sleep program at Harvard University – in addition to stressing the importance of maintaining regular sleep patterns – has a number of tips.

  • Of course, you will want to cut out the caffeine (or at least limit it to one or two caffeinated drinks early in the morning). You certainly don’t want to be drinking coffee or caffeinated soft drinks in the evening.
  • Don’t eat a big meal within a few hours of bedtime, and particularly steer clear of high-protein meals within a couple of hours of bedtime. If you need a snack, it may be best to stick with dairy and carbs.
  • Exercise during the day, get outside for a walk or a run, and get some fresh air and sunshine. (Daytime sunshine seems to be important in overall sleep patterns.)
  • Avoid doing a big workout, or other intense physical activity, in the evening.
  • Make sure your bedroom is ideal for sleeping – dark, not to hot and not to cold, comfortable bed, good mattress and pillows, quiet, and so on.
  • Try to get into a regular routine leading up to bedtime and sleep. Read a book, watch TV, take a bath – whatever de-stresses and relaxes you.
  • If you can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie there fretting about it. Get up and do something restful and relaxing, such as reading. Try to keep the lighting low, because bright lights can make it harder to get sleepy again.

One thing that I find really important is to keep the electronic distractions out of the bedroom – no cell phone messages beeping all night, no e-mails that can’t wait until morning, no worrying about what I might be missing.

Of course, there are some sleep issues that go beyond the occasional sleepless night or two. Sleep apnea, which we have discussed here before, chronic insomnia and other medical issues should be assessed by a medical professional.

In other words, if nothing is working for you, it may be time to see your family doctor. But for most of us, most of the time, paying attention to good sleep habits will make all the difference.

Sleep well.

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