As someone who struggled with falling asleep from time to time, my aspiration was to understand how to sleep better.
I have a panic attack – a type of anxiety disorder – and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night from panic. There were times when I got out of bed with a racing heart in “fight or flight mode” only and it takes a while for me to calm down enough to get back to bed. Sometimes I have a little hamster on high alert, racing on its cog in my head from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. A metaphor for my thoughts.
Fortunately, there are ways to prepare you for sleep success.
At Women’s Health we hosted an event with sleep expert Dr. Dale Rae, whose current research focuses on studying sleep and circadian rhythms in relation to overall health and athletic performance. Dr. Rae is also the director of sleep science at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
7 hacks to help you sleep better
Below, I’ve made a list of hacks and tips that I got from Dr. Rae, and we continue to research in this area.
1. Set up your sleeping environment for success
Take a look at your bedroom. Does it exude comfort? What about security? And is it a place where you can really relax? Small adjustments to your bedroom can help you get a better quality of sleep. Notice all the noises that can be fixed: that creaking door, the shutters, a ticking clock. Think about fragrances too. Perhaps light a candle or get a diffuser that will create soothing scents for the room. We all know lavender is a win!
2. Check your lighting
Are your curtains dark enough? Are there any flashing or distracting lights in the room? Make sure you minimize artificial light. Another great idea is to invest in a twilight simulator light that works for bedtime and mornings and adjusts the light levels in your room over time so you can relax and wake up.
3. What is your temperature?
Contrary to what you might think, we have trouble getting a good night’s sleep when we are too warm. I know – you think “but it’s so easy to doze off on the couch in the sun”. That said, it’s hard to stop when you’re too cold! Your body heat peaks in the evening and then drops to its lowest value while you sleep, so a cool 16-18 ° C is the ideal temperature in a bedroom. Temperatures above 24 ° C are likely to cause restlessness, while a cold room of around 12 ° C makes it difficult to fall asleep.
My solution is to have a lighter comforter in the summer and a heavier comforter and blanket in the winter. I also like to put a hot water bottle in my bed in winter to warm up the bed linen. I also use a portable air conditioner for those scorching evenings in the summer.
4. Put your phone aside
A great way to calm the mind is to turn off the overstimulation. Many of us take our laptops and cell phones to bed to play games, reply to text messages, and scroll through TikTok. But beeps, buzzes, and even the tiniest lights can destroy the body’s circadian rhythm. So try to put your phone or laptop aside when you relax. And avoid overstimulation!
I started putting my phone in my nightstand drawer. I also have a couple of books on my bedside table so I try to read one of them instead while I relax.
5. Avoid stimulants
Caffeine late in the day or alcohol or sugar can mess up your sleep. I make my own rule not to drink caffeine after noon. When I’m tired, I have more water (often we’re dehydrated and that makes us lethargic). While a few glasses of wine can help you fall asleep, it often disrupts your sleep after a few hours. Hello hamsters!
6. Establish a bedtime routine
I’ve set up a routine to tell my body it’s bedtime. I make a cup of black rooibos or chamomile tea every night. Yes, I travel with tea bags. And that’s part of my bedtime.
When I have a stressful day or a period of high anxiety, I practice yoga and meditation for 10 to 20 minutes before bed. Gentle, light stretches and mindful breathing can help you relax physically and mentally. As a qualified yoga teacher, I can recommend some postures to try to relax your body and mind.
Here is a quick, beginner-friendly yoga sequence I created:
Try this too: 14 Yoga Stretches To Do If You Want To Relieve Anxiety And Find Peace
7. Examine your bed
The biggest investment you can make in your sleep hygiene is investing in a good mattress. We’re all different and have different likes and dislikes when it comes to what feels comfortable. But knowing what really works for you isn’t always easy unless you spend some time “sleeping on it” – am I right?
There is a local South African company called SLOOM that has invested in an adjustable mattress. This is how it works: Inside each Sloom mattress there are two interchangeable foam layers, each with two sides with different levels of comfort. So that means four different comfort options. Place the clearly marked layer of your comfort choice face up on top.
I have tested the Sloom mattress and I am thrilled! I have a queen bed and the advantage of that size is that the mattress can be split for independent comfort. So you don’t have to argue with your bed partner if you have different sleep needs. Just customize each side to suit you!
They also offer a 100 night sleep sample. Click here for more information.
I now also sleep with the Sloom Pillow, which is breathable so it doesn’t get too hot. Bonus!
CONTINUE READING: The 10 best sleep apps to help you fall asleep faster and sleep through the night
This is how you go back to sleep
It is important to note that sometimes the above methods do not completely prevent a poor night’s sleep during periods of high stress, but certainly do it less frequently. So if you find yourself in a state of anxiety at 3 a.m. or with a little hamster on your brain, here are a few ways to calm yourself down in the moment:
- Do a breathing exercise. Focus on your breath and take longer inhalations and exhalations to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. One pranayama I try is: inhale through my nose until counting to four; hold your breath until counting to four; and exhale through your nose to count to four. Focusing on your breath helps calm your mind and body.
- Listen to a meditation. I know it’s not always easy when you have a partner. I plug in one of my little earphones, roll it over to my other side, and listen to a meditation or sleep story from the Calm app.
- Diary. If the above two methods don’t seem to help anyway, I sometimes get up and write down my thoughts and stressors. This helps me to feel more in control and to “sort through” the problems in my head.
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