When you are tired but can’t sleep, there is nothing worse than lying awake trying. Here we explore how to fall asleep and how to sleep better.
To sleep well is such a gift, leaving you feeling energised and revived. Sleep is also essential in supporting your health. It is the time when your mind and body repairs and recovers.
” A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book”Irish proverb
We all know what it is like to feel scratchy-eyed, moody and unable to focus after even one night of too little sleep. It feels really debilitating to feel tired all the time. There are also multiple studies that link regular poor sleep with serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
So it is important to be able to sleep well. The good news is that there are some tricks to help train your mind and body into a better sleep pattern.
1. Regular Sleep Hours
You only need to have experienced jet lag to know that keeping regular sleeping hours helps you sleep better. Then there’s that groggy feeling of getting up early for work after a break. Once you are back in a regular rhythm it is so much easier to get up at the same time, or sleep at the same time. The universe, our planet and our bodies all have a rhythm. Light and dark, day and night, the seasons, all affect our body rhythms.
How to sleep better?
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day for a few weeks. Sorry to say that means weekends and ‘days off’ too – certainly until your rhythm is back on track.
- Avoid late nights and lie-ins. You will just knock your body clock out and need to start again.
- Avoid napping in the day. You need to be tired to sleep. Your brain also needs to get into a regular habit of sleeping at the right time.
2. Empty your mind
If you are busy stressing about tomorrow’s to-do list when you head off to bed, it’s going to keep your mind whirling. Unresolved issues, anger or worrying about things you have to remember won’t help either. If it’s not something you can resolve before you go to bed, your subconscious brain keeps looking for a resolution. It will keep on trying to help.
If you keep a notebook and pen by your bed you can get it all out of your head. Your brain can then release it for a while, safe in the knowledge that all those things to remember will be there waiting fresh for tomorrow.
Writing can release pent up emotions and help crystallise your thoughts too. You may not have worked it all out yet, but writing may help release your brain from worrying for now.
How to sleep better?
- If possible try to talk about what is on your mind with a friend or partner during the evening
- As part of a wind down ritual, write your to-do list for tomorrow before you go to your bedroom
- Leave a notepad and pen by your bed. If you can’t sleep, or you wake up panicking about something you have forgotten, you can download it there rather than keep thinking about it.
3. Slow your breathing
There is an excellent yoga based breathing technique that has been shown to trigger your nervous system into relaxation mode.
Once it is triggered through slower deeper breathing, the whole thing kicks in to slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure and calm your mind ready for sleep. Your brain stops trying to be in panic fight or flight mode and allows rest and recovery.
It is known as the 4-7-8 technique. The important part is the proportions. It makes sure you really get rid of all the carbon dioxide out of your lungs too. This is the part that is toxic to humans.
How to fall asleep?
Try this exercise 4 or 5 times as part of your wind down ritual before bed:
- Take a really deep breath through your nose to the count of 4
- Hold your breath to the count of 7
- Slowly and forcefully expel all the air out of your lungs. Do it through pursed lips so that you can hear it, to the count of 8
4. Body Scan
Taking your mind out of thinking mode can be easier said than done.
Mindfulness techniques have been shown to help. One of these is something they teach soldiers in the army who need to be able to sleep quickly, anywhere. It is supposed to take only 2 minutes. Try it for yourself. I love it and never seem to get to the end.
How to fall asleep?
Try this ritual tonight:
- Lie in your favourite sleeping position and close your eyes.
- Starting at the top of your body and working down, gradually and one by one, focus on and relax each of your muscles.
- First focus on your head. Consciously relax each muscle in your face, your jaw, your tongue, your forehead, the muscles around your eyes, your neck.
- Then moving down your body one side at a time, sense your shoulders, arms, hands. Relax each one actively as you go, observing the tightness dropping and melting away.
- Muscle by muscle work down the rest of your body, relaxing as you go until you get to the bottom of your feet.
- If you are still awake, keep breathing slowly and deeply. Picture a quiet happy place. They suggest lying in a canoe on a calm lake under a blue sky, or gently swaying in a dark hammock. You may have another favourite place.
- Don’t think. Just be.
- You can repeat the exercise if you wish.
- If you are awake, then repeat slowly and steadily in your mind: ‘Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think…’
5. Essential Oils
As an aromatherapist I have plenty of first-hand experience with the best essential oils for sleeping. Remember that essential oils all have very different properties dependent on the plant they come from. So you do need to know which are the right ones to use. You don’t want to be using one that is energising at night time. There are some though that have been shown to have sedative properties, while others help reduce anxiety or relax muscles.
The best essential oils for sleep?
Just about everyone has heard about Lavender for sleep. However, you may not know that the amount of the calming ingredients in the Lavender totally depends on where it grows; a bit like the way wine tastes completely different dependent on where the grape grows.
The best Lavender for calming the mind and inducing sleep is grown at high altitude. So you are looking for High Altitude Lavender (Lavandula Angustifolia) written on the bottle. It will be grown in the mountains of Kashmir or the French Alps. This one also has a far superior aroma to normal Lavender grown at sea level in my view.
Now this one doesn’t have the most pleasant smell. It has a very earthy, almost muddy scent. Some even say a little like old socks. Don’t let this put you off though if you seriously want some deep sleep.
You will notice Valerian is used in natural sedatives and night-time teas due to its sleep inducing properties. The essential oil is the highly potent version (not for internal use). Valerian Root is the one I have found most effective in countering jetlag and always take with me on long haul journeys.
This gently soothing oil is great for helping to calm anxiety and quieten your mind. Mental agitation is often one of the main reasons for not being able to sleep.
The one you are looking for is Roman Chamomile (Anthemis Nobilis). The other one you commonly find is blue in colour and called German Chamomile. That one is better for soothing the skin. The Roman Chamomile is best for soothing the mind.
The quickest way to experience the effects of essential oils is inhaling them.
You can either:
- Put a neat drop of one or all of the above onto a tissue next to your pillow
- Use a Lavender Pillow Spray that contains natural essential oils. Ideally a blend that includes the 3 oils above.
- Use a blend that has been diluted for use on your skin. There are some great roll-on options. You just roll onto the back of your hands and wrists and inhale deeply using the breathing method above. Try MIDNIGHT CALM blend by Emotiv Aromatherapy which includes High Altitude Lavender, Roman Chamomile and Valerian Root, as well as Vetiver, also known as the Oil of Tranquility.
6. Hot bath
Sleep studies have shown that the process of the body cooling down also triggers sleep. So your body actively cooling after a soak in a hot bath creates the perfect environment for sleep. The warmth of the water also relaxes your muscles which helps as part of a wind down ritual.
As a double dose of sleep encouragement, include some those sleepy aromatherapy oils in your bath. Do remember though that essential oils are extremely potent and do not mix with water. To use safely, dilute a total of 6 drops of essential oil with a tablespoon of base carrier before adding to the bath water. This can be olive oil from your kitchen cupboard or a liquid soap.
7. Sleepy foods
It is advisable not to eat too late before bed for many reasons including better sleep. Also choose what you eat and drink as your evening meal, to encourage sleep. Magnesium rich foods can be helpful because magnesium is a relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline.
Foods to avoid for sleep?
- Caffeine, including green tea, coffee and caffeinated fizzy drinks like Red Bull and Cola
- Spicy foods
Best foods for sleep?
- Turkey contains tryptophan which supports sleep chemicals in your brain
- Sour cherries (or juice) are rich in 4 different sleep-regulating compounds
- Almonds contain high levels of magnesium and calcium – minerals that promote muscle relaxation and sleep
- Warm milk can be a comforting nightly ritual that is also rich in tryptophan and calcium
- Chamomile tea is a traditional remedy for insomnia and well known for it’s mentally calming properties
8. Light and dark
Light activates the wake-up response in our brains, particularly any blue toned light. Although we know this to be true, it is worth remembering and taking steps to avoid light at night. Even tiny amounts of light can disrupt sleep.
- Use Black-out curtains or blinds to keep your room dark
- Remove all sources of light such as TV standby lights and alarm clocks from your bedroom
- Don’t use a tablet, computer or smart phone in the hour before bed, or if you must then only if it has a ‘night mode’ which blocks blue light.
- Make a point of getting daylight into your eyes first thing in the morning
- Dim the lights in your home during the evening
- Use yellow tinted glasses that filter out ultraviolet light in the evening
9. Create a bedtime ritual
You can gently train your subconscious mind to know that it is time to sleep. The best way to do this is by creating a wind down ritual for yourself. Something that your mind and body will subconsciously associate with the routine of sleep. Something that you do the same each night.
We know that babies can be trained into a sleep pattern. We know that Pavlov trained dogs to know when it was time to eat by ringing a bell. We can do the same for ourselves by creating associations with sleep. For me, a lying position with dimmed lights flicks my sleep switch on, even when it is on the sofa trying to watch a good film on TV. Just an association, but it has ruined many a good film!
Wind down ritual for sleep
- Set a bed time and stick to it
- An hour or two before bed, have a bath and change into your pyjamas and some cosy socks
- Make a point of preparing your room ready for sleep: turn down your bed, close the curtains, make sure it is cool and put on a gentle side light
- Turn your phone off and put it on charge in a different room
- Roll on a deeply peaceful aromatherapy blend such as MIDNIGHT CALM and inhale with the 4-7-8 breathing ritual. Using the same sleepy scents each night will help with sleep association
- Make a cup of chamomile tea or warm milk
- As you drink, just quietly jot down anything your mind is holding onto. Release it, leaving your brain confident it doesn’t need to think about it anymore as it will be waiting there the next day if still required.
- As you get into bed, use a sleepy pillow spray on the edge of your pillow
Then turn your light out, get into your most comfy sleeping position and allow your mind to do the body scan.
10. Medical issues…
Lastly, there may sometimes be medical issues that need to be addressed if you have chronic long-term sleepless nights. These could relate to physical pain waking you, chemotherapy side effects, magnesium or vitamin B12 deficiency.
Always consult a doctor regarding any medical condition or if you are taking medication. The suggestions in this article are not intended to replace qualified medical advice.
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