THE BLOG
09/24/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

The Torture of Insomnia: How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

Experts are divided on why we sleep, but the consequences of not getting enough are well-known. Sleep deprivation is an effective torture technique. It's used by cults to break new recruits. It can decrease your life span and it is increasingly being linked to a contributing factor in mental illness. Reams of tips have been written to teach people how get a good night's sleep, yet I often meet people who don't sleep well. Helpful sleep advice understandably frustrates clients of mine who don't sleep well, because it doesn't help them. I've collected some old and new techniques to help those who are sleep-averse.

Most people agree that a good night's sleep leaves you feeling refreshed and restored. By definition, you can achieve this in 7.5 to 8.5 hours. However, sleeping eight hours doesn't guarantee you will awaken feeling refreshed. It's the quality of sleep that's important. Sleeping poorly leaves you feeling irritable, less able to deal with stress, and makes you more likely to make poor decisions.

What works for some people may not work for others, so it's important to try different combinations to see what helps. One technique that's important for everyone is to cue your mind and body when it's time to rest. Having a ritual each night that starts an hour before bed, signals to your body that it's time to relax. Your ritual should include withdrawing from stimulation such as staring at screens, whether TV or computer. It might also include reading (a book, not an e-book), drinking an herbal tea, turning down the lights, or lying down.

If you are extremely sensitive to blue light, the kind of light emitted by energy-saving compact florescent bulbs or video screens, avoid it. Amber glasses called "blue light blockers" filter out blue light. Some people wear them an hour before bed so that the body's natural production of melatonin isn't disrupted. We start producing melatonin about an hour before we fall asleep and we make less of it as we age (which is why seniors don't sleep as well or as much). When we produce melatonin, it makes us drowsy. If you're not creating enough melatonin, taking 1 mg before bed can help you get to sleep.

Taking pharmaceuticals that knock you out do not provide sound sleep, and it's a poor substitute for a good night's rest. Natural sleep aids like chamomile tea or valerian root help relax the body and provide a more natural sleep cycle. It's best not to become dependent on any supplement. Once you have "learned" how to relax and get a good night's sleep, consider dropping the supplements.

Finding time to relax during the day can be a great way to train the body to relax. After all, if the only time you ever relax is when you want to sleep, your body may have forgotten how. Even if you have five minutes at a time, do some breathing exercises and clear your mind. If you find this difficult, then redouble your efforts because you need this the most.

On the subject of breathing, taking a series of deep breaths before sleep is an excellent way to become more relaxed and ready for sleep. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Hold your breath for ten seconds or more. Physiologically, your body responds by slowing down your heart rate. Your brain, deprived of oxygen also begins to stop whirring. When I wake in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, I find I can drop back into a sound sleep if I hold my breath three or four times.

Many people prefer to focus on sound to while going to sleep. There are devices on the market that simulate the sounds of waves lapping on the shore or even a tropical rain forest. Others listen to mindful meditation recordings that help keep troublesome thoughts away. There are many meditation recordings available that might help put you into a relaxed state while falling asleep.

So, to recap, here are some suggested methods of falling asleep:

1. Start a bedtime ritual an hour before going to sleep.
2. Avoid stimulation in all forms.
3. Dim the lights and if necessary try blue light blockers.
4. Relax during the day.
5. Try natural supplements like valerian, chamomile, or melatonin.
6. Do breathing exercises to relax mind and body.
7. Try holding your breath to slow your body down.
8. Listen to relaxing sounds or meditation/mindfulness recordings.

These suggestions should help you lessen your insomnia, but don't expect them to work right away. Your circadian rhythm may be off, and it can take several days for it to adjust. If you are not used to sleeping well you will need weeks and months to train your body to sleep. Try different techniques and see what is most comfortable for you and what works best. Sleep is too important to go without. Make sure you get enough. Sweet dreams!

For more by Bradley Foster, click here.

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