Six Natural Principles of Sleep Improvement

A good night’s sleep is important. Many things as well as pain can affect sleep. The sleep experts suggest most of us need 7-8 hours of sleep per night, but up to 30% of the general population complain of insomnia. These suggestions may help improve the quality of your sleep.

1) Cycles

  • The body has daily (“circadian”) and 90 minute (“ultradian”) cycles of wakefulness and sleepiness, and these can be cultivated and used.
  • The body’s daily cycles are sensitive to daylight and are reset by waking time
  • Ideally these are regular, and lead to regular sleep times
  • Altering them affects sleep (as in jet lag, shift work).
  • Irregular or prolonged napping, sleeping in, staying up late often disrupt sleep
  • Creating a rhythm in sleep / wake activity, night time routines, and ‘catching the tide’; that is, going to sleep when sleepy at night, help to use these cycles
  • If you nap, nap at the same time every day
  • Avoid sleeping in on weekends, or making up lost sleep by sleeping longer.
  • Wakefulness during the night usually happens at the end of 90 to 100 minute cycles in sleep.

2) Relaxation / stimulation

  • Relaxation aids sleep; stimulation is arousing and opposes sleep.
  • Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, exercise near bedtime, anger, anxiety and worry, and interesting activities will all tend to decrease sleep. Avoid these, especially near bedtime.
  • Relaxing practices such as gentle exercise in the evening, vigorous exercise earlier in the day, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques, warm baths, hot drinks (non-alcoholic), gentle routines at bedtime, reading, reducing stress reactions to events, and self-calming can help.
  • Alcohol sedates the body initially, but this wears off several hours later and then it is hard to sleep

3) Connections

  • Bed should be a peaceful sanctuary, not a place associated with wakefulness or discomfort.
  • If you consistently feel uncomfortable, worried, un-rested, awake, distressed, or aroused in your sleep place, it will eventually become harder to relax and sleep there.
  • The body learns to associate certain places with well-being and rest, and others with wakefulness and arousal.
  • Spend as little time in bed awake as you can. Get up if you can’t sleep: don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Stay up: don’t go to bed until you can sleep.
  • Use your bed for mainly for sleep and sex (unless this disturbs your sleep). Other activities should be done outside the bedroom.

4) Comfort

  • We sleep better when we are comfortable
  • Comfort is affected by things like temperature, darkness, quiet, hardness / softness of bed, pillows, pain, hunger/fullness, thirst, and ease of breathing.
  • Make the bed as comfortable as possible by adjusting as many of these as possible.
  • An open window, fan, or a lighter cover can create the coolness many people need to sleep well. Earplugs, window shutters, or a different bedroom (or accommodation!) may help reduce noise. Dark curtains or an eye-mask can create needed darkness.
  • Avoid heavy meals or too many fluids in the evening.
  • Bedding can be adjusted so that there is comfortable support where needed. Preferences here are very individual. Many people find that using several pillows around the body or supporting an arm or leg help. The right mattress can make a difference.
  • Have a glass of water by the bed if you get thirsty.

5) Additive effects

  • Negative influences on sleep add up.
  • Sometimes we sleep well even though one or more of the factors above are present.
  • Sleep may suffer only when enough problems exist at one time.
  • Change in several negative influences may be necessary to improve sleep.
  • The factor which seems to be disrupting sleep may in fact only be one of several. Even if one or more ingredients for insomnia cannot be altered, sleep might be improved by making changes in the other ingredients.

6) Non-resistance

  • Sleep is not usually under voluntary control, so don’t fight it.
  • Trying to force yourself to sleep is counter-productive
  • “Losing sleep” (i.e., worrying) over insomnia is obviously going to make it worse.
  • Accept periods of wakefulness gracefully. Do not let yourself be preoccupied with the fact you are awake. Reassure yourself about your ability to function tomorrow.
  • Don’t watch the clock. Cover it or turn it around. You probably don’t have any appointments to keep in the night. It doesn’t matter what time it is. Set an alarm if you need to get up at a certain time in the morning.
  • by Brian Grady, PhD
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