10 Tips to Restore A Healthy Sleep Cycle

If you are having trouble sleeping on a nightly basis, you know how poor sleep affects your days. However, there are simple steps to take to get real results. By definition a chronic sleep problem has developed over time, so it will take some persistent effort to get better. Here are 10 sleep tips to get you back to a consistent, healthy and normal sleep pattern.

TIP #1: Set a regular time to get up every day, including weekends. The actual time you choose doesn't matter that much, but being regular about it does. If you have to get up by a certain time to make it to work 4-5 days a week, then that is going to be your wake-up time workdays and weekends. The human body, like the squirrel body or the bear body or the chrysanthemum body, dances with rhythms of the natural world. We need to get into that dance and move in regular rhythms to become regular in our responses.

TIP #2: Set an intended bedtime. This should be the same every night so that you can be certain you are allowing adequate time in your schedule for sleep. I say “intended” because you may not be sleepy at the same time every night, and you should only try to sleep when you are sleepy. Designate a time when all else will be laid aside and sleep will be the priority and given the respect it deserves. Post your bedtime in your PDA. Set an alarm clock in the living room or kitchen that will proclaim your bedtime as surely as the one in the bedroom proclaims your wake-up call.

TIP #3: Allow enough time for sleep. Most humans need close to eight hours of sleep per night. Studies reveal that those who average less than 6 hours a night die younger. Sleep is a vital opportunity for the body to heal, restore and to clean up tissues, organs and systems. Without enough sleep, simple maintenance functions may not get completed.

TIP #4: Create a bedtime ritual. A warm bath, snuggly jammies, teeth brushing, a bedtime story, reciting hopes and gratitude, a kiss and then turning out the lights. Sound familiar? Child or adult, doing the same things every night at the same time serves as a signal to your body that the chance for sleep is approaching so it can gently reset and get ready for sleep tasks. The quiet relaxing nature of pre-bedtime activities gives you an opportunity to shift gears mentally and emotionally, as well.

TIP #5: Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. When you walk into your bedroom at the end of a full day to start your sojourn to slumber you should receive one message only: Sleep. (Okay, two: Sleep and intimacy.) If you walk into your bedroom and see a treadmill, a computer, a TV, a telephone answering machine, a pile of bills, a pile of laundry, a pile of anything other than pillows, your brain is getting mixed messages. With so much distraction the brain doesn't know what you want or intend. Move everything out of your bedroom that does not relate to or promote good sleep. Choose your favorite restful colors. Hang pictures that remind you of relaxed times and places. Make it soft like a hug and quiet like a sanctuary.

TIP #6: Get out of bed if you can't sleep. In the beginning, when trying to reset your sleep patterns and retrain your responses, you may find that even though you have set regular hours, followed a relaxing bedtime ritual and gone to bed in a tranquil cocoon, sleep still doesn't appear on demand. If you find yourself awake in bed and getting upset about it, get out of bed. Whether this is at the beginning of the night, the middle of the night or in the hour before the alarm, do not teach your brain that it is acceptable to be awake in bed. If sleep is obviously not there, get up. Go to another room and do something quiet and restful until you feel sleepy. Then go back to bed and try again. If you wake up as soon as you get back in bed, then get up again. Repeat until you fall asleep easily.

TIP #7: Control your environment. You will sleep better if it is dark. The brain gets one of its biggest clues about when to sleep from the daily changes in light. Melatonin, the most famous sleep hormone, is only produced when the surrounding light begins to fade. Melatonin production can be shut down by as little as seven minutes of light exposure. Streetlights, nightlights, the glow from a computer screen, TV or even the alarm clock can be cutting into your ability to produce adequate melatonin to fall asleep, stay asleep or get back to sleep.

Keep it quiet. This can be a challenge in some neighborhoods, but good earplugs can be transformational. Turn off the TV, or better yet, move it out of your sleep sanctuary all together. The flashing lights and quick dialogues, often with varying volumes between shows and commercials are just the opposite of the environment required for healthy sleep to develop. When your ears pick up human voices, your brain wave patterns change to alert status. This is not what you want if you are trying to sleep.

Temperature affects sleep too. The ideal temperature range for sleep is between 72 and 58 degrees. Try lowering the bedroom thermostat a couple notches or trade your blanket for a lighter one.

TIP #8: Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and drugs near bedtime. Caffeine keeps the brain's alerting system turned on. The effects can last up to 9 hours. That means a diet cola at 3pm may be what's keeping you up at midnight. Nicotine has similar alerting effects. While alcohol can lead to relaxation and quicker sleep onset, your liver has to change it into other chemicals before it can be safely eliminated. One of those chemicals has stimulant properties similar to caffeine and you will have some difficulty getting back to sleep until the new chemical is cleared from your system. Recreational and pharmaceutical drugs can alter sleep patterns in surprising ways.

TIP #9: Eat well to sleep well. To do anything well, including sleep, the body and brain need adequate, clean and appropriate fuel. Avoid large portinos, spicy, fatty or rich foods near bedtime. Dinner should be finished at least 2 hours before your intended bedtime to allow time for initial digestion. Lying down with a full stomach is an open invitation to heartburn.

TIP #10: Don't worry about it. Worrying about sleep, stressing over it and making it bigger than is has to be won't help. One of my favorite tricks is to perform a nightly “brain dump.” Sit down each evening and write out everything you would normally be worrying about in bed. This might include big stuff like how to pay the mortgage, smaller stuff like remembering if the tires need rotating, as well as stupid stuff like wondering if your favorite summer shirt will still be in fashion next year. After writing furiously for 10 minutes or so, the scribbling will come to a stop on its own. Later, in bed, when those worrisome thoughts start to come up you can say, “No, I wrote you down, so I don't need to think about you right now.” It really works!

Patty Tucker, PA-C, sleep coach, consultant and adjunct faculty of the Family Sleep Institute, is a graduate of the Stanford School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program and has been a medical practitioner for over two decades. Since 2001 she has specialized in sleep medicine. Visit www.familysleepinstitute.com.