Don't Be a Sleep Failure
Part 2 of 3

In part 1 of Time for Bed, you read about Fred who sometimes goes to bed at 9:00 AM and gets up at 4:00 PM, “I’m a sleep failure,” he says, trying to keep a sense of humor about the situation. But he certainly doesn’t choose to live this way. And his failure to maintain a decent sleeping schedule isn’t funny.

Although Fred works out of his home office as a freelancer and can set his own schedule, his asthma and allergies often keep him up at night. When bedtime rolls around—a normal bedtime—his condition prevents him from breathing freely while lying down. On these nights, rather than trying to sleep sitting up, he works into the night until he’s able to lie down, which often isn’t until the morning. 

And to make things worse, when Fred’s asthma isn’t bothering him, he may try to go to bed only to find his mind racing, still working on all the problems of the day. Once again, sleep evades him.

Whether you’ve got major problems getting consistent sleep like Fred, or simply a few bad habits, you don’t have to be a permanent sleep failure.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

When Fred does sleep at night, he considers himself fortunate if he gets four or five hours of sleep. But he knows he needs more. He’s just not sure how to make it happen.

The National Sleep Foundation notes that individual sleep requirements depend on many things—age, general sleeping habits, how much sleep you’ve lost over a period of time, general health condition—maybe even genetic makeup.

And your own requirements can vary from time to time. Although individual needs vary, most experts suggest a 7 – 8 hour range for a healthy adult while teens usually need between 8 ½ and 9 ¼ hours.

Even if you think you are doing fine on fewer hours of sleep, don’t assume you’re getting what you really need. Let your body be your guide. Dr. Rubin Naiman, clinical psychologist and sleep expert, notes that if you’re getting enough quality sleep each night, you’ll have plenty of energy throughout the day. And although normal energy levels ebb and flow, he explains that you’ll have plenty to complete your day’s activities without wearing out.

If your body says you’re failing to get enough sleep, what can you do?

Go to Sleep and Stay Asleep

In order to conquer your sleep failures, you might need to change some of your daytime habits, as well as some of those you practice right before bedtime. Below, you’ll find a compilation of expert advice for achieving sleep success.

Bedtime Menu

  • Avoid foods that don’t agree with you.  Remember that your body may not react to food sensitivities and allergies for several hours after consumption. So it’s best not to indulge at all, even earlier in the day. But at least abstain within two hours before bed. Getting your sleep is difficult enough without being disturbed by stomach cramps, trapped gas, heartburn—or worse.
  • Don't eat right before bedtime. Fred likes to eat a late dinner after finishing all of his work for the day. Often, he doesn’t eat until right before bedtime. If you’ve gotten into a similar habit, you should change it. It’s best to eat nothing right before bed—especially grains and sugars, which spike your blood sugar levels and can delay sleep or cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.  However…
  • Try eating a high-protein snack several hours before bed. Follow it with a small piece of fruit or other light carbohydrate snack a little later on. The protein provides L-tryptophan, which helps your body produce the melatonin it needs during sleep, while the carbs help your brain use the tryptophan. Try peanut butter and banana or turkey and cheese roll-ups.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Enjoy your coffee or tea without guilt, but taper off by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m.
  • Watch your alcohol intake. Although alcohol can make you drowsy, drinking too close to bedtime may backfire. Its stimulating properties can wake you up in the middle of the night.
  • Avoid bedtime fluids. Don’t drink fluids, including water, within 2 hours of bedtime and use the restroom right before going to bed.

Exercise Your Way to Sleep

If you don’t get regular exercise, you might want to start—for several reasons. One of the benefits of exercise includes better rest at night. Of course, maybe you don’t exercise because you’re too tired from lack of sleep! Sounds like a catch-22? Maybe. But you’ve got to start somewhere. A little exercise when you’re low on energy may be just what you need to help you sleep well tonight and boost your energy tomorrow. Try it. Just don’t sabotage your efforts by working out too close to bedtime. Many authorities suggest morning exercise for the best results.

Let the Sunshine In, Keep the Night Light Out

Since Fred works from home, he doesn’t have to go outside in the mornings. He often enters his office before daylight and then spends most of the day at his desk. He keeps his office lights dim for optimal viewing on his computer screen, and his wife even says she has to remind him to come out of his “cave” for meals.

If you’re an indoor person like Fred, you might improve your sleep by letting a little extra light into your life. If possible, get some sun in the morning and expose yourself to bright light during the day. At the same time, go to bed as early as possible and expose yourself to as little artificial light as possible at night. 

Maintaining this natural cycle of light and dark encourages the appropriate release of melatonin. The production of this important hormone occurs at night but shuts down in the presence of light.  Researchers reporting in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that even exposure to regular room light in the late evening will disrupt melatonin production. (Review melatonin’s purpose in Part 1 of Time for Bed.)

If you wake up and can’t go back to sleep—or if you must get up for a reason—avoid turning on the light. Consider using a night light with a low-wattage yellow, orange, or red bulb, which won’t interfere with melatonin production as much as regular lighting. If possible, stay in bed and don’t worry about the fact that you are awake. The anxiety will only keep you from going back to sleep (some experts say that it’s natural to wake up briefly once or twice during the night anyway). And by all means, don’t look at the clock!

Before Bed

  • Avoid all screen time an hour or two before bed. This includes computer, television, iPod—if it has a screen, discipline yourself and turn it off well before bed. 
  • Stop working. If you’re a student or if you work from home, you might often work right up until bedtime and beyond. But your brain needs adequate time to gear down. When you can, give it an hour or two. If Fred stopped working sooner, his mind might not race quite so much when he goes to bed. 
  • Relax. Perhaps you often go to bed and you think you’re not sleepy. Like Fred, you lie awake waiting for sleep because your mind won’t shut down. All the problems of the day keep running through your head. The real problem, says Naiman, is not a lack of sleepiness but of “excessive wakefulness.” When it’s time for bed, “you’re running too high and too fast.” 

    Dr. Naiman emphasizes the importance of preparing yourself for sleep. “The critical bridge from waking to sleep is true rest,” he says. In other words, you can’t expect to fall asleep easily when you work right up until bedtime or even when you play too soon before bed (recreation is not true rest, says Naiman.)

    Try yoga, a hot bath, reading something calming or meditative, or writing in a journal to clear your mind. True rest allows you to slow down and relaxing activities will provide a necessary transition to sleep.

In the Bedroom

  • Turn off all electronic devices or remove them completely.  Light from these devices, as well as their electromagnetic fields, can interfere with various aspects of sleep, according to the European Sleep Research Society. Cover or otherwise hide your digital clock. Put your cell phone in another room, or at least keep it as far away from your head as possible.
  • Make your room as dark as possible.  Consider blackout curtains, especially if you live near bright streetlights. Or, wear a sleep mask.
  • Keep your bedroom cool. Ideally, 60 to 68 degrees, but no warmer than 70.  If you tend to get too cold at night, try wearing socks to bed since your feet cool off faster than the rest of your body.
  • Drown the Sound. If noise tends to disturb you, try a sound maker.  These gadgets offer a range of natural sounds providing “white noise” to block out disturbances.

Supplements for Sleep

Although it’s always best to check with your health professional before taking supplements, most natural sleeping aids can help you relax safely and without addiction. 

  • Herbal. Popular herbal supplements include valerian root, passionflower, chamomile, and lemon balm. You can also consider one of the homeopathic formulas.  
  • Magnesium. Many health professionals suggest taking a magnesium supplement, which can promote relaxation and reduce night time awakenings. 
  • Melatonin. If you opt for a melatonin supplement, check with your health professional first. Since many on the market are ineffective, it’s essential that you buy one of high quality.
  • Amino Acid. Two amino acid derivatives—theanine and 5-HTP (from L-tryptophan)—have both been proven effective for improving sleep. Do check with your physician before trying either of these as well.
  • No Pills. Avoid sleeping pills and drugs, which can be addictive and often carry the risk of dangerous side effects.

Waking Up

Wouldn’t you like to ditch that annoying alarm? Then do it. Waking up naturally, instead of abruptly, will ensure a complete cycle of sleep. If you start going to bed at the right hour and getting quality sleep, you’ll probably start waking up at the proper time naturally. 

What if you really need an alarm? Try a natural “sun alarm,” which simulates the rising sun, waking you gently and gradually, without disturbing the last stages of sleep. Some of these natural alarms include gentle nature sounds and pleasant aromas as well.

Sleep Routine

Maybe you find it difficult to drop some of your sleep-disturbing habits. The key is to establish a routine that works for you and to stick with it.

  • Keep the same hours, as much as possible, each night and morning. If you need to shift your bedtime and wakeup time, work toward your goal in 15-minute increments each night. Here’s the really difficult part: Keep the same schedule even on the weekends. 
  • Stick to your bedtime ritual.  It may be as simple as bushing your teeth, washing your face, and reading one chapter from a relaxing novel. Whatever you choose, try to follow the same general pattern every night. A ritual signals your body that it’s time for sleep.  Your body will appreciate the routine, especially when you’re away from home in a different environment.
  • Practice some discipline. Don’t slip into bad habits like watching a late TV show every night or chatting with your roommate till the wee hours every morning. Consistency is the key.    

Sleeping in the Real World

Wow! That’s quite a list of sleep rules. In pursuit of sleep success, you could drive yourself crazy trying to follow all of that advice.

But let’s be realistic. You’ve got to live life in the real world. The real world includes bright lights, electronics, late work schedules, and the occasional dinner at eight. And maybe your world includes a glass of wine and a movie with your husband right before bed or a child who wakes you up in the middle of the night.

And of course, you’ll be tempted to break your routine occasionally. A late concert, celebration, or social gathering can really disrupt your cycle. But the occasional night out won’t ruin your health.   

Sometimes you might actually need to break your sleeping routine. Let’s say you have to stay up late to finish an important report for school, because otherwise, you’ll flunk the class. One night of lost sleep would be worth saving your grade. Or perhaps your spouse has to eat dinner too close to bedtime. Do the best you can. Eat as soon as possible and eat light. Dinner with your spouse may do more for your relationship and for your health than ensuring that you never skip a perfect night of sleep. Life can’t always be perfect. Sometimes we have to decide which details are most important. 

Improving your sleep involves more than a list of rules. If you don’t want to be a sleep failure, embrace your sleep as a cornerstone of good health and as something you can enjoy. As Dr. Naiman says, many of us need to “fall in love with sleep again.” As we learn to nurture our sleep, we begin to reap more of its benefits.

So follow the advice that makes sense for you and for your life. Do the best you can and go from there.

And what about Fred?  He doesn’t want to be a sleep failure, and he could use a lot of this advice. But he needs a little more help. And maybe you do, too.

In Part 3, discover help for overcoming underlying conditions that sabotage your sleep and your health. 

Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg


Part 1:
The Importance of Sleep

Part 3:
Five Dream Stealers 

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

A healthy outside starts from the inside. Robert Urich