We’ve all experienced wakeful nights, but for some, insomnia is a chronic condition. Sleep eludes them frequently for months or even years. They struggle to fall asleep and wake often during the night. When morning comes, they don’t feel rested and rejuvenated and are often tired throughout the day.
Insomnia has many causes, and there is no single solution to sleep problems. If you experience extended insomnia, you should consult a medical professional, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances of falling asleep and getting a night of high-quality rest. Here are five activities that may be preventing you from getting that much-needed shuteye:
Eating to Excess Before Bed
No one wants to go bed hungry, but eating a large meal immediately before you turn in can keep you awake. In the late evening, your body’s circadian rhythm begins to prepare you for sleep and releases sleep hormones, such as melatonin, to regulate the transition to sleep.
Studies have shown that eating heavily late at night disrupts the circadian rhythm and prevents winding down. Additionally, eating fatty and other hard-to-digest foods can kick the digestive system into high gear, further disrupting sleep.
As a general rule, you should eat your evening meal several hours before you go to bed. If you’re hungry when bedtime arrives, try opting for a small, low-fat snack: fruit, poultry and crackers with cheese are particularly good.
Consuming Caffeine and Alcohol
Everyone knows that it’s a bad idea to knock back a couple of espressos before jumping into bed. Caffeine is a stimulant; it fights against your body as it prepares for sleep. It raises your heartbeat and increases alertness — precisely what you don’t want when you’re trying to fall asleep.
The impact of alcohol is not as intuitive. Alcohol does make people sleepy, and too much can knock you out altogether. However, just because it’s not uncommon to enjoy a nightcap before bed doesn’t make it a good option for people suffering from insomnia.
The problem with alcohol is that, while it may make you sleepy, it also disrupts your natural sleep pattern. You might fall asleep more quickly, but you will spend less time in the deeper phases of sleep and more time in REM sleep. You might think you’ve spent a restful night, but it’s low-quality sleep that doesn’t rejuvenate and revitalize.
Exercising Before Bed
Does exercise tire you out or amp you up? This is another one that makes intuitive sense but can actually be counterproductive. If you have an intense exercise (specifically HIIT-type training) immediately before bed, your body won’t release sleep hormones as it regularly does. Instead, it’ll release stimulating hormones because of the strenuous activity. While the workout may tire you out, the quality of your sleep will likely be impacted.
However, exercise does help with sleep if it’s done at least a couple of hours before you go to bed. Lack of exercise is a significant contributor to sleep problems. If you live a sedentary lifestyle and struggle to sleep, make an effort to exercise for half an hour each day.
Ignoring Your Sleep Routine
Your body likes routine. It has a built-in clock (your circadian rhythm) that tracks the hours of the day. The circadian rhythm influences when sleep hormones and neurotransmitters are released. It’s basically the same in everyone — in fact, it’s the same in most diurnal animals — but it can be influenced by behavior.
If you go to sleep at the same time each night, your circadian rhythm adapts (although it’s not totally flexible). But, if your bedtime varies frequently, your body gets confused; it doesn’t know when to start preparing you for sleep.
Strictly adhering to a sleep routine is one of the most effective cures for sleep problems. Decide when you want to get up and go to sleep. Follow the same pattern every day, including weekends. Your body will eventually adapt, and you will begin to feel sleepy at bedtime and wake up naturally.
When you struggle to sleep at night, it is tempting to take a nap during the day. Whether that’s a good idea depends on how long you nap for. Short naps of ten to twenty minutes generally don’t hurt, but longer naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night, as well as decreasing the quality of nighttime sleep.
If you enjoy napping, keep it short, and don’t nap late in the afternoon. A post-lunch snooze is ideal, but any later risks exacerbating sleep problems.
If you’re having issues with sleep, analyze your daily routine to see if any of these activities could be what’s holding you back from prime REM. If insomnia persists, talk to your doctor or another qualified medical professional to find out the root cause, and get you on track for some quality shuteye.
Aaron Goldsmith is the owner of Transfer Master, a company that has built electric adjustable hospital beds for the home and medical facility since 1993. He started with a simple goal that hospital beds should allow wheelchair users to transfer independently in and out of bed. 25 years later, his customers are still at the center of everything he does.