Do you have difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep at night? This problem can be an occasional nuisance, or a chronic, debilitating condition that interferes with daily life. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to breakdowns in immune system function, fatigue, poor concentration, poor memory, depression, and other problems.
Here are several ideas you can use at home to help you get a great night’s sleep:
1. Turn off the TV or Computer: If you have difficulty falling asleep, it could be due to overstimulation. Surfing the net, chatting on facebook, or watching a high-energy TV show doesn’t allow our minds and bodies to unwind and relax in preparation for sleep. Also, In Oriental Medicine, it is said that too much “looking”, (as in staring at digital screens), negatively affects the energy of the Liver, and the Liver’s function of “Storing the Blood” helps us to fall asleep at night. (This is also why it can be helpful to lie on your right side when going to bed; the Liver is on the right side of the body.)
Instead, turn off the computer and TV an hour before bedtime. You can spend the time taking a relaxing bath, reading a book, listening to soft music or an audiobook, or drinking some chamomile, catnip or other herbal tea. (Note: avoid chamomile if you are allergic to ragweed.)
2. Use Aromatherapy: adding the essential oils of lavender or vanilla to your bath before bedtime can help calm the mind, as can spraying some on your pillow or bed sheets.
3. Stick to a Consistent Bedtime: Parents know that babies and children are happier, sleep better and behave better when given a consistent and structured schedule. The same is true for our adult bodies which have built-in rhythms that work better when we create a consistent schedule for ourselves.
4. Try a Sleep CD: Some people find they can’t sleep because of too many thoughts circulating, as if the mind is in a hamster wheel. In this case, it can be useful to try a sleep music CD or app. There are CD’s of music specific for helping you to fall asleep. Or you can just play any soft, soothing music (without words) that pleases you, at a low volume. Music gives your mind something to focus on, to get it out of the hamster wheel. Some artists that I like for this purpose are Steve Gordon, Deuter, Anugama, Dean Evenson and Tim Wheaton.
5. Journaling: If the Sleep music isn’t enough to calm your mind, perhaps you would do better to journal before bed. Write down all those thoughts that are circulating, so that you can, essentially, “get them out” of your head. Once they are on the paper, your mind can relax. At this point, the Sleep music may be more effective. This can also be a good tool to use if you wake up, and are unable to go back to sleep due to over-thinking.
6. Avoid Caffeine, Nicotine and Alcohol After 4 pm: Avoiding coffee and energy drinks in the afternoon and evening should be obvious, but caffeine is also found in chocolate, black tea and green tea. Also, many over-the-counter pain, cold and allergy medications contain caffeine. Alcohol and nicotine, though they may initially help you fall asleep, can disrupt the deeper sleep cycles.
7. Don’t go to Bed Too Full or Too Hungry: Try to allow 2 to 3 hours between your last meal of the day and bedtime. Going to bed with a very full stomach can cause restless sleep and poor digestion.
If you are very hungry before bed, try a small snack of banana, dates, figs, whole grain crackers or 1/2 grapefruit. These contain tryptophan, which helps induce sleep. (By the same token avoid bacon, ham, sausage, cheese, chocolate, eggplant, potatoes, sauerkraut, sugar, spinach, tomatoes, and wine before bed, because they contain tyramine, which is a stimulant. Incidentally, many of these will also cause nighttime heartburn.)
8. Try this Breath Technique: When you are lying in bed, wishing you were asleep, practice this useful technique: Get into a comfortable position and turn your attention to your breath. Breathe in normally, and when you breathe out, instead of controlling it out slowly or forcing it out, just let it go: Let all the muscles go in your chest and throat and body. The breathe will come out in a short, audible puff. Then, at the bottom of the out-breath, you can hold for a few seconds (however it feels natural) before taking another normal breath in. Continue to focus on inhaling normally, and just letting go on the exhale. Many people find that they can fall asleep within minutes of starting this technique.
9. Call for an Appointment: If you try these ideas and are still struggling with your sleep, please call for an appointment. You likely need to get the underlying cause of the insomnia diagnosed with Oriental Medicine and treated with a series of acupuncture sessions and the appropriate herbal formula.
Dawn Balusik, AP, DOM