By | Last Updated: 17 February 2023

Having trouble sleeping? At Tidewater Psychotherapy Services, a significant number of our clients report symptoms of insomnia, including difficulty falling and staying asleep. Unfortunately, insomnia can be extremely stressful with far-reaching consequences, including the worsening of anxiety, depression, job performance, and overall physical and mental health. The simplest way to deal with insomnia might involve heading to the medicine cabinet for a Benadryl or Ambien, but is this really the best we can do? According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the answer is “NO” in the vast majority of circumstances. Rather, cognitive and behavioral interventions are recommended as first-line treatments. There is a time and place for sleep medications, but in all but the most extreme cases, we should first look to natural means for improving our sleep. So, please read on for some of the best ways to naturally improve the length and quality of our sleep.

According to Dr. Rajnish Mago, an internationally renowned psychiatrist, educator, and Director of the Psychopharmacology Curriculum for the Penn Psychiatry Residency Program, there are a number of simple ways to naturally improve sleep. Essentially, these interventions involve training the brain to feel sleepy and awake at the right times, avoiding being overstimulated at bedtime, creating an environment conducive to sleep, and making our bodies comfortable and ready for sleep. With Dr. Mago’s permission, we are happy to share with you some of the specific advice he provides his own clients. Now, step by step, lets’ review how we can effectively integrate these simple sleep improvement strategies into our lives.

Training the brain to feel sleepy and awake at the right times

  1. Stick to roughly the same wake-up time every day, including weekends. It is better to choose a regular wake-up time than bedtime because we can usually force ourselves to wake up but can’t force ourselves to fall asleep. If you struggle to wake up in the morning, Dr. Mago recommends using an app like Alarmy, which forces you to complete “missions” in order to turn off your alarm (e.g., taking a picture of your coffee pot, scanning a barcode next to the bathroom sink, or solving math problems).
  2. If you didn’t sleep well and are tired the next day, fight the temptation to nap. Otherwise, your sleep at night will be worse and the cycle of restless nights and daytime naps will continue.

Avoid being over-stimulated at bedtime

  1. Don’t consume caffeine after noon. Also, limit caffeine before noon. Caffeine has a half-life of about five hours in most people (and closer to ten hours in slow metabolizers!), meaning if you have a cup of coffee or an energy drink at noon, one quarter of the caffeine will still be circulating throughout your body at 10 P.M. We often ask clients about caffeine use here at Tidewater Psychotherapy Services because of its under-appreciated negative impact on sleep. Even if you are a person who can drink a cup of coffee and fall asleep an hour later, we assure you that were we to strap electrodes to your head and measure the activity of your brain, the results would show that the quality of your sleep would be impaired.
  2. Stop active mental work at least an hour before bedtime.
  3. Turn off the TV, close your laptop, and put down your phone before bedtime, because the lights from these screens can be activating. Also, minimize stimulating blue light from your devices by changing their settings so that they enter “night mode” as the sun goes down.
  4. Develop a bedtime “ritual” that you follow on a nightly basis. For example, consider a warm bath or shower, light reading, or listening to relaxing music.
  5. Practice a relaxation exercise or meditation when you lie down for bed at night. Calm and Headspace are good, relatively inexpensive sources for guided nightly meditations, while Insight Timer offers them free of charge.
  6. Don’t use alcohol as a way to promote sleep. Although it may help you fall asleep, your sleep won’t be restful or restorative. No one would confuse a boxer knocked unconscious for someone getting restful sleep, and alcohol is essentially a chemical “knockout”.

Create an environment conducive to sleep

  1. Keep your bedroom dark. Make sure you close the blinds and consider purchasing “black out” curtains.
  2. Keep your bedroom quiet. If closing the door isn’t enough, consider foam earplugs. In extreme cases, such as when your loved-one is a loud snorer and earplugs aren’t sufficient, consider sleeping in a different bedroom. Although sleeping in a different bedroom may seem like a drastic measure and taboo, it can actually lead to healthier relationships and even better sex lives, ironically, when both partners are well rested and revitalized.
  3. Consider a white noise app. Sleeping with the TV on leaves the brain activated during sleep, and a white noise app is more conducive to better sleep.
  4. Keep the bedroom cool. In most cases, about 65 degrees is ideal.
  5. Replace your old, sagging mattress. Mattresses should be relatively firm, while the firmness of your pillow should be based on personal preference and perceived comfort.

Make your body comfortable and ready for sleep

  1. Restrict the amount of your drink before bed if you’re someone who wakes up frequently to use the bathroom at night.
  2. To avoid being too full, eat dinner a couple of hours before bedtime. However, don’t go hungry either. If you’re hungry before bed, have a light carbohydrate snack.
  3. If you’re in pain, take prescribed or OTC pain medication. Pain should not be keeping you up at night, and seek treatment from a pain specialist if necessary.

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