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The 5 Things I Do to Help Ensure I Get at Least 7 Hours of Sleep

I feel so much more rested!

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illustration of woman sleeping amongst the clouds
Ana Galvan
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I once slept for eight solid hours. Just once. A year ago. I woke up feeling like someone I barely recognized. Someone more optimistic and energetic. Someone who didn’t want to crawl into a cave by 4 p.m. It occurred to me, is this what feeling truly rested is like? All I know is, I wanted that feeling again.

I’ve suffered from insomnia for most of my adult life. Sometimes, it takes the form of having trouble falling asleep. Most of the time, though, it manifests as waking repeatedly in the night: 3:30 a.m., 4 a.m., 5:30 a.m. Making it to 6 a.m. is a miracle. 7 a.m.? Cause for celebration.

Yes, I’ve spoken to my doctor. And yes, I’ve tried some sleeping aids, prescription and over-the-counter. Most don’t work for me. Some leave me woozy the next day. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try them. This is a no-judgement zone. I am saying to definitely talk to your doctors, and make sure they know about all the medications you are taking in case there are contradictions.

For me, exploring natural ways to deal with insomnia was the way to go. Let me admit upfront that if you are looking for a quick fix, this isn’t it. The bedtime tweaks I researched and tried involve behavioral changes that take patience and discipline.

Consider this, though. According to reputable studies, the physical and mental health risks of too little sleep include increased incidence of depression, trouble focusing, memory loss, weight gain, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, to say nothing of general overall crankiness. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) That’s more than enough incentive, right?

1. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT involves a series of guided exercises that change both your behavior (for instance, watching television in bed) as well as negative attitudes about sleep (say, growing increasingly anxious about how tired you will be the next day). Among other suggestions, the program recommends keeping a sleep journal and getting up at the same time regardless of whether you tossed and turned. It also teaches relaxation techniques. Most impressive, CBT has been proven to improve the quality and duration of sleep in six to eight weeks.

Numerous studies, including one published as far back as 2012 in BMC Family Practice, have even shown it can be more effective than medication for treating insomnia. While CBT is typically done with a therapist, online options can also be effective. The Veteran’s Administration has a free app, Insomnia Coach, that will guide you through the process. You can find ways to download it here.

2. Stick to a schedule

Building on CBT, I have found it really useful to make my own prep-for-sleep schedule. My first step is to stop the use of all devices one hour before bed. (I’ll admit this is the hardest for me so I put my phone out of reach.)

Not only can the blue light from screens disrupt sleep cycles, but even just checking social media is not exactly calming. I allow myself one hour of television after that.

At 10 p.m., the screens go off and I read, which helps me relax. I’m not always successful at sticking with the schedule, especially when I’m binge-watching and Netflix tempts me with the next episode. However, when I do stick with it, my sleep definitely improves. One more thing — if you need your phone in the room, remember to put it on silent.

3. Limit liquids

Obviously, you want to stay hydrated, but as we get older, our bladders become more sensitive, which can lead to waking repeatedly in the middle of the night to make a bathroom run. That is not exactly conducive to a good night’s rest. I suggest restricting water and even herbal tea at least an hour before bed.

While we are on the topic of drinking, limit caffeine to before noon (I stop after my second cup in the morning) and skip alcohol before bed. While it may make you drowsy at first, alcohol disrupts natural sleep cycles and increases the likelihood you will wake in the middle of the night.

4. Cool it

According to the Sleep Foundation, the perfect room temperature for sleep is between 60-68°F, with the best number being around 65°F. Experts there go on to explain that our bodies naturally cool down as we get ready to sleep, so lowering the thermostat can help to signal that it is time to go to sleep and stay asleep. Overheating can also interrupt natural sleep cycles.

5. Do a body scan (not the radiology kind, the spiritual kind)

Yes, it sounds a little woo-woo but stick with me. This simple type of meditation can help ease anxiety, stop rumination and generally calm your nerves. There are plenty of free apps that can talk you through a body scan. One of my favorites is the free Insight Timer.

The goal is to get out of your head by concentrating on how you feel in the present moment. Start at your feet. How do they feel against your sheets? Go slowly and let yourself explore this, then slowly move up to your ankles, your knees and your back, until you reach your head. If you find your mind wandering (I often do), just start again. The process usually takes me 10 minutes or more.
Do I have to repeat the process more than once? Sometimes. Does it work? Most of the time. After all, if I’m truly concentrating on the feel of my pillow, I’m far less likely to worry about my to-do list. While we are on the topic of pillows: I have switched to using a silk pillowcase. A splurge? Maybe, but you only need a couple. The smooth fabric feels cool against my cheek and as a bonus, I wake up with fewer creases in my face. And, that’s what I call beauty sleep!

I’ll admit combining all these practices doesn’t work every time. Yes, I still get up in the middle of the night more often than I’d like, but far less than before. And if that happens, I reach for a book, not my phone. Bonus tip: Avoid mysteries that might keep you turning pages to find out whodunnit. I may not get to that golden eight hours again, but I have hit seven hours, and that works for me!

Do any of you have trouble sleeping? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

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