Thirty percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic insomnia. They struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night. People who live with a mental or physical disability find it even harder to sleep well. Less than half of the disabled population sleep the recommended 7–9 hours each night.
Insomnia and sleep deprivation affects our physical and mental wellbeing. Sleep-deprived people struggle to concentrate and experience impaired memory and judgment. Constant fatigue exacerbates mental illnesses and mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Insomniacs live with an increased risk of strokes, obesity, heart disease, and other health issues.
Sleeping pills provide some relief, but they are a short-term solution with undesirable side effects. Medical experts are reluctant to prescribe sleeping pills, preferring behavioral, environmental, and psychological remedies.
There is no magic bullet for sleeping problems, and you should consult a medical professional if you experience long-term difficulty falling and staying asleep. However, many people find that changing their behavior and following a sleep hygiene routine alleviates insomnia and helps them to sleep better.
A Sleep-Promoting Audio and Visual Environment
Visual and auditory stimuli (sights and sounds) affect sleep in two main ways:
- They influence our body’s natural sleep timing system, which is called the circadian rhythm.
- They influence our psychological state, relaxing or exciting us.
Ideally, we should spend the hours before bed in a calming low-stress environment. Light, color, and sound contribute to creating an optimally relaxing space.
Color is particularly important. Blue light tends to disrupt the circadian rhythm, and white light often has a large blue component. Yellow, orange, and red light are the least disruptive, and green light has only a small effect. You can learn more about colors and sleep in Do Colors Affect Your Sleep in Different Ways.
Sound may have even more of an effect on sleepiness, both in the hours before sleep and when you go to bed. You should avoid sounds that excite or stress you, but if you struggle to quiet your mind while falling asleep, calming podcasts and music provide a point of external focus.
White noise has also proven effective at promoting sleep. White noise includes all the frequencies we can hear at the same intensity. If you’re often kept awake by noises in your home and outside, white noise can help to muffle them. We took a closer look at how white noise, nature sounds, and music promote sleep in 3 Sounds to Help You Sleep Better at Night.
Accessories That Can Help You Sleep
The Princess and the Pea is the story of a princess whose sleep is disturbed by a single pea beneath her many mattresses. It’s a fairy-tale exaggeration, but millions of people know that even a small discomfort can keep you from sleep.
Your bed and mattress play a critical role here. The mattress should support your body evenly without bumps and lumps. A high-quality foam mattress is particularly crucial for bedridden people and those with mobility limitations. Uneven mattresses contribute to pressure sores as well as sleeplessness.
Your bed should be comfortable and easy to use. Stress and physical exertion undo the groundwork you lay with your sleep routine. For non-disabled people, a well-made consumer bed should do the job. But people with mobility and strength limitations may need an adjustable home hospital bed that can help them get into bed and find a comfortable position without physical exertion.
Other accessories that could help you sleep include:
- Pillows of the right height and firmness. Pillows help to align your spine correctly while you sleep. If your pillows keep your head in the wrong position, you may experience increased snoring, worsened sleep apnea, and pain in your back and neck.
- Blankets with adequate insulation and weight. Your body prefers to be slightly cooler than usual while sleeping, so too much or too little insulation might keep you awake. Weighted blankets are heavier than normal, and many people with anxiety, pain, and insomnia find that they provide relief and help sleep.
- Curtains that block as much light as possible. If you live in an area with bright street lights or intermittent security lights, a black-out curtain will help you to achieve complete darkness, blocking the light that may keep you awake.
- Eye masks If black-out curtains don’t work for you, an eye mask is an even more effective light-blocker. They’re also great for day-time naps, although too much sleep during the day may lead to disturbed sleep at night.
- Humidifiers Low humidity can cause breathing problems, painful sinuses, and an increased risk of infection. A humidifier adds moisture to the air, creating a more comfortable sleep environment.
Because sleep is so vital to maintaining your physical and mental wellbeing, it is often worth investing in a few sleep-promoting accessories to create an optimally comfortable space.
Develop a Sleep Hygiene Routine
Sleep hygiene is the habits and behaviors that can help you get a good night’s sleep. People with insomnia often develop bad habits that set them up for a sleepless night. They may not be aware that their evening routine sends contradictory signals to their body, causing it to delay the circadian rhythm or prepare for exertion rather than relaxation.
A sleep hygiene routine is a list of good sleep habits that you stick to every night. The goal is to work with your body’s hormonal and nervous systems, rather than against them.
Sleep routine essentials include:
- Avoid bright lights, especially blue light. That includes screens such as smartphones and tablets.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. A sleep schedule trains your circadian rhythm so that your body produces sleep hormones at the right time.
- Exercising during the day. You will sleep better if you are physically tired. However, avoid too much exercise in the hours before bed because it can suppress sleep hormones.
We wrote a lot more about sleep hygiene in Best Practices For a Deep and Restful Sleep and What Is Good Sleep Hygiene for Someone Who Has Limited Mobility?
Food and Drink to Help You Sleep
Food and drink affect your body in complex ways. They influence everything from the state of your digestive system to the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, including those that promote sleep and wakefulness.
As a general rule, you should not eat a large meal late in the evening. If your stomach is full and your digestive system on high alert, you will struggle to fall asleep. Even if you nod off in a postprandial lull, it will be low-quality sleep, and you will wake up unrefreshed.
On the other hand, nor should you go to bed hungry. A light snack before bed is better than being woken in the night by hunger pangs, but stick to protein-rich snacks and avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine. Eating fatty or spicy foods before bed is also unwise.
Can food help to make you sleepy? There is evidence that some foods supplement the hormones and neurotransmitters we need to sleep. They include whole grains, rice, barley, and walnuts. We wrote all about sleep-promoting foods in Are There Foods That Help You Sleep Better?
As for drink, thirst is as bad as hunger. Stay hydrated and keep a bottle of water close by. You may find that an alcoholic nightcap helps you fall asleep faster, but alcohol disrupts deep sleep, so you will wake up less rested. Many people enjoy a relaxing glass of milk before bed, and milk contains tryptophan, an essential precursor to the neurotransmitters that influence sleep.
Finally, there are many myths about food and sleep that simply aren’t true. If you think turkey is a world-class soporific or nightcaps are a good idea, take a look at 5 Sleep-Related Food and Drinks Myths Debunked.
Relaxing Pre-Sleep Activities
In the hour or two before bed, relaxation is the name of the game. Your body responds to the environment and what you do. You set the expectations, and your body creates the conditions to fulfill them. A heavy exercise session or stressful last-minute Slack chat sends the wrong message entirely.
Here are some wind-down activities that will let your body know that bedtime is on the horizon:
- Meditation or prayer. Meditation and some types of prayer are ideal for a soothing end-of-day de-stress.
- Gentle exercise. Heavy exercise should be avoided, but the gentler forms of yoga, tai chi, or other stretching exercises may calm and center your mind.
- Reading. Take a novel or magazine to bed and spend a few minutes reading. Paper and e-ink are better than backlit screens for pre-bed reading. Screen light is terrible for sleep, and the ever-present social media temptation is unhelpful too.
- Listening to music. Many people find that listening to relaxing music or nature sounds is the ideal chill out. Tastes differ, but the goal is to de-stress, so gentle classical or ambient music will yield better results than thrash metal and speedcore.
Natural sleep remedies that work with your circadian rhythm are more sustainable than sleeping pills and other artificial sleep remedies. We hope the ideas in this article help you get a peaceful night’s rest, but if you find that sleep eludes you for more than a couple of weeks, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help.
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