Twenty one ways to get better sleep

If you are an adult and are sleeping for less than 7 to 8 hours every day, then you are probably sleeping less than you should. True you might quickly adjust to being sleep-deprived and might not notice that you aren’t functioning at a normal level, but lack of sleep really affects you. It can cause irritability, impairment of concentration and memory and decreased reaction time and accuracy. It also affects your resistance to infections and, on the long run, might increase your risk of weight gain, high blood pressure and diabetes. Such problems are especially likely in those who interrupt their sleep hours using an alarm rather than those who wake after less sleep naturally.


July’s issue of 20to70 is about Sleep Hygiene. Sleep Hygiene refers to those practices and habits that help you get a good night’s sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is important for feeling refreshed when you wake up and for remaining alert throughout the day. Interestingly, most of it is under your control. It is important to note that following principles of sleep hygiene might not help you if you are suffering of pain, an illness or if you are taking certain drugs. So, in such cases, it is important that you consult your physician to deal with such conditions appropriately. Also they might not be of great help if you are under stress as the stress of deadlines, exams, marital conflict or job crises. Such conditions might likely prevent you from falling asleep or wake you from sleep throughout the night. The best way to handle them is to, with repeated exposure, develop and adopt a healthier attitude for dealing with stress. This takes TIME.

Lastly, it is important to also note that you will not need to follow any of the advices offered in this newsletter if you are or if you plan to be a dolphin. Dolphins don’t sleep; they don’t sleep at all during the first month of their lives. And even in the second month when they decide to give their brains some rest and sleep, they only allow one half of their brain to go to sleep keeping the other half awake. The two brain halves keep alternating naps in 2 hour cycles until the dolphin’s daily sleep need is fulfilled.  

Now, the following are this issue’s 21 ways that you can follow to get the good amount and quality of sleep that you need…

1. Exercise

Exercise most days, even if it’s just to take a walk. Better would be riding a bicycle, running, swimming or doing any other athletic activity that you like. As little as twenty to thirty minutes of activity helps. You don’t have to do all 30 minutes in one session. You can break it up into two 15-minute sessions. More important than the duration is the timing of exercise. If your aim is to get better sleep, you should exercise earlier in the day. This way you will fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly at the end of the day. Another benefit of exercising early in the day is that you will stay alert for most of the day as exercise will raise the body temperature and will stimulate the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol activates the alerting mechanism in the brain. If you cannot do your exercise in the morning, try to do and finish it at least four hours before bedtime.

2. Nap Early or Not At All


Many people make naps a regular part of their day. However, for those who find falling asleep or staying asleep through the night problematic, afternoon napping may be one of the reasons. This is because late-day naps decrease sleep drive. If you must nap, it’s better to make in the early afternoon and to make it short, no longer than 30 minutes.

3. Caffeine and Energy Drinks

No caffeine or energy drinks should be taken for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime. Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, cola, and some pain relievers, is a stimulant that speeds up the action of not only the nervous system, but of other major body systems too due to increasing the level of adrenaline in the blood. It produces a state that is basically the exact opposite of what you need to sleep. Effective dosage is individual as it is in part dependent on prior usage. Some persons can take up to 250 milligrams of caffeine a day (the average amount in 21/2 cups of coffee) and experience no sleep problems. Others get jitters after one cola. For most people, the effects of caffeine wear off within six hours, so coffee in the morning will usually not interfere with sleep in the evening. Caffeine-containing beverages at lunch may not affect your sleep, but coffee, tea, or cola in the evening is likely to keep you awake.

If you want to get the taste of tea with less of a caffeine jolt, recycle the tea bag. Discard the first cup of tea made from the tea bag, which contains the most caffeine, and make another cup. Also, don’t squeeze the tea out of the tea bag, as these drops of tea contain more caffeine. Try grain-based hot beverages and caffeine-free herbal teas as alternatives to coffee and tea.

The stimulating effects of energy drinks come from stimulants such as caffeine, sugars, and essential amino acids, and they will eventually create a rapid reduction in alertness similar to that of caffeine. Similarly, smokers should refrain from using tobacco products too close to bedtime.  

4. Balance Fluid Intake 

Drink enough fluid at night to keep you from waking up thirsty—but not so much and so close to bedtime that you will be awakened by the need for a trip to the bathroom.


5. Go to Sleep When You’re Truly Tired

Struggling to fall sleep just leads to frustration. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, like reading until you are tired enough to sleep.


6. Foods and Food Habits That Help You Sleep

What you eat affects how you sleep. Some foods contribute to restful sleep (sleepers) while other foods keep you awake (wakers). Sleepers are tryptophan-containing foods. Tryptophan is an amino acid that our body uses to make the two important relaxing and sleep-inducing neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin.


In order to make more tryptophan available to your brain cells for that purpose, you not only need to eat foods that contain this substance, you also need to make sure that other substances, like an amino acid called tyrosine that would compete with or antagonize the effect of tryptophan, are kept out of the way. This is accomplished by eating tryptophan-containing foods and by combining them at the same time with carbohydrates. A high carbohydrate meal stimulates the release of insulin, which helps clear from the bloodstream those amino acids that compete with tryptophan. Some calcium would also help. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods.

For the same reason, eating a high-protein meal (contains all amino acids including tryptophan as well as the competing tyrosine) without enough accompanying
carbohydrates may keep you awake, since tyrosine will preferentially be used by the brain cells and will induce the formation of the alerting neurotransmitters. This is the kind of meal that you’d rather consider for your breakfast and lunch but definitely not for your dinner or bedtime snack. Also, an all- carbohydrate snack, especially one high in junk sugars, is less likely to help you sleep. You’ll miss out on the sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan, and you may set off the roller-coaster effect of plummeting blood sugar followed by the release of stress hormones that will keep you awake. So, the best bedtime snack is one that has both complex carbohydrates and protein, and perhaps some calcium.

Foods rich in tryptophan include dairy products (cottage cheese, cheese, milk), soy products (soy milk, tofu, soybean nuts), seafood, meats, poultry, whole grains, beans, rice, hummus, lentils, hazelnuts, peanuts and peanut butter, eggs, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. It takes around one hour for the tryptophan in the foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until right before bedtime to have your snack.

The ideal complex carbohydrates to be combined with tryptophan rich foods are those that are known to cause a steep rise in blood sugar and hence stimulate more effective insulin secretion. Such foods are termed foods with a high glycemic index (basically a scale of 1 to 100). They will help you fall asleep in half the time you normally do if eaten four hours before bed. Such foods are not recommended for those with diabetes. The most important on the list include Golden Grahams, plain bagel, corn chips, watermelon, honey, mashed potatoes, saltine crackers, Graham crackers, French fries, frozen waffles, grape-nuts flakes, pretzels, rice cakes, cornflakes, instant rice and French bread. 

Finally, there are also, in addition to choice of foods that you eat, certain dietary habits that will give you a restful night’s sleep. The most important of these is having lighter meals in the afternoons. High-fat meals and large servings although they might make you fall asleep faster, yet, all the intestinal work required to digest a big meal and all the gas production and rumblings are likely to cause frequent waking and a poorer quality of sleep. Also avoid highly-seasoned foods (e.g., hot peppers and garlic) interfere with sleep, especially if you suffer from heartburn or reflux disease.

 7. Allow Your Brain to Slow Down Before Sleep

An hour before bedtime, avoid doing any kind of stimulating or stressful activities like critical reading of an article or discussing emotional issues or watching horror movies. These can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness.

Some people develop some kind of pre-sleep ritual to break the connection between any stress and bedtime. This is perhaps even more important for children. It is about engaging yourself in an activity that will ease the transition from wake time to sleep time. You can take a bath. A rise then fall in body temperature induces sleep. You can follow the bath with some light reading or listening to a book on tape.

8. Do You Go To Bed With a Busy Mind?

If you go to bed revising today’s stresses or planning tomorrow’s schedule and reminding yourself of what you should not forget to do, you will not be able to sleep because you will be too busy worrying. Even if you sleep, you will not enjoy a peaceful sleep. Chances are you will wake up several times at night. The best thing is to write down on a piece of paper a list of all the things that are on your mind. This way you will be assured that you will not miss out anything that needs to be taken care of and might be able to enjoy better sleep. Also making some simple preparations for the next day, like laying out the next day’s clothes and shoes may make a difference if you will be attending an important meeting or event.  

9. Bedrooms are for Sleeping Only

It may help to limit your bedroom activities to sleep. Keeping computers, work materials and phones out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep only.

10. Television

Many people use the television to fall asleep or relax at the end of the day. You may even have a television in your bedroom. However, it’s best to avoid television for several reasons. First, television shows and programs are frequently stimulating rather than calming. Second, there are also many commercials which are jarring and louder than the actual program you are watching. Getting exposed to all that stimulating material is just the opposite of what you want to help you sleep. Third, in addition, the light coming from the TV can interfere with the body’s clock, which is sensitive to any light. Fourth, television is also noisy, which can disturb sleep if the set is left on and you fall asleep.

If you are so used to falling asleep with the TV that you have trouble without it, be patient. It takes time to develop new habits. Although the first few days might be difficult, better sleep pays off in the long run.

Back in the seventies in Egypt, there was no such issue of TV interfering with our sleep. At that time, we only had two local channels on TV, channel 5 and channel 9, and both broadcasted their programs from around 5 PM to no later than 11 PM. That might sound funny for today’s generations but I think we were doing better without late night TV programs in those good old days. 

11. Sleep in a Cool Room

Most people sleep best in a room where the temperature is adjusted to be slightly chilly, that is, between 15 and 23oC. Adequate ventilation of the room is also important – a fan can help keep the air moving.

12. Sleep in a Quiet Room

Too much noise – loud outside conversations in the living room, televisions blaring, traffic noise – can make it difficult to sleep well. When the source of outside noise can’t be eliminated, sometimes it can be masked by a fan or a white noise machine. Earplugs may also help although you want to make sure they don’t block out important noises like an alarm clock if you use one.

13. Sleep in a Tidy Room

Keep the bedroom as tidy as possible. It’s not restful to fight through chaos into bed.

14. Sleep in a Comfortable Bed

Make sure your bedroom is equipped with a comfortable mattress and pillows. Remember that most mattresses wear out after ten years. Make sure your bed is large enough to allow you enough room to stretch and turn comfortably.

15. Your Feet Should Be Warm

If your feet are cold, put on socks. Although a cool room is best to induce sleep yet cold feet might keep you awake trying to wrap them in the cover of the bed to warm them.


16. Adjust Your Body Clock by Adjusting the Lights

If you get your needed eight hours of sleep at the wrong time of the day, your sleep will still be relatively inefficient and inadequate. You should always get your optimal eight hours of sleep during the right time of the 24 hours. This is during the night. The reason is that your body has its own natural clock that senses and responds to the light of the day and the darkness of the night. When it senses light, it tells your body this is the time to be awake and when it senses dark, it tells your body it’s time to sleep. This natural clock in your body is called the circadian rhythm. In addition to light, it is also affected by the timing of other factors as naps, bedtime and exercise. An adequately adjusted circadian rhythm is important for your general health and for the optimal secretion of several important hormones in the body.

So in order to keep your circadian rhythm stable and consistent, you need to sleep when it is dark and to stay awake when it is daytime. And to further fine tune your circadian rhythm, you need to limit your exposure to light when it is time to sleep. You can do this by avoiding any bright light in the last hour before you go to bed. For example, it is not advisable that you stare at your laptop in bed at night. Also keep your bedroom dark during sleep hours; use heavy curtains, blackout shades or an eye mask to block light. Studies show that even the tiny light from a digital alarm clock can disrupt a sleep cycle. At the same time, let natural light in first thing in the morning to announce to your body clock that it should move your body to the active daytime phase. Likewise get out of the office for a sun break during the day. Another thing to do to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm is to have a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day sets the body’s “internal clock” to expect sleep at a certain time night after night. Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine even on weekends.

Some people complain that they cannot sleep before 3 or 4 AM and wake up at 12 PM. The solution for this problem is to use an alarm and force themselves to wake up 1 hour earlier and at the same time follow the principles of Sleep Hygiene to sleep 1 hour earlier every day. Every 2 to 3 days they will wake up one more hour earlier and sleep 1 hour earlier until, in 2 weeks, they can manage to sleep at 10 or 11 PM. It needs some effort but for those who try, it always happens in the end.

17. Breathe, breathe, breathe

If sleep won’t come, breathe deeply and slowly until you can’t stand it anymore.


18. Try to Avoid Sleep Medications

If only sleeplessness could be completely cured by a simple pill! There are certainly plenty of over-the-counter sleep aids.  However, these medications are not meant for long term use. They can cause side effects and even rebound insomnia, where your sleep ends up worse than before. Prescription medications are no magic pill, either. If you must take sleep prescription medications, you should not take them without the advice of your doctor. Behavioral modifications often make the largest difference in good sleep.


19. If you wake up in the middle of the night…

If wake up in the middle of the night for any reason, don’t check the time. It is better to assume you still have several hours to sleep than knowing your alarm will be interrupting your sleep after only 45 minutes. And if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep within about 15 minutes, don’t start worrying that you might not be able to fall asleep again as this will make it harder for yourself to achieve sleep. Get up and engage in a quiet activity such as reading. Keep the lights dim; bright light might cue your body clock that it’s time to wake up. When your eyelids are drooping and you are ready to sleep, return to bed. A light snack or herbal tea might help relax you, but be careful not to eat so much that your body begins to expect a meal at that time of the day.

20. Don’t Sleep With Your Children in the Same Bed

Research shows that parents who sleep with their children in the same bed sleep less and have more disturbed sleep. Whenever one of my kids comes to sleep in my bed, my sleep gets lighter as I get conscious to leaving enough space for him. In a while, kicking starts and I end up looking for some other room to continue my sleep.


21. Religious Rituals

Among the most important religious rituals related to bedtime are recitations that keep us close to God. We refer here to Muslim rituals and recitations. Always stick to washing for Prayer “woduu” before going to bed and recite the bedtime Azkar from the Sunna. For those who have been gifted with the Faith, there is nothing else that could induce a better sleep and a better life than doing what makes them closer to their God SWT. There are several Azkar for bedtime. We include here two of them.

The first: In Your name my Lord, I lie down and in Your name I rise, so if You should take my soul then have mercy upon it, and if You should return my soul then protect it in the manner You do so with Your righteous servants

The second: O Allah, I submit my soul unto You, and I entrust my affair unto You, and I turn my face towards You, and I totally rely on You, in hope and fear of You. Verily there is no refuge nor safe haven from You except with You. I believe in Your Book which You have revealed and in Your Prophet whom You have sent.

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