The Best Way to Improve Your Sleep: All the Best Advice Summarized

Monday Jan 19 | BY |
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Sleeping Cat

I’m not a good sleeper — never have been. When some people proudly exclaim that they fall asleep like a baby every night and wake up the next day as if nothing happened, I sneer at them. “Pff… I’m so flexible I can go into a lotus position without using my arms. I can even do it under water!” (Which happens to be true).

Of course, I’m jealous of those lucky folks with perfect sleep.

When I was a child, I had nightmares, experienced sleep paralysis (which scared the hell out of me), and sleepwalked.

In my teens, I couldn’t get out of bed.

I’ve always had some kind of recurring trouble with insomnia.

But my goal with sleep is not to sleep like a baby. I think some people are better sleepers than others. My goal is to sleep well enough and long enough to be functional and have enough energy to go through the day. And most of the time, that’s what happens.

My sleep will never be perfect. I’ll have bouts of insomnia. I’ll probably still move a lot in my sleep until the day I die. But as long as my sleep is mostly good, I’d consider it a success!

Trying to improve sleep with books and using the advice of professionals can be frustrating if we expect that we’ll become perfect sleepers.

The idea is more to put all of the chances on our side and become the best sleepers we can! And that is more than we can ask.

A Few Facts About Sleep

While awake, our brain produces small, fast waves called “beta” waves. As soon as we close our eyes and relax, it starts producing longer, slower “alpha” waves. While asleep, the brain produces even slower and bigger waves.

Essentially there are two kinds of sleep: the kind when we’re dreaming and the kind when we’re not.

Scientists call the dreaming stage REM sleep for rapid eye movement.

In a typical night, an adult will experience REM sleep every 90 minutes approximately.

Every period of REM sleep gets progressively longer as the night goes by, which is why we have our longest, most complex and vivid dreams in the early hours of the morning, before we wake up.

Before the invention of the electric light, people sleep on average one hour longer — a little over eight hours a night. We now sleep closer to seven hours.

It’s true that sleep needs vary between individuals. Margaret Thatcher famously only slept 4 hours a night, which put her in the 1% of the population that can get by on this little sleep. Genetic differences can alter the amount of sleep an individual needs. The important thing is not how much you sleep but how rested you feel the next day. If you wake up several times during the night but still feel rested the next day, and have enough energy to go through the day, you may not suffer from “insomnia.”

Read my article for more information on this.

Is There Any Reason to Take a Sleeping Pill, Ever?

Sleeping pills don’t really work long term. They promote dependence, can cause rebound insomnia, and cause other types of side effects, including a “hangover” effect the next day.

But sleep experts will say there is some use for some of these drugs, among the ones that are the least habit-forming.

Sleep experts agree that they can be used effectively only in a few cases:

* After a patient has experienced prolonged insomnia for a period and accumulated a serious sleep debt. Some medicine taking for a few days, max, can help break the cycle.

* As a short-term help to deal with extremely serious events. In the case, for example, of having to deal with a sudden death in the family causing not only extreme grieve but in many cases complete insomnia, a very short treatment can be useful (a few days) to go through this very difficult period without creating a new problem of insomnia at the same time.

If you are ever prescribed sleeping pills and need to take them for whatever reason, err on the side of caution and always take the lowest possible dosage. Ask your doctor to only prescribe you the smallest dose. Don’t think of them as a long-term solution. At best, they are temporary aids for a few days — max.

The Best Way to Improve Your Sleep — All the Best Advice Summarized.

I read at least a dozen books by experts on sleep. I visited a sleep clinic. Yes, I spent a night sleeping with weird wires attached to my body. I’ve heard lots of different opinions on sleep. There is no easy answer on sleep. Here’s the best of what I’ve found.

First and foremost, it’s important to change your mindset about sleep. If you apprehend sleep, thinking that you’re going to again, experience another terrible night, chances are that you will. It’s best to not make lack of sleep too much of a big deal.

Plenty of people have managed to continue their daily activities for years on end on just 5 and ½ hours of sleep a night on average, which seems to be the minimum amount of sleep that most humans need. The stress you are about sleep, the better you’ll sleep.

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep “hygiene” is the general term that sleep researchers and doctors use to evaluate the proper conditions that are conducive to a good night sleep.

This is the first line of defense. While it may not solve every sleep disorder, it will make a difference so you should optimize everything you can in that direction.

Make your bed comfortable. Keep fresh sheets that are not too light, heavy or scratchy. Invest in the right mattress for you, pillow, and bedding.

If you sleep with someone else, is your bed big enough? Make everything as comfortable as you can.

Darkness is conducive to good sleep, because with it comes increased melatonin production — the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Make sure that your room is as dark as possible. Invest in new drapes, if necessary, and use a night mask.

Because body temperature regulates sleep, it’s critical to keep a fairly cool temperature in the room where you normally sleep. The optimal temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 67 degrees.

You can take a hot bath to help you sleep, but not right before bed. If you take a hot bad 90 minutes before your bedtime, your body temperature will rise (while in the tub) but then go in the opposite direction and drop as your body cools itself down. This will help you sleep.

Avoid screens in bed and one hour before bedtime. The light generated by computer screens (including phones) signals our body that it’s not yet time to sleep. Avoid all “screen” exposure one hour before bedtime and at all times in bed.

Avoid texting people before bed. Too much “communication” before bed activates your wakefulness centers in the brain and hurts the quality of your sleep.

Create a sleep ritual. Give yourself time to wind down before you go to bed. You need to transition from “being awake” to “being asleep” by turning off your brain little by little. This is done with a sleep rituals that can include relaxing activities such as: reading a good book (but nothing too serious!), taking a bath, light stretching, turning down the lights, avoiding “screens.” Other elements of your rituals could include anything that you will later associate with sleep, such as making a cup of chamomile tea with a little honey.

Keep a fairly regular schedule. If you wake up and go to bed at different times every day, your body can never find its own, natural rhythm. That’s why “catching up” on sleep on the weekends can create the common Sunday-night insomnia: you’ve now shifted your sleep cycles in the opposite direction and are no longer tired on the night where it matters most that you sleep well!

Use a short nap. A 20-minute nap in the middle of the afternoons can help you function better without affecting your nighttime sleep.

Improve Your Sleep by Sleeping Less…

But as many insomnia researchers have found, the cure to insomnia may actually be found in… less sleep!

Many progressive insomnia treatments now incorporate this practice.

Why?

Many insomniacs spend too much time in bed, thinking that they will eventually fall asleep. If they sleep poorly one night, they go to bed earlier, constantly shifting their routine. But nonetheless, they still spend too much time in bed while not sleeping. Their bed is no longer a “cue” for sleep, but rather a source of frustration.

The goal with sleeping less is to improve overall “sleep efficiency,” which is a term used to describe how well a person sleeps by looking at the ratio of “time asleep” to “time awake” in bed. If you spend 10 hours in bed and sleep for 9 of those hours, your sleep efficiency is 90%, or excellent. Many insomniacs have sleep efficiencies closer to 60%.

To improve it, they should initially sleep less. The technique involves maintaining a sleep log for a week or two, to evaluate how much time they actually sleep when they are in bed. If the average is say, six hours, they should shorten their bedtime to that amount plus one hour, so six hours. Having to stay up for longer will also force their bodies to fall asleep easier.

As they get used to this new routine, they can increase the amount of time spent in bed by 15 minutes at a time, and overtime they will sleep better and improve sleep efficiency.

Other Sleep Tips

  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine. This is very important. Caffeine interferes with sleep quality. In sensitive individuals, even one coffee taken in the early morning will still interfere with proper sleep. Consider going off caffeine completely for 60 days.
  • Avoid looking at the clock. It creates stress around sleep.
  • Keep a sleep log, to evaluate your progress.
  • Some people say: Never try to sleep — get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep for 20-30 minutes. You want to associate your bed with sleep, not with frustration and tossing around. Personally I found that if I wake up in the middle of the night, I will stay in bed for a maximum of 45 minutes before deciding to get up. Usually, I fall back to sleep without noticing it.
  • Use guided meditations — they’ve been shown to be extremely useful to create a state of relaxation conducive to sleep. Many guided meditations are available on CDs or as iPhone apps.
  • Practice meditation or yoga
  • Exercise — your body needs to be physically tired to generate the desire for sleep (recovery). Work up a good sweat during the day. If you’re too tired, try to at least go for a brisk walk.
  • Light therapy — it can improve sleep during the winter season and help alleviate symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). I recommend this lamp.
  • If nothing works, go to a sleep clinic — you may need professional help and coaching. There are many sleep clinics across the country that can help diagnose underlying conditions that may be causing sleep problems.

A Few Supplements That Work

Herbs and supplements for sleep have some of the same drawbacks as sleep medicines. They may work for a while but don’t solve the underlying issues, and your body will get used to them rather quickly. Still, they may be useful in some cases.

Tryptophan

Tryptophan has been used as a supplement to improve sleep but was pulled off the market in 1988, due to adverse reactions in some users.

But it seems like the problem was that the tryptophan was contaminate by another chemical, because its production was outsourced to another countries. It’s still available in other countries, like Canada.

According to Dr. Peter Hauri, co-author of the book “No More Sleepless Nights,” tryptophan can help about 50% of insomniacs. He recommends taking 2000 mg along with fruit juice, three hours after the evening meal and one hour before bedtime.

If you take tryptophan, you should avoid consuming meat, cheese or other proteins at the same meal, as the other amino acids would compete with the tryptophan.

5-HTP

This supplement is also frequently used for insomnia, as it is a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. It’s also used to relieve symptoms of anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and depression. Like tryptophan, it works by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. Dosage is key, so make sure to work with a health practitioner before using it.

Melatonin

I will occasionally use melatonin when travelling, to get used to a new time zone faster.

It’s a hormone that influences our circadian rhythms (the natural cycles in our body that affect our body temperature, and ultimately our sense of wakefulness). Low doses of melatonin (0.3 mg) seem to be effective in pushing circadian rhythms the right way, and that’s why it’s often used to overcome jetlag more rapidly. Larger doses (3 to 5 mg) can have a sedative effect in some people. You have to take it early in the evening to avoid a “hangover” effect the next day.

Aspirin

This is actually my favorite remedy for occasional insomnia. Take two aspirins and go to bed.

As reported in the book “No More Sleepless Night,” aspirin can be a good temporary remedy for insomnia with no serious side effects.

In a small study done by Dr. Peter M. Silberfarb, most patients slept better with two aspirins taken before bed (650 mg in total) than with a placebo.

Because it has a four-hour delay, it seems to work best with people who wake up frequently in the middle of the night. As with most remedies, it stops working after a few days.

Aspirin creates stomach acidity and should not be used if you have an ulcer or other intestinal problems. It also thins the blood, so ask your doctor before attempting this method.

Finding Good Sleep in Unlikely Places

One more thing.

Sometimes, when we experience sleep problems, we seek a quick answer. Give me back my sleep now! But often, the answer is not to be found in the usual places, like sleep hygiene, supplements, exercise, diet or visiting a sleep clinic.

At some point, about two years ago, I experienced a serious period of insomnia. The thing  that actually helped the most was just letting go. When I stopped expecting my sleep to get better, it got better.

I had gone through a lot of serious changes in my life (a divorce, a move to a new city, the death of my father, and more) in a short period of time, and bad sleep was just a symptom. I couldn’t sleep well because I was in hyper-vigilant mode, to borrow a term from psychology. Because a lot of “bad” things had happened to me, I was expecting more to come! Once I relaxed and accepted my insomnia, things got better!

Some people find relief in many different approaches, and there’s not ONE that definitely better than another. You can try something, and if it works for you, do it. For example, “tapping” works for many. For others, it’s talk therapy. For others, it will be something else.

Good Books

Here are the top three books I recommend on the subject:

What are YOUR best tips for a good night’s sleep?

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

13 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Claudia says:

    Frederic, I had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep a couple months ago,
    then I remember Tapping, I am sure you have heard of it, I thought that it has
    worked so good for everything else and the day I tapped I was able to sleep
    Thought the night, I just didn’t see Tapping on your list. If you haven’t tried it
    Give it a try.
    Much love.

  2. Hi Fred!

    Very good article!!!!!

    You could do “the presence process – revised edition” from Michael Brown (a book you can get on amazon). It is a ten week course to gradualy get undigested emotions from the unconsciousness to the surface for integration. When a certain amount of these emotional charge has been reduced then the sleep improves dramatically. I have seen that with people who moved very much during sleep and now sleep very calm.
    This process is very powerful and will also strongly improve physical health, mental clarity and overall well being.
    But one must be ready for it as it is really not easy.

    All the best to you
    Michael

  3. Jeff says:

    Excellent article Frederic! I too have had a lot of trouble sleeping over the years and on my own adopted many of the practices you advocate in the article. They have definitely worked for me. Nowadays, I have an insomnia attack only once every 6 months, but now I know just to get up and read (knowing that I’ll have to re-read those pages because I’ll retain nothing) and eventually I’ll fall asleep. I would just add two items to your list. First, one practice that DOESN’T work is to get into the habit of having a little nightcap to relax a bit to fall asleep. Besides the fact that the little nightcap has a way of increasing over time, it usually resulted in me falling asleep immediately and then waking up a few hours later and not being able to fall back to sleep. Second, when you discussed this topic on Renegade Health Radio (which I’m happy to hear is returning), you mentioned the “Sleep Cycle” app, which I downloaded and have been using ever since. It’s feature of waking me up when I’m at my lightest sleep phase has resulted in much more alert and cheerful mornings. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. A work schedule that required late hours and a 6 am return to work, left me sleep-deprived, with serious consequences — a car accident a month for four months. When I figured out why and asked for a schedule change, I was “laid off”. Later I found this article. Please read:
    Psychology Today, November 2013,
    “Chasing Slumber”…
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201308/chasing-slumber

    An excerpt:
    In 2003, a team including Dinges, lead by his then colleague at Penn, Hans Van Dongen, conducted a major experiment in which participants were divided into three separate groups: one that slept four hours a night, one for six hours, and a control group for eight hours. The study went on for two weeks and each day participants were repeatedly given a memory test and a psychomotor vigilance task, a simple computer-based assessment of attentiveness and response.

    Developed by Dinges, the PVT is simplicity itself: Subjects sit for 10
    minutes in front of a screen, hitting a button whenever a bright spot appears;
    meanwhile, reaction times and other sleepiness indicators (such as droopy
    eyelids) are monitored. The test measures precisely the sort of cognitive and
    physiological abilities that insufficient sleep dulls or eliminates.
    A mere half-second delay in response indicates a lapse of
    wakefulness—or as researchers term it, “microsleep.” [ !!! !!! !!! ]

    As might be expected, eight-hour sleepers showed no impairment of functioning
    on the tests. But those getting less sleep did—and performance declined steadily
    over time, even though participants were getting consistent, if limited, sleep
    each night. By the study’s end, even the performance of the six-hour sleepers
    had deteriorated as much as if they had been up for 24 hours straight.
    (A similar study at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that the
    performance of seven-hour sleepers declined markedly over time as well.)

    Yet amazingly, steadily deteriorating alertness was barely
    reflected in the participants’ subjective feelings of sleepiness.

    “By the end of the 14 days of sleep restriction, when performance was at its
    worst, subjects in the [four- and six-hour] sleep period conditions reported
    feeling only slightly sleepy,” the authors wrote. Dinges suggests that those who
    are chronically sleep deprived may no longer be capable of reliably appraising
    their own sleepiness—or they simply don’t experience levels of sleepiness in any
    way commensurate with their actual deprivation. The finding “may explain why
    sleep restriction is widely practiced: People have the subjective impression
    they have adapted to it because they don’t feel particularly sleepy,” the study
    authors theorize.

    “People are impaired at much lower levels of sleep deprivation
    than they realize,” the NTSB’s Rosekind agrees. Summarizing Van Dongen’s
    research and other related findings, he notes: “Getting two hours less sleep
    than you need is enough to impair you and get you into a car crash. You may
    think you’re okay, but if we were to actually measure your performance or
    alertness, it could be horrible.”
    [End of excerpt.]

    We Americans way don’t respect our need for sleep. Research shows that even just 7 hours sleep, or 6, instead of 8 – 81/2 hours, nightly produces measurable differences in our alertness and functioning. Even a 1/4-second delay on an alertness test means that we are taking a MINI-SLEEP. And we don’t realize it!

    Best regards.

  5. June Hanson says:

    I, too, had a sleep problem years ago. Do not be afraid to take herbal or natural sleep supplements. Your body needs them. Melatonin is a good anti aging supplement. Start out with 3 mg. before bedtime. Increase, then start taking 10 mg. ones. I take 30 mg. There are no side effects. Its a hormone and you, sure need it. I alternate with tryptophan or Gaba. Taking them 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime. Get ready for bed. Quiet your brain, learn to pray and you will have beautiful, sound sleep.

    Beats taking two aspirin, that will not benefit your body. Your body is not lacking in aspirin!!!

    • Anna says:

      30mg.?????!!!!!!!

    • SarahW says:

      Well in theory, your body is not lacking melatonin, either. Melatonin might have lots of benefits, but it ‘s a hormone and I worry that manipulating hormones can be risky. I took melatonin for nearly a decade and I found through trial and error that less is more. I found that just 1 mg was more effective than 2 mg or 3 mg doses. It worked okay for many years, but eventually my sleep got worse and I gave up melatonin altogether to let my body reset its own melatonin production.

  6. Theresa says:

    Earthing!!! 😀

  7. Joanne says:

    I remember reading that putting something cool/cold on your belly at bed, helps prepare the body for sleep-that your body temp. just naturally drops before you go to sleep.

    Also, regarding nightmares. I never had nightmares my entire life, until my thyroid went out. Then I started to have them. I would definitley check hormones in general if you are having nightmares. Often what we attribute to psychological problems is really a physical problem. There are different parts of the thyroid that can go out, so you can still be very thin (which I was) and still have thyroid issues. Be Well!

  8. Nora says:

    Have you tried EFT to release any emotional reasons for insomnia?

  9. deb says:

    Several years ago, I had a problem of insomnia. I would toss and turn and feel my heart pound.

    My doc incorrectly guessed that I worried too much.

    I realized that there were 2 snack foods that I craved. That was a symptom of ALLERGIC addiction.

    When I eliminated those 2 foods, my sleep problem vanished.

  10. Bobbi says:

    When I had my spinal surgery about three years ago, that is when I stopped sleeping. The only sleep I get is about two to three hours a night. I am soooo tired. I have told the doctors about it, and told them again, to no avail. I have tried everything. Still, no sleep. I now need to get back to work, with all sleepless nights. I am so afraid that I will fall asleep on my may to or from work. It is either go to work or become homeless. I am so tired of all of this, life is not worth it anymore.

  11. Ray Foucher says:

    Keep a notepad by your bed so if you think of something that you really want to remember the next day you can jot it down rather than lying awake thinking about it and hoping you will remember. Some people use a small voice recorder if it won’t disturb anyone else.

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