Here's What Health Experts Do When They Can't Sleep
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If you find yourself unable to sleep, first, think of a word, says Robert Rosenberg, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who is a board-certified sleep-medicine physician and author of The Doctor's Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety. Any word that helps you relax and focus will work. (It could the word 'cloud,' the name of your beloved pet or the number five.) Breathe in slowly through your diaphragm, and as you breathe out, think of the word. "This induces the relaxation response by shutting out any distractions in the environment and helping quiet your mind," says Rosenberg. He typically practices for 10 minutes before falling asleep, but "many of my patients find themselves drifting off to sleep before that," he says. Use this trick before bed, or even if you wake up unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
You've probably heard that you should write out your worries right before getting into, or even while in, bed, but it may be even more effective to do it a couple of hours before tucking in, says Catherine Darley, a naturopathic doctor (ND) and founder of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle. When she experienced a death in the family and had a hard time sleeping for six weeks, she practiced journaling two hours before bed. Two hours before—rather than when you're already in bed—gives you time to relax after the writing is done and allows you to focus on something else. "This helped make sure that my thoughts were put to bed before I got into bed," she says. And a brain dump for 10 minutes is short enough that you're not getting entrenched in your thoughts, Darley says. (Research shows that writing about anxiety helps boost test scores in students. Discarding your worries, literally throwing them in the trash, can also give them less power.) The same can work if you're dealing with raw emotions, for whatever reason, or anxiety over a looming situation. In the past 10 years, Darley says her patients find that this is one of the most effective strategies for getting to sleep.
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"One thing that most surprises patients is when I tell them to avoid taking naps, even if they were unable to sleep the night before," says Damon Raskin, MD, a board-certified internist who specializes in sleep medicine. A midday snooze decreases your "sleep drive" (or the sleepiness you build up during the day), making falling asleep at bedtime later that night even harder. That can set off a sleeplessness cycle that you don't want to get wrapped up in. If you're lagging during the day, skip the caffeine (which only will keep you up at night) and power through with a walk outside: Spending at least 20 minutes outside with nature has been shown to give people a mental and physical energy boost.
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If you share your bed with a partner, they may be the reason you're waking up groggy in the a.m. One thing Sleep to Live Institute director Robert Oexman, DO, tells his coupled-up patients to do is to buy individual sheets and blankets. "This allows each partner to move without disturbing the other, and it allows for different temperature needs," he says. Use the same fitted sheet, but then outfit the bed with two twin top sheets and blankets side-by-side. In the morning, cover the bed with a comforter for a more finished, cohesive look.
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Sometimes, you wake up in the middle of the night and you can't go back to sleep because your brain just won't shut off. Rebeccah Shalev, ND, with the Holtorf Medical Group, calls this her "internal hamster wheel" and to quiet it down, she'll take three grams of glycine, a safe, nonessential amino acid that you can buy in supplement form over-the-counter. Research has shown that people who take it have better quality sleep compared to those taking sleep drugs, wake up feeling peppier and experience less fatigue. Glycine is abundant in foods like gelatin, lunch meat and crab—though those likely sound unappetizing at 2 a.m. The supplement can be taken at any time, which is great for middle-of-the-night awakenings. (Other popular supplements like melatonin shift your sleep schedule, which is particularly beneficial for jet lag; but ideally need to be taken a couple hours before bed.)
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For those who have trouble sleeping when traveling, Oexman has a quick tip: Spritz a scent you enjoy and find relaxing in your bedroom at night. Then, do the same on a travel pillow and cuddle up to the pillow on the plane. You learn to associate that scent with sleep and the comforts of home, and you'll find it easier to drift off, he says.