by Kevin Gardner, Guest Contributor

Sleep is vital for emotional and physical well-being. You probably know what happens to your body after a bad night’s sleep—you’re cranky or groggy, you have trouble focusing and you’re less productive throughout the day. This is because your brain is working overtime throughout the night to prepare for the next day. It files away important information and forges new paths to help you learn and remember new facts. 

However, knowing the importance of sleep doesn’t always help you actually fall asleep. And at some point you will experience one of those sleepless nights. You know the one—you’ve tossed and turned for more than an hour, you can’t stop checking the clock and you’re starting to panic about the hours of sleep you’re losing. But are there ways to solve the issue?

According to Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream psychologist, the first step to calming your brain in order to drift off to sleep, is realizing that good sleepers don’t immediately fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. Usually, you lie in bed for 10 or 20 minutes before you fall asleep. Realizing this can quell a lot of anxiety if one doesn’t rapidly fall asleep. However, if you’re 10 or 20 minutes have passed and your heart-pounding “I’m-not-going-to-get-enough-sleep” thoughts are still running through your head, here are a few additional tips and tricks you can try. 

1. Quell Your Anxiety

Chances are, your sleepless night comes hand-in-hand with anxiety or stress. The first step to calming your mind is simply figuring out why you’re anxious. Are you nervous about a big presentation at work? Are you worrying about a past conversation or argument with your son? Or are you just angry at the clock and bargaining with your sleep schedule (“Okay, if I fall asleep now, I can still get five hours of sleep”). Once you figure out what’s causing your anxious thoughts, you can reframe your narrative. Turn your stress-filled thoughts into positive or calming sleep thoughts, such as assuring yourself that you will fall asleep eventually. 

2. Try Some Supplements 

You’re probably heard that turkey makes you sleepy due to the high levels of melatonin. But what is melatonin? And how does melatonin work? 

Melatonin is a hormone naturally found in the body and produced in the brain. When taken as a supplement, it can help regulate your sleep. If you’re having a sleepless night, try taking 0.5 – 5mg of melatonin before bed. 

Other sleep-repairing supplements include:

  • Magnesium – helps activate neurotransmitters responsible for sleep. Take 200-400mg per day to improve sleep
  • 5 HTP (hydorxytryptophan) – boosts serotonin levels in the body, which is linked to sleep regulation. Take 300-500mg per day. 
  • Theanine – while this doesn’t necessarily induce sleep, it does work as a sedative to aid with relaxation
  • GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) – like Theanine, this compound works with the central nervous system to help lessen anxiety. 

3. Relax Your Body

There are some simple relaxation techniques you can do without leaving the comfort of your bed. First, perform some simple stretches. Put your legs up against the wall to calm your central nervous system; slowly bring each of your knees to your chest to enhance the flexibility in your lower back; and try child’s pose or happy baby pose to relax your full body. According to Sleep Advisor, stretching releases endorphins and boosts mood and relaxation. In fact, 55 percent of people who participate in yoga report improved sleep patterns. 

Alternatively, you could try the 4-7-8 exercise. This breathing technique is commonly found to help you fall asleep in less than one minute. Here is the technique:

  • Step 1: Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth. 
  • Step 2: Exhale.
  • Step 3: Close your mouth and inhale slowly while counting to four.
  • Step 4: Hold your breath while counting to seven. 
  • Step 5: Exhale completely while counting to eight. 
  • Step 6: Repeat for four cycles.

4. Restructure Your Day

If you’re experiencing constant sleepless nights, it might be time to analyze your daytime activities. For example, many people find success in implementing a sleep schedule. Because your body is self-regulating, it relies on internal cues called circadian rhythms, that cause your body to feel alert during the day and drowsy at night. Because of this, waking up and falling asleep at the same time every day can regulate your internal clock. Once your body adjusts, it’ll be much easier to fall asleep and wake up at the same time. 

To further help your new sleep schedule, avoid naps throughout the day. Studies have found that regular afternoon naps lasting longer than two hours can result in sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality. If you absolutely must catch a little daytime snooze, opt for a 30 minute nap earlier in the day. 

Additionally, watch what and when you eat. Research shows that food high in carbohydrates could be detrimental to a good night’s sleep. Instead, opt for a low-carb and high-fat meal before bed for more restful sleep. If you absolutely must eat your nightly bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, try devouring it four hours before bedtime so your body has time to digest it. Here are some other great foods that can help you sleep:

  • Almonds 
  • Turkey
  • Kiwi
  • Chamomile Tea
  • Salmon
  • Bananas
  • White Rice

Most of these contain sleep-regulating hormones like melatonin and magnesium and can enhance the quality of your sleep. 

5. Get Out of Bed

While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best things you can do for your sleeping habits is get out of bed. If you’ve laid awake for more than 20 minutes, get up and go to another space in your house to perform a relaxing activity. Listen to soothing music or Buddhist chants, practice journaling to train your mind to think positively, take a relaxing bubble bath or read from a physical book (e-readers emit blue light and reduces melatonin production). When you lie awake in bed, you could create an unhealthy link between your bed and wakefulness. You want your bed to remain a sacred place dedicated only to sleep. 

If you’re having constant problems falling asleep, it may be time for action. Implement some healthy choices throughout the day like exercise, less screen time, and low-carb diets in order to positively affect your sleeping habits. Beginning a set sleep schedule will take time and effort, but the results of a good night’s sleep should not be overlooked. Being well-rested will impact every part of your day, and will ensure your physical and mental health remain strong. Sweet dreams!