**By Oneil Bains, MD**
Almost everyone has experienced a bad night’s sleep – tossing and turning, being unable to fall asleep or even waking in the middle of the night. For some of us (approximately 40 million Americans according to the National Sleep Foundation), trouble sleeping has become a chronic issue.
While I work with patients to tailor a plan to meet their individual needs, I have found a few tried and true tips that can help almost anyone achieve a better night’s sleep.
Make mornings consistent
Waking up at the same time every day helps your body find a consistent sleep rhythm. Try to have a set wake-up time regardless of when you fall asleep the night before. It might be difficult at first, but after about a week your body clock will adapt and make you feel sleepy earlier.
Go to bed sleepy
Listen to your body and go bed when it tells you. Going to bed before you are actually sleepy can lead to anxiety and frustration, making sleep even more elusive. Conversely, don’t stay up past the point of sleepiness just to finish a show or a book.
Treat Sunday like Monday
Trying to catch up on rest by sleeping in on weekends might be tempting, but it will shift your body clock away from its established rhythm and make it that much tougher to get up on Monday morning. Rather than sleep in, make morning plans on the weekend – such as breakfast with family or friends – that will motivate you to get up at a consistent time.
Relaxation is key
The most common cause of insomnia is anxiety. Worrying about the future and ruminating about the past can become endless circles of thought that keep you awake. Turning off your brain isn’t easy. Yoga, stretching and breathing exercises can help clear your mind and prepare you for sleep. A quiet and relaxing activity such as writing a journal entry, reading a book or enjoying a hot bath can also be helpful.
Stow the phone
When sleep won’t come, reaching for a phone or tablet is a natural response. But studies have found that the light produced by these devices actually stimulates the brain and pushes sleep further away. Also, the emotions and thought patterns generated by browsing social media and the news can promote anxiety. If you want to read before bed, it is better to read a real book with a soft light.
Eat early to sleep early
For your body, digestion is an activity. Letting it run its course before you lie down to sleep puts you in a much better position to fall asleep easily. An earlier dinner will naturally help bring an earlier bedtime while avoiding heartburn, weight gain and other potential health issues.
Sweat it out in the morning
If you think exercise is good for your sleep, you’re right. It fatigues your muscles in a positive way and releases endorphins that ease anxiety and promote mental well-being. However, the benefits of exercise can also produce a stimulating effect that can last for hours afterward and make it difficult to fall asleep. Because a relaxed body is more likely to fall asleep, try to get your exercise in the morning or early afternoon.
Put away the pills
There is a common misconception that sleep medication should be taken to induce sleepiness. While they can be effective for certain types of sleep problems, sedating medicines are most appropriate for enhancing sleepiness. When sleeping medication is taken to induce rather than enhance sleepiness, the likelihood of having adverse side effects is significantly increased. This is particularly true for night owls and shift workers that are frequently in the situation of trying to sleep at a time when actually alert. Getting sleepy at bedtime is better accomplished by establishing a consistent sleep cycle and going to bed relaxed.
Collect data while you dream
Understanding your sleep patterns can give you helpful insights into your own habits and lead to strategies for possible solutions. Devices such as a Fitbit or Microsoft Band can be helpful in tracking sleep patterns, especially when they’re erratic. This data can be helpful for pinpointing specific problems and observing progress for you and your doctor.
Talk to your doctor
Contact your physician if you continue to experience trouble sleeping. He or she can help you find the right treatment course and help you get back on track.
Oneil Bains, MD is Section Head of the Sleep Disorders Center at Virginia Mason. He is board-certified in Sleep Medicine and Internal Medicine, with expertise in the treatment of insomnia, pediatric sleep disorders, narcolepsy and sleep disordered breathing. Dr. Bains’ innovative five-week insomnia program has helped hundreds of patients sleep better without the use of medication.