Have you ever been so exhausted that you can't wait to get into bed? You cancel all plans. You have a quiet night. You slather your face with a rich night cream, put on your jammies and prepare to say goodnight. You get into bed, and... you can't fall asleep. So what's wrong?
Sleep is the time when our bodies take a rest from our active and crazy lives. Benefits of sleep range from weight loss to increased immunity, detoxification, and lowered risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
When we don't sleep properly, it shows up on our faces and sooner or later shows up in our work performance and ability to be present in our lives.
If you want to bring fantastic sleep into your life, you're going to have to create the right environment to get it. Like anything, it just requires a little work to reap the benefits of restorative sleep.
#1 Create a sleep sanctuary
- Make your environment sleep-friendly by removing all the electronics that you possibly can. Electronics emit a type of radiation that can interfere with our sleep (not to mention the annoying lights that often come with them). If you must have your alarm clock or cell phone in your bedroom, plug them in on the other side of the room, away from your head.
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible by installing blackout blinds. Our bodies are more sensitive to light than we let on. Our sleep and wake cues come from light or darkness being absorbed through our skin and activating the pineal gland. This gland is located between the eyes, so even if you can't get your bedroom 100% dark with blackout blinds, a sleep mask will block out most of the light.
#2 Get a nighttime routine
- It can take caffeine four to six hours to clear your system, so ensure that you've had your last coffee or tea by 4 p.m. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine and may need to have their last caffeinated beverage earlier in the day or avoid it completely. (Drinking caffeinated drinks become a way of functioning for people who don't sleep well. If you're craving more than two coffees, teas or sodas per day, realize that your body doesn't need more caffeine, it needs more sleep!)
- Avoid excessive alcohol and don't take sleeping pills. Both substances certainly make us feel like we've had a deep sleep, but the reality is that they don't. Excessive alcohol inhibits deep, restorative REM sleep and often wakes us up in the night as it gets detoxified by the body. Sleeping pills don't let us fall into a deep sleep either, and they also have dangerous side effects. (In my opinion, sleeping pills help us not feel crazy because they make us think we've slept well. If you've ever tracked your sleep on a sleep app after taking a sleeping pill, you'll see that your body doesn't get into REM sleep.)
- Don't eat or exercise too close to your bedtime. Food in the belly and endorphins in the body can interfere with sleep.
- Eat a balanced dinner with some protein, complex carbohydrates, good fats and plenty of vegetables. Avoid anything that will cause indigestion or cause a blood sugar spike, such as fried or sweet food.
- Get off your phone, computer and shut off the TV at least one hour before bed. The blue light that these screens emit will mess with your body's melatonin. Ditto with bright lights in your house.
#3 Make sure you're getting the right amount
- Go to bed when you feel your first wave of tiredness. This will likely be somewhere between 9-10 pm, when melatonin, your sleep hormone, naturally peaks.
- To test how much sleep you need, try going to sleep at the same each night and wake up without an alarm clock. Do this for a few nights and you'll learn what your sleep requirement is.
- Try to go to sleep and get up at roughly the same time each day. Try to follow this as much as you can on the weekends, too.
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The easy forward bend pose is accessible even to beginners, and it's a great one to try before bedtime. If you're tight in the hips, Bielkus advises sitting on top of a pillow to make the pose a bit more relaxing. "This one is good for sleep," says Bielkus. "It also eases tension and lets the hips open up, and just creates an overall sense of ease in the body."
To perform this pose, stand with the feet about six inches apart and fold the torso to the ground, reaching toward the ground or bending the arms and grabbing opposite hand to opposite elbow. In addition to helping to relieve headaches and insomnia, the pose can also be helpful for lowering stress levels, according to Yoga Journal. "Sway a little side to side and breathe," says Bielkus. "Bend the knees as much as needed to ease any strain. Tension in the legs and hips will start to release."
The quintessential resting pose in many yoga classes, child's pose helps to calm the mind and relieve tension in the body. Fold the torso over the legs with the arms extended or by the sides, and rest the forehead on the ground. "Take long deep breaths," Bielkus suggests. "Massage the forehead left to right easing tension at the brow point."
Yoga Journal recommends staying in the plow pose for one to five minutes to fall asleep easier. Lie down on your back, lifting your legs over your head and then to the ground behind you, with your hands either on your back for support or on the floor. "By turning the flow of blood around, you bring new vitality into the body," says Bielkus.
This simple pose, performed against a wall, is excellent for evening relaxation and stress relief. Bielkus recommends staying in the pose for as long as five minutes, with the eyes closed and using a soothing eye pillow if desired. "When we flip the legs up, the blood can rush back down to the heart," says Bielkus. "It has a soothing quality."
Get your body into sleep mode with a simple corpse pose, focusing the attention on the body and breath, and letting go of the day's worries. "By focusing the mind and bringing awareness in, you take the mind off of what is causing stress or restlessness," says Bielkus.
This reclining twisted pose can easily be performed in bed before you fall asleep. Lie down on your back and bring the right knee into your chest and then across your left side. Extend the right arm out and gaze to the right, taking several deep breaths and then repeating on the other side. You can also try bringing both legs up and then over to each side, as pictured at left. "Gentle twists relieve tension throughout the whole spine and also aid in digestion and help us rinse out some tension from the day," Bielkus says.
Like the supine twist, the seated spinal twist (also known as the half lord of the fishes pose) can create a sense of relaxation in the body while gently stretching the spine. The stretch can be practiced with both legs bent or with one outstretched.
A variation of the basic butterfly pose (pictured at left), the reclining butterfly can help the body get into rest mode. Lie down on your back -- on your bed or on a mat -- and bring the feet together, splaying out the knees in a diamond. If your hips are tight and the pose feels too intense, Bielkus suggests putting a folded blanket or cushion under each of the knees. "Bring one hand to your heart and one hand to your belly," Bielkus says. "Breathe deeply observing the breath move in and out of the body."
To try this relaxing breathing exercise (pranayama), you can either sit up crossed-legged or lie down on your right side. Cover the right nostril with your thumb and extend the fingers out. Then take five to 10 deep breathes out of your left nostril. "If I can't sleep ... As soon as I've done three left nostril breaths, I'm out," says Bielkus. "It's really, really effective."
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