Tips for Better Sleep from People Who’ve Struggled With Insomnia

Tips for Better Sleep from People Who’ve Struggled With Insomnia

If you struggle with sleeplessness, you may have tried all sorts of tips and tricks to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night. There are lots of suggested solutions to choose from, from apps that promote relaxation to weighted blankets you can pile on your bed. 

But for the 2,000 people who took part in a recent WebMD survey on America’s sleep habits, the fix that worked best was climate control. Nearly half (46%) said they got results from changing their bedroom’s temperature or humidity and/or using warmer or cooler bedclothes.

Find the Right Temperature for Sleep

What’s the ideal temperature for sleep? Experts say you should think of your bedroom as a cave – dark, quiet, and cool (60-67 F). Some people will be more comfortable with temperatures a bit higher or lower than that. But once your bedroom passes 70 F, it’s likely too hot for you to get your best night’s sleep. 

When your environment is too hot or too cold, you’re more likely to wake up during the night. You also won’t stay as long in the deepest, most restful stage of slumber, called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. 

How to sleep cooler. Along with turning down the thermostat, using the right covers and wearing loose, comfy clothing to bed can promote cooler sleep. Look for light bedclothes and PJs made of breathable fabrics like:

  • Cotton
  • Linen
  • Bamboo

You can also buy products like cooling pillows, mattress pads, or even mattresses. You may need to experiment to see what works for you.

“There isn’t a one-product-fits-all solution to sleep problems,” says Marri Horvat, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center.

If you’re worried about the expense of all that air conditioning or its effect on the environment:

  • Use a ceiling or table fan to help your skin feel cooler. 
  • Keep curtains or blinds closed during the day so the room doesn’t heat up.
  • Use bathroom and kitchen fans to get rid of heat and humidity from bathing and cooking.
  • Seal any leaks around your home that let in outdoor air, and make sure your home has enough insulation. 

When you’re in or entering menopause, hot flashes and night sweats can do a number on your sleep. Talk to your doctor if hot flashes affect your sleep and lifestyle changes haven’t worked. 

How to sleep warmer. While bedroom temperatures under 60 F don’t upset sleep cycles the way high temperatures do, they still affect sleep. For one thing, they rev up your cardiovascular system as it works harder to regulate your body temperature. 

Some energy-efficient ways to stay warm include:

  • Layering blankets and comforters
  • Wearing toasty nightclothes
  • Using a hot water bottle, electric blanket, or heating pad (Check with your doctor first if you’re pregnant.)
  • Wearing socks to bed 
  • Make sure your furnace is regularly maintained. 

If you and a bed partner don’t agree on the best sleep temperature, talk it out. You could compromise with warmer nightclothes, or extra covers on one side of the bed. They’re pricey, but some high-tech “smart” mattresses even self-adjust to the best temperature for each partner. 

Get More Exercise During the Day

Those who took WebMD’s survey, who were chosen to reflect the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, race, and location, named exercise as the second most helpful tactic they’d used to improve sleep. Forty-five percent of them said that increasing how much exercise or activity they did during the day helped their sleep quality. 

Scientists don’t know exactly how exercise works to aid sleep. But cardio exercise is known to boost how much “slow wave” sleep you get. That’s a deep, restorative stage that’s different from REM sleep. 

Exercise can also keep your mood stable and help you to de-stress. This puts you in the right state of mind for restful sleep. 

How much exercise do you need to see this effect? Just 30 minutes of moderate cardio exercise a day should do the trick. That’s the type that gets your heart beating faster, like swimming, biking, or brisk walking.

Horvat warns that exercising too close to bedtime could keep you awake. So schedule your workout during daytime hours if possible. But the important thing is to move on a regular basis.

Take Medication to Help You Sleep

Forty percent of people in the WebMD survey said prescription or over-the-counter sleep medication had worked to help them sleep at some point; 38% said they’d gotten relief with sleep supplements like melatonin.

Sleep medications can treat occasional or short-term insomnia, which is when you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or sleeping long enough. But doctors warn that neither prescription nor nonprescription sleep drugs are meant for long-term use. 

Some prescription sleep meds can be habit-forming or make you sleepy during the daytime. If you take over-the-counter sleep aids regularly, you’ll become tolerant, which means they’ll no longer work well for you. They could also lead to confusion or falls in older people.

Melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in your sleep-and-wake cycle, is a popular sleep supplement. While there’s some evidence it can help with jet lag and certain sleep disorders, experts say we need more research into how well it works for insomnia. Using it short-term seems to be safe, but we don’t know much about the effects of taking it for a long time.

Other widely used sleep supplements include:

  • Valerian root, which some studies have shown can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly 
  • Chamomile, which has long been used as a home remedy for relaxation but hasn’t been shown to be effective for insomnia 

We need more studies of these supplements, too. They can cause minor side effects, and some people are allergic to chamomile.

Always tell your doctor before you take a supplement. They can interact with other drugs, and they may not be safe when you’re pregnant or nursing. Keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate herbal supplements, so you can’t be sure exactly what’s in them or if they’re safe. 

If you have more than occasional issues with your sleep, see a doctor instead of relying on sleep aids, says Alon Y. Avidan, MD, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. You may have a sleep disorder that needs treatment. 

“If a person feels that they’re waking up unrefreshed, falling asleep driving or in front of the TV, or if they feel that they’re not getting good-quality sleep, it’s imperative for them to talk to their physicians and not self-treat their sleep problems,” Avidan says.

Sleep Hygiene Tips

Before you try anything else, doctors say, look at your lifestyle to make sure your daily habits and environment set you up for sound sleep (called sleep hygiene). “Good sleep hygiene is usually the first step to improving sleep,” Horvat says. 

Stick to a relaxing routine. An essential part of good sleep hygiene is a relaxing routine that helps you wind down before bed. In our survey, 40% of people said that reading before bedtime helped them sleep. At the same time, 31% of said avoiding phone, computer, and TV screens improved their slumber. Horvat recommends limiting screen time for a full 2 hours before you go to bed.

Consistency is important, too.  “Humans are creatures of habit,” says Camilo Andrés Ruiz, DO, medical director of Choice Physicians of South Florida in Fort Lauderdale. “A stable schedule keeps our internal body clocks running regularly, leading to improved sleep quality.”  

Try to:

  • Go to bed around same time every night.
  • Wake up at the same time each day.
  • Follow this routine even on weekends.

Make sure your schedule allows you to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night. People in WebMD’s survey who spent 7 or more hours in bed per night were more likely to report good-quality sleep. And 36% said that changing their bedtime, sleep schedule, or how much they napped during the day helped them get better sleep.   

Get a new sleep position. Sometimes, a simple change in position is enough to help you sleep better. More than a third (38%) of the people surveyed said they got results from changing the angle of their bed, the number of pillows, or their sleep position. In general, experts recommend sleeping on your side or back with a supportive pillow. But it’s a good idea to change positions during the night. 

Watch what you drink. The people surveyed said the No. 1 thing that disrupted their sleep during the month before the survey was getting up to pee. Fully a third (33%) cited it as a problem. So it’s no surprise that 35% said they slept better when they limited fluid intake near bedtime. As a rule, try to avoid drinking water or other fluids in the 2 hours before you hit the sack.

You probably already know that caffeinated drinks can keep you up if you drink them too close to bedtime. But did you know they also make you pee more often? Caffeine acts as a diuretic, drawing water out of your body. So it makes sense that 37% of those surveyed found that decreasing their caffeine intake helped their sleep. Some people are less sensitive to caffeine than others, but it’s best to avoid it for 4 hours before bedtime.

Alcohol is another drink that’s double trouble for sleep. It can help you fall asleep at first. But this effect fades after a few hours, leaving you tossing and turning. Further, alcohol blocks a brain hormone that helps regulate your kidneys. Your body produces extra pee, so you’re more likely to have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. In our survey, 30% of people saw improvements in their sleep when they limited their intake before bed. Try to stay away from alcohol for at least 4 hours before you go to sleep. 

What else can help?  Other things that people in the survey said helped improve sleep were:

  • Sleeping alone or in a separate room, cited by 35% (But in another survey question, 75% of people who slept with a partner and/or pet said they slept “very” or “fairly” well, compared to 41% of solo sleepers.)
  • Using white noise or soothing sounds, also cited by 35%
  • Losing weight (30%)
  • Making changes to medication or supplements they use for things other than sleep (26%)
  • Using a weighted blanket (25%)
  • Stopping or decreasing nicotine use (24%)
  • Wearing earplugs (23%) or an eye mask (23%)
  • Using “snore strips,” which attach to the outside of your nose to keep nasal passages open (21%) or nasal dilators, which you insert inside the nostrils (19%)
  • Using a mouth guard to reduce snoring (20%) or prevent teeth grinding (19%)
  • Using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, a prescription device used to treat sleep apnea (19%)

Horvat notes that tricks and tips like these won’t always fix sleep problems. You may need treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. 

To address poor sleep, she says, you need to know what’s behind it. 

“Often it comes down to figuring out the cause of your sleep issues and ruling out medical causes such as thyroid dysfunction or sleep apnea,” she says.

© 2023 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Tassii / Getty Images

SOURCES:

Camilo Andrés Ruiz, DO, medical director, Choice Physicians of South Florida, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Marri Horvat, MD, Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, Cleveland, OH.

Alon Y. Avidan MD, director, UCLA Sleep Disorders Center; professor, UCLA Department of Neurology, Los Angeles.

Cleveland Clinic: “What’s the Best Temperature for Sleep?” “How Exercise Affects Your Sleep,” “Back, Side or Stomach: Which Sleep Position Is Best for You?” “Is It Healthy to Drink Water Before Bed?” “Do You Wet the Bed After a Night of Drinking? Here’s Why.”

Journal of Physical Anthropology: “Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm.”

Sleep Advisor: “10 Best Cooling Sheets for 2023.”

Marine Corps Community Services: “How to Stay Cool and Save Money All Summer Long.”

British Heart Foundation: “6 cost-effective ways to keep the heat in.”

National Institutes of Health: “Sleep Problems and Menopause: What Can I Do?”

CDC: “Tips for Better Sleep.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Exercising for Better Sleep,” “Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?” “Losing Weight, Especially in the Belly, Improves Sleep Quality, According to a Johns Hopkins Study.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Are drugstore sleep aids safe?”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Melatonin: What You Need to Know,” “Chamomile.” 

Mayo Clinic: “Valerian: A safe and effective herbal sleep aid?”

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton: “Caffeine.”

Piedmont Hospital: “How Does Alcohol Effect Your Sleep?”

Handbook of Clinical Neurology: “Alcohol and the Sleeping Brain.”

Sleep: “Bed Sharing Versus Sleeping Alone Associated with Sleep Health and Mental Health.”

UpToDate: “The effects of medications on sleep quality and sleep architecture.”

Mayo Clinic: “Snoring,” “Bruxism (teeth grinding),” “Sleep apnea.”

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