Nancy Gueldner can count on one hand the number of times she’s slept through the night during the past few years. A registered nurse with three school-aged children, Gueldner says there are nights she wakes up but can’t fall back asleep no matter how tired she feels.
“If I’m worried about something, I may think about it during the night, but usually I just can’t sleep and I don’t know why,” says Gueldner.
Gueldner, 48, has “tried everything” to overcome her sleep issues, with little success. “I exercise, avoid caffeine, sleep in a cool environment, and go to bed and get up at the same time every day—but still, every night is an adventure!”
Gueldner is in good company, considering that approximately 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year. What’s more, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems.
The effects of all this sleep deprivation can be serious. “Everyone understands the importance of nutrition and exercise, but many don’t take sleep as seriously as they should,” says Mary Helen Uusimaki, vice president of marketing and communications for the Better Sleep Council in Alexandria, Virginia. Uusimaki points out that poor sleep has been linked to health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. She adds, “Lack of sleep can impact our relationships, performance on the job, and can kill a person’s sex drive.”
The good news, though, is that most sleep issues can be helped by making simple changes and don’t require sleep specialists or sleeping pills. For a more peaceful night’s rest, try these natural practices:
1. Give yourself time to wind down.
Helene Emsellem, M.D., medical director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says a pre-bedtime wind down period is critical—even if it’s only 15 to 20 minutes. “Make the routine a ritual, and it will become a cue for sleep,” she says. Emsellem offers these suggestions for calming your mind and body:
✦ Listen to calming music.
✦ Practice gentle upper body stretches.
✦ Take a warm shower.
✦ Read with a low-light book light.
2. Create a sleep sanctuary.
If your bedroom doubles as an office, a TV room, or even a place to work out, Uusimaki recommends restructuring your space with rest in mind. “The bedroom can be a crowded, uncomfortable, and stressful place, or it can be a restful, welcome retreat,” says Uusimaki. “You essentially want to de-stress in the bedroom, not create more stress. The bedroom should be the most luxurious and personal space in any home.” As much as possible, reserve the bedroom for sleeping and move unnecessary furniture and activities (such as working, checking your computer, and watching TV) to another room.
3. Find the right pillows and mattress for your body type.
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, or with an aching back in the morning, your mattress and/or pillows could be to blame. “The mattress is the foundation for a good night’s rest, and if you don’t have the right mattress, you aren’t getting the restorative sleep you need,” says Uusimaki.
“It’s also important to evaluate your pillow, [which] helps keep the correct body position while sleeping. There are many choices out there that work to support you in your ideal sleeping position,” Uusimaki says. To find the right one for you, carefully check the packaging when shopping for pillows. Many label which kind of sleeping position (side, back, or stomach) it is best suited for.
4. Track your sleep patterns and habits.
“Keeping a sleep log over a week or two can help you document your sleep pattern,” says Emsellem. Comparing notes about your nightly sleep with your daily activities may reveal changes you can make. Here are a few of the basics to record:
✦ What time you go to bed
✦ Approximately how long it takes you to fall asleep
✦ How many times you wake up during the night
✦ How you feel in the morning
✦ What you ate close to bedtime
A sleep log can help you identify good and bad patterns, such as activities that help you sleep (e.g., a brisk walk around the neighborhood) or activities that wreck your sleep (e.g., a fight with your spouse, or a big enchilada dinner right before bedtime).
5. Jot down any “to-dos” and concerns that might keep your mind racing.
We all know what it’s like to crawl into bed only to find ourselves wide-eyed and worried an hour later. “Set aside some early evening time to make a list of things that need to be done,” says Emsellem. “The goal is to flush to paper all of the thoughts that may interfere with your ability to go to sleep.”
Carol Heffernan, a Wisconsin-based writer and social media manager, likes to share this Irish proverb with her two young children: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” So far, they prefer the good laugh.