Sleepless in Washington? 20 Tips for Better Shuteye



The CDC has called the lack of sleep a public health epidemic. “Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.” Just last week NBC News ran as series called “Sleepless in America,” citing our dependence on tech devices as one of the culprits of sleep deprivation. We’ve got some tricks to keep under your pillow. Here’s what Mary Carpenter advised in a column she wrote last July:  

START BY LYING on your back with your eyes closed.

1. Math: My favorite sleep trick used to be counting backwards from 100 by 7s.  When I got very good at it, I would go below zero to -100, then back up – often missing a number or two so that I rarely ended up back at 100, and could keep trying. A friend swears by complicated multiplication and division problems, but my poor math skills get me too lost and muddled for those to help.

2. Breath: Then I discovered “mindful breathing,” which sounds very simple but I needed a short class in mindfulness and an accompanying meditation CD to nail it.  Simply follow your breath as it moves in and out.  If your mind wanders, notice that and bring your attention back to your breathing, in and out.  Possible additions: focus on the chest area below your collarbone, filling with air, then emptying; focus on bodily sensations; focus on ambient sounds.

3. Sun:  An old favorite is to imagine strong sunshine beating down on the top of your head until it starts to feel warm.  Then imagine that warmth moving down through your head into your neck, then arms, then torso, then legs to the feet.  Imagine those warm feet.  Do this as slowly as possible, and then repeat even more slowly.

4. Air: During my childhood, my father was rarely available but often made it to our bedrooms right after lights out to open our windows as loudly and far as possible while declaiming the benefits of fresh air.  I still find fresh air very helpful, except in D.C. heat; for reasons of both allergies and comfort, I keep the air conditioning running from May through August and sometimes longer.

5. White noise:  On breezy nights, a fan helps aerate your room and produces a soothing sound; white noise machines can also help.

In addition to my own experiences, here are some others from WebMD, Oprah, The Wall Street Journal and the controversial WDDTY (What Doctors Don’t Tell You) magazine/website:

6. Progressive Relaxation: Tighten the muscles in your toes for several seconds.  Then relax them for 30 seconds and focus on how relaxed they feel.  Repeat this all the way up your body, ending at your neck and face.  (WebMD)

7. Prepare for sleep: An hour before bedtime, unplug electronic devices to reduce “electrosmog,” or electromagnetic pollution, which some believe contributes to poor sleep.  (WDDTY).

8. Breathing patterns: For “4-7-8 breathing,” recommended by holistic medicine guru Andrew Weil in Oprah magazine, keep the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth while you exhale completely through your mouth with a “gentle whoosh” sound.  Then close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four.  Then hold your breath for seven counts, and follow with an eight-count “whoosh exhale” through the mouth.  Continue completing cycles until you drift off.

More, for before you head for bed…

9. Exercise:  Blow off steam to reduce both mental and physical stress, which can interfere with sleep.  Exercise should be completed at least two hours before bedtime so your body temperature can return to normal.

10. Unwind Your Body: Exercise, stretch or do something physically relaxing, because feeling completely exhausted may actually mean you are too revved up to sleep.

11. Unwind Your Brain: To get anxiety out of your system before bed, plan “worry time” right after dinner to answer e-mails, tie up loose ends and prepare for the next day.

12. Relaxation: Visualizing a calming image, such as the seaside at night, using all your senses to make the image as vivid as possible.

13. Evening snacks:  Milk with either whole-grain toast or an oatmeal raisin cookie can increase levels of the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan.

14. Turn off:  TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones, because at around 9 p.m., your body starts releasing melatonin to make you drowsy, but this release is blocked in the presence of bright lights.

15. Sleep more in general: When over-tired, you are more easily stressed, which interferes with sleep.

16. Diet: Keep your intake of caffeine and alcohol low to promote health and reduce stress.

For getting sufficient rest once you’ve gotten to sleep …

17. Time the cycles: Because each sleep cycle includes five stages and lasts 90 minutes altogether, set a wake-up time that is a multiple of 90 from the time you anticipate falling asleep.  If you go to bed at midnight, for example, you might feel more refreshed waking up at 7:30 than if you got a full eight hours of sleep.

18. Lights: If you get up in the night, keep the lights low, because bright bathroom lighting blocks the release of melatonin and interferes with sleep patterns.

19. Electricity: Use incandescent bulbs in your bedroom, because fluorescent and LED bulbs can emit “dirty electricity.” And keep your cell phone out of the bedroom entirely; if you need the alarm, keep the phone at least one yard away from you. (WDDTY)

20. Lavender: Pillows and sleep masks filled with lavender, candles and room diffusers have been shown to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and create a relaxing effect; and there is some evidence that it “facilitates restful sleep,” Yale sleep researcher Vahid Mohsenin told The Wall Street Journal.  In a 2005 study, subjects who smelled lavender before bedtime had an increased amount of deep or slow-wave sleep and reported feeling more vigorous the morning after compared to the nights those same subjects sniffed distilled water.

 — Mary Carpenter


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