How can I make it easier to get enough sleep at a normal time each night?
August 25, 2010 3:02 PM   Subscribe

How can I develop and maintain a normal, healthy sleep routine?

I've had poor sleep habits for years now. Whether because of staying up too late to play online games, procrastinating on big school assignments, or just getting caught up with whenever I was doing on the Internet, I got into the bad habit of staying up too late. The worst part about it was that because my biological clock was so messed up, on the days I would decide to try to go to sleep at a normal time, I simply wouldn't be able to get to sleep. And even though I've read time and time again that you should get out of bed and do something like a light reading if you can't get to sleep within 15 minutes, I just couldn't help but stay in the bed hoping I'd eventually fall asleep; it's hard to pry yourself away from a warm bed, especially during cold weather.

There have been times where for a short period, I have gotten into a normal sleep routine, but it never lasted for more than a couple weeks. Such as most recently, after returning from a trip to Europe, the time difference there helped put me into a normal sleep routine here in the United States; it was like a whole new experience for me to be able to regularly wake up around 7:00 AM without an alarm clock and feeling well rested. I did my best to maintain that sleep routine, but for whatever reason, it gradually became harder to get right to sleep after getting into bed, and so I'd get into the vicious cycle of staying up later, having to wake up later to still feel well rested, and being unable to get to sleep until later the following night.

But now that the new college semester is starting, I'm determined to do well, and to do that I know I'll have to be getting enough sleep a lot more often. So what can I do to make sure that I am able to get enough sleep on a regular basis? I've tried melatonin, but have had mixed results with it; occasionally it would put me right to sleep and I'd wake up feeling well rested, but I've also had problems with it not putting me to sleep, or where I'd wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep.

I've also felt a minor effect from Extra Sleepytime tea, but have never really tried any other sleepiness teas. I'd heard that light exposure plays a role, so I've sometimes tried to get out into the sunlight more often early in the day, and to avoid looking into bright lights late at night, but I'm not sure that these things have had much of an effect. I've heard that getting plenty of exercise early in the day helps, but there have been days where I spent hours walking, but still have had trouble getting to sleep that night. My mattress and pillow are really old and I intend to get a quality pillow soon, but my budget just doesn't allow for a new mattress anytime soon.

I always try to avoid caffeine in the evening, but occasionally I'll drink decaffeinated tea or eat something like chocolate pudding shortly before bed; is this a bad idea? Is there any kind of ideal meal that I could eat prior to bed for getting to sleep faster? I usually snack on peanuts if I get hungry in bed.

I know it's going to take self-discipline on my part to maintain a normal sleep routine, but how can I effectively establish one in the first place? I'm convinced that I'm going to have to develop the habit of waking up and going to sleep at roughly the same time every night, so how I can I make it easier to do that?
posted by Ryogen to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by fire&wings at 3:11 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool night owl and having worked rotating shifts years ago:
1. You probably need a good regimen of exercise; this works from my experience. Walking won't be enough to get the benefits; you'd need to do some sort of cardio or weight training.
2. The bed (and ideally the bedroom) should be only for sleeping or for any activities that definitely make you go to sleep. For me, certain kinds of books are enjoyable and make me sleepy; other kinds of books or the laptop computer keep me up.
3. I know it's not kosher these days to advocate alcohol use, but if you have anxiety in the evening, the classic "nightcap" might help. But in strict moderation only, since anything beyond 1-2 drinks impairs sleep quality.
4. Try adjusting the room temperature and try white noise from a fan or window AC.
posted by crapmatic at 3:18 PM on August 25, 2010

Exercise will help.

Don't use melatonin too often; try it for a week but then take at least a week off.

One important thing that might end up being hardest is to avoid all TV and computer screens for as long as possible before bed. Like, at least an hour and preferably 2. It will be hard as a student, with lots of homework and stress, but see if you can do it at least for a while to see if it helps.

I've found it also helps to minimize artificial light at night - leave half the rooms in your apartment dark, and light the rest with low, soft lights for like the last half an hour as you go about your bedtime routine (again, with TVs and computers off).
posted by rkent at 3:31 PM on August 25, 2010

You don't mention this angle, but it might be worth considering a medical check up to see if there's anything going on with your breathing. Sleep apnea doesn't only affect large/heavy folks. Sometimes, the shape of your nasal passages can influence it too, and it's hard to notice yourself. That can definitely disrupt the quality of your sleep, often without you being aware, which then messes up the sleep cycle itself. YMMV.
posted by 5Q7 at 4:10 PM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: If just getting to bed is part of the challenge, I had pretty good luck setting alarms:

- One went off 15 minutes before I was supposed to stop what I was doing and go to bed. The 15-minute warning helped me wind an activity down or get to a place where I could stop what I was working on.

- Another went off at bed time and I granted it absolute authority. It going off meant "stop and go to bed, no excuses."

Then I'd give myself 30 minutes to read in bed.

- A third went off when it was time to turn off the lights, though I'd allow myself to finish the chapter.

Pretty regimented, but after several weeks of that I started noticing that I was consistently feeling sleepy just before the "time to put the book down" alarm went off .

Also key: Sticking to whatever waking routine you come up with through the weekends. I used to treat weekends like they were somehow different, but found myself staying up way too late on Friday or Saturday night, then badly oversleeping on Saturday morning, to the point my 11 p.m. bed time just didn't work. Now, barring a very special occasion, I'm up at 6 every day of the week.

If I have a hard time going to sleep for whatever reason, I make it a point to limit my naps during the day to 25 minutes or shorter. Much more than that and I'll fall out of my bedtime routine pretty easily.
posted by mph at 4:20 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding dark. No lights at all -- lcd, cable box, charging iphone, etc etc. Dark. And I like mph's routine although it would probably be less stressful if you could achieve it without the alarm-setting! You are really looking to wind down, and you should try and begin new habits (dark, 30 minutes of reading, etc) that are purely associated with winding down. These are your sleepy habits -- the flip side of your morning, get-going habits. No screens, no light, no stimulus beyond a book and a reading lamp that you shut off at a specific time. It will take a week or so, I'd guess. Please try it -- it's a way to take care of yourself!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:53 PM on August 25, 2010

What time are you getting up in the morning? You have to make adjustments at both ends. If you can force yourself to get out of bed every morning early, then your body clock will adjust.
posted by media_itoku at 5:05 PM on August 25, 2010

This is corny, but it works -- warm to hot milk, sipped shortly before bed, really helps to get sleepy. Stay away from chocolate, tea, or anything else with caffeine, even small amounts.

A fixed bed time is really advisable. I nth the people who say no TV or computer screen for at least a half hour before bed, too.

I personally am in love with my sleep mask. I keep my room dark, but it guarantees no light creeps in.

Exercise is good if it is done at least 2-3 hours before you go to bed.

Lastly, if you do wake up, I'd suggest you sit up, wrap yourself in a warm fleecy something or other, and read a little.
posted by bearwife at 5:22 PM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: Also key: Sticking to whatever waking routine you come up with through the weekends. I used to treat weekends like they were somehow different

I recently had the same revelation. For years (practically my entire life as a student) I used to sleep much later on the weekends, which totally threw off my ability to get to bed at a normal hour Sunday night, which meant I was always starting off on Monday without a good night's sleep. It wasn't until recently, when I consciously decided to establish better sleep habits, that I realized my body doesn't understand that 2 nights a week are different from the other 5 nights. So now I get in bed at 11 every night and wake up at 7 every morning, weekend or not. It's been easier than I thought it would be, and I actually relish the idea of having a predictable bedtime instead of the stress that comes from staying up too late, knowing I am staying up too late, feeling guilty about staying up too late, and finally throwing myself into bed totally exhausted hours after I should have already been asleep. I didn't really establish any new routines, exercise habits, or sleep-inducing foods. I just told myself "I am going to get in bed every night at 11 whether I want to or not, and wake up every morning at 7 whether I want to or not" and somehow it has worked out pretty well. I set an alarm on my phone and leave it in the living room so I can't just roll over and snooze it, which helps. But I really think the weekend thing is key.
posted by Nothlit at 6:53 PM on August 25, 2010

You probably shouldn't eat peanuts before trying to sleep; they're packed with energy. In fact, you probably shouldn't eat much at all around bedtime, it's not helping you sleep.
posted by malapropist at 7:16 PM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: I don't know what your college is like but my school has a sleep specialist in the student health center who runs groups sessions and meets with students individually to talk about exactly these kinds of problems. You might want to check out what sort of resources your school has to offer.
posted by andoatnp at 7:20 PM on August 25, 2010

I'm going to throw in the dissenting vote. I'm one of those folk that has the opposite reaction ... caffeine makes me sleepy. NOT soda -- black tea, or my preferred Good Earth sweet and spicy blend. Nothing with lots of sugar or ANY artificial sweeteners. I've discovered that if I drink a cup of the stuff and start winding down, I'll eventually get tired.
posted by Heretical at 9:31 PM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: I used to be you, terrible insomnia, vicious circles of going to bed later and later.

I cut out the late night computer use and started exercising, 3-4 sessions every week. Now I'm lucky to get through a page or two of a book before I'm asleep, sometimes I'll even nod off on the sofa.

Getting off my arse was definitely the key to keeping the routine, I can eat, drink and play whatever I like before bedtime these days and still be out like a light.
posted by Ness at 2:21 AM on August 26, 2010

Personally, some recent experimentation has indicated that my "nightcaps" to "help me sleep" were more a cause of than a solution to my sleep problems. Alcohol can help one get to sleep, but it creates disturbed sleep cycles.

Cutting way back on alcohol and cutting caffeine down to one espresso in the morning has done me a world of good.
posted by endless_forms at 8:23 AM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: You should focus on the morning first, then focus on any remaining problems you might have with falling asleep. But establishing a routine of waking up early every morning is the most important step. It's also one of the hardest, so ask yourself this: What would motivate you to wake up? Class doesn't count. ;) Find something that you would really enjoy doing in the mornings and make that the focus of getting out of bed. For example, I've always been a natural night owl, but I also realized that I absolutely adore the peace, quiet, and solitude of the early morning. I love enjoying that while doing something calm, like yoga or just savoring a cup of coffee. I love how fresh everything feels, and it's a feeling I miss if I sleep late. Having a positive reason to wake up is much more effective than trying to overcome the "ugh, so tired, don't wanna get up" feeling with sheer willpower. And after a period of adjustment, if you're consistent with it, you won't feel so tired in the morning.
posted by spinto at 9:51 AM on August 26, 2010

The computer screen really really stimulates my brain sensors and makes me un-tired no matter what. You should get away from the computer at least an hour before you want to go to bed. Also, you say you are in you have to get up at 7 and go to bed at the early time that getting up at 7 would require? There's no inherent good in being a morning person. If you don't need to get up until 10, then don't get up until 10 and feel free to stay up later, just make sure you experiment with all the tips here about how to get in the mood for slumber.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:22 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you absolutely must use your computer late at night, try installing f.lux. It adjusts your monitor's colour temperature so that everything looks warmer post-sunset. The resultant screen is way easier on the eyes and seems to avoid triggering that wakefulness. But yeah, no computer use before bed is the way to go.

Also, doing yoga makes me have super restful sleep, more so than any other form of exercise.
posted by emeiji at 1:25 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always try to avoid caffeine in the evening
This right here jumped out at me. If I have so much as a tiny 6 oz. cup of green tea at say, 2PM in the afternoon, my sleep schedule is immediately knocked off course.

Absolutely no caffeine-containing foods after 12PM. If that doesn't work, push it back earlier hour by hour until it does. Implementing that, along with the exericse recommendations noted by others here should have a measurable effect.
posted by invisible ink at 5:22 PM on August 26, 2010

Having struggled with this same question for a long time, I finally figured out what works for me last year. My strategy has two key factors: a strict routine, and audiobooks/radio shows.

Every night, I start getting ready for bed an hour before I want to be asleep. This means I brush my teeth and change into my pajamas, then crawl in to bed. Then, with whatever time is left, I listen to something. This could be an audiobook or, more often, some sort of story read on a radio show (I find most of the things I listen to here), but I make sure my screen is turned dark. The combination of being very strict about making sure I'm getting ready for bed at the same time every night, and being in the darkness for usually about 45 minutes seems to send me to sleep really easily, and I'm someone who has struggled on and off with insomnia for years.
posted by rosethorn at 9:14 PM on August 26, 2010

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