There are numerous reasons as to why we struggle to fall asleep at night, or even wake during the night and then have problems getting back to sleep. One of the most important things to do is identify your sleeping pattern and any reasons that may be affecting your sleep.
For example, is it hormonal? The drops in oestrogen levels during a woman’s menstrual cycle or during menopause could cause night sweats, resulting in difficulty sleeping.
Is it something you ate? Night-time heartburn can be extremely uncomfortable, so avoiding eating a heavy meal too soon before bedtime. Also, the kinds of foods you consume can have an impact on this too, especially spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol. Furthermore, you may think that an alcoholic nightcap will help you to sleep, but research shows that it can prevent you from maximising on the vital parts of the deeper sleep cycle. So try to avoid alcohol too close to bedtime.
Is it stress related? Are you simply having problems winding down to prepare the mind and body for sleep before bed? This can cause problems, both with falling asleep or waking prematurely with a sense of anxiety or preoccupied mind. If the body/brain is in a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) state, you are in “survival” mode, keeping you alert and sensitive to potential threats around you. Not conducive to sleep, right? When the body moves out of a more SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) state it becomes more Parasympathetic (PN), encouraging you into a state more about rest, recovery and digestion.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to move the body more into a Parasympathetic Nervous System state is to focus on diaphragmatic breathing. This means breathing in to inflate the belly on inhalation and exhaling to empty the belly of air. However, this is not how most people breathe. Most of us breathe into the chest - conventionally a Sympathetic form of breathing -keeping us primed for attack not relaxation.
Other forms of stress to the body that keep us overstimulated are environmental stresses, such as the lights being too bright, or the room being too hot or cold etc. Or sometimes it’s simply that we didn’t take the time to “switch off” from the stresses of the day, i.e. going to bed on an argument, reading that email from the boss just before you got into bed - or worse, in bed! I try to encourage, both myself, and my clients to have a cut-off point with emails and work stuff. Try listening to some relaxing music, work on your breathing, or read a good book. Sitting watching a horror movie is not going to put you into a relaxed deep sleep!
If you find that you often wake in the night with a head whirling through ideas, or things you panic about forgetting, then you are probably not winding down effectively either. One of the most effective solutions I have found is to keep a notepad by the bedside.
Is it your exercise program? We all know that exercise is good for you. However, exercising too late in the day can raise your core body temperature, and raise your cortisol levels (your fight or flight hormone) keeping you “wired”. Try to avoid strenuous exercise at least 2 hours before bedtime. Better still; make your evening work-out a more parasympathetic one, focusing on simple yoga routines and breathing techniques, rather than high intensity or cardio.
I have explored a number of different techniques both for myself and with clients when they are struggling to sleep, but one of the most effective long-term resolutions is to build a pre-sleep routine. Whatever you find works for you (and based on your reasons for your trouble sleeping), try incorporating a switch-off routine into your night-time schedule. The more frequently you practise this routine, the more your body gets easily prepared for sleep, and soon it just becomes a good habit.