Can’t Sleep? Try Any of These 6 Simple Techniques, According to Harvard Medical School

It's reported that 20 percent of Americans need sleep medication to get them through the night.

Red alarm clock with sleeping mask on mint background
Red alarm clock with sleeping mask on mint background

For the last several months, I’ve been a bit sleep deprived, not understanding why I can’t just lay my head down and get enough Zs. It usually takes me at least an hour, if not longer, to finally shut off my mind and pass out.

While I haven’t resorted to desperate measures yet, Harvard Medical School published a report stating that nearly 20 percent of American adults pop a pill to help them sleep (or turn to a little moonshine for relief), despite knowing the side effects that come with many sleep medications.

So if your problem lands in one of these areas, help is on the way as you scroll down, courtesy of Harvard Medical School:

  • Do you find that you get sleep, but just not quality sleep where you wake up recharged?
  • Do you feel sleepy during the day?
  • Does your sleep always fall short of the required seven to nine hours that most people need?

Habits to change to improve your sleep

It all comes down to having good sleep hygiene, which means “practicing behaviors that promote sleep and stopping behaviors that are bad for sleep.” Sounds simple enough. Here’s what I found to be helpful advice that, hopefully, will add a few hours of shuteye to my sleep routine, as well as yours.

1. Get up at the same time every day.

Yes, even on the weekends. Why does it matter? Because if you oversleep on a Sunday, for example, it may impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep on Monday night. “A regular wake time helps to set your body’s natural clock (circadian rhythm) by making sure you do not oversleep,” according to Harvard Medical School.

2. Go to bed when you are sleepy, not just tired.

This one hits close to home. The report states, “If you feel sleepy, but your brain is busy thinking, it can’t shut off and go to sleep. It may be helpful to sit down with a pen and paper in the evening and write down the things that worry you, or perform some relaxation techniques, such as slow breathing or yoga.” Points well taken.

3. Unplug from all your electronic devices two hours before bedtime.

I’ve noticed a difference in how much faster I’m falling asleep ever since I started doing what Arianna Huffington has been advocating for sleep transition: Pick a time at the end of the day when you “gently escort your phone out of your bedroom to charge,” says Huffington. Placing it out of arm’s reach in another room should be a regular part of your bedtime ritual that, Huffington says “makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone.”

4. Make your bed a comfortable place for sleep and sex only.

The Harvard Medical School report states that your bed should be saved as a sacred place for two activities: sleep and sex. Anything else–eating, reading, working, watching Netflix on the iPad–and your brain will be tricked into thinking that those activities are appropriate in bed.

5. Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake.

Don’t shoot the messenger, but according to the Harvard Medical School report, “Even one or two cups [of coffee] in the early part of the day can disrupt your sleep at night.” And alcohol, while it can help people fall asleep, leads to more sleep problems, like endless trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

6. Exercise.

Having a regular exercise routine during the day can help improve your sleep quality at night.

The report states that if you’re at a point where nothing seems to be working, including the tips above (it also recommends that people stop smoking), it may be a sign of a clinical sleep problem, such as insomnia disorder or sleep apnea. This will require elevating your strategy to seeing a sleep specialist or seeking behavioral treatment by professionals to help reset your brain to achieve healthy sleep.

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