DDLY, CHRISTINE WAS NOT surprised when she rear-ended a car that morning. Already a poor sleeper, it was always worse when her workload as a freelance editor would suddenly pick up. Most nights she tossed and turned, getting by on six hours of sleep. But because she had several deadlines to meet during the next week, her sleep pattern was even worse. Rather than lie in bed tossing, turning, and worrying about work, she chose to finish some editing on her computer. She finally went to bed at 1:00 a.m. By then she felt tired enough to sleep.
She lay there until 2:00, however, before finally drifting off. Her alarm went off at 5:00. Rising after a mere three hours of sleep, she showered, dressed, and raced off to an early-morning meeting. Because the meeting ran overtime, she was behind schedule. Stuck in traffic, she fell asleep at the wheel. The airbag striking her face wakened her to the fact that she’d driven into the vehicle in front of her. Fortunately, it was a minor accident. It could have been worse—much, much worse.
Like Christine, some 60 to 70 million Americans have a sleep problem. And it’s not just a contemporary issue. The Bible reports on individuals who struggled with getting enough rest. Job’s insomnia was so acute that he lamented: “When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss till dawn” (Job 7:4). According to sleep disorder specialists, sleeping well is not a luxury—it’s a necessity.
Sleep deprivation results in wide-ranging issues such as impaired memory loss, less alertness, slower reaction time, less patience, decreased work productivity, strained relationships, a weakening immune system, lack of energy, greater irritability, increased risk for diabetes and obesity, and rising blood pressure.
Sleep deprivation can also be dangerous. A study by the American Sleep Apnea Association and Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Clinic discovered that inadequate sleep causes problems similar to a person who drinks too much alcohol. When a tired driver gets behind the wheel of a car, results can be disastrous. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that sleepy drivers cause at least 100,000 accidents each year. Of those, 1,500 are fatal and 71,000 result in injuries.1 Although we, as a society, are chronically sleep-deprived, there are ways to remedy this situation. Sleep problems are not insurmountable. Here are 10 tips for getting a better night’s sleep:
1. Be predictable. Establish and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Stick to a schedule that you maintain seven days a week. Go to bed at the same time daily and get up at the same time daily. Avoid sleeping in on the weekends, because if you sleep in Sunday morning, you’ll get Sunday night insomnia. That, in turn, sets you up for sleep problems as you begin your workweek. “Getting up at the same time every day, including weekends, is probably the most important step toward establishing good sleep patterns, because regular exposure to light in the morning is what sets the brain’s alarm clock,” notes James Walsh, executive director of the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital, Chesterfield, Missouri.2 Light exposure helps the body regulate itself into a rhythm by establishing the time to wake up (at light) and the time to become drowsy again (after dark).
2. Practice emotional and spiritual stress management. It’s hard to rest well if you’re worried and stressed about some aspect of your life or work. This was the psalmist’s issue: “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Ps. 6:6). Learn some stress management techniques to help you cope with daily stress. One suggestion sleep experts offer is to schedule worry time early in the evening before retiring. They recommend a 30-minute period to write out worries on paper, and then write out possible solutions. This simple exercise relaxes the mind, permitting better sleep. Another step to take when stressed or anxious is spiritual stress management. Explain your concerns to God in prayer. Seek God’s wisdom and direction. Then trust that God will look after you. The prophet Jeremiah had many tense moments in his ministry but continued to trust God. The result is recorded in Jeremiah 31:26: “At this I awoke and looked around. My sleep had been pleasant to me.”
3. Observe and modify your sleep environment. “Without realizing it, I turned my bedroom into an entertainment center and an office away from my office,” says Jana, a university professor. “Shortly after that my sleeping became less and less refreshing and more and more restless.” Her solution: she turned her bedroom back into a place of rest, not a place of work nor her home theater room. Sleep experts advise people to study their physical environment by asking: Is my bedroom too hot or too cold? Is the mattress too hard or too soft? Is traffic roaring in the streets outside my window? Is too much light coming into my bedroom, even at night? After that, make the necessary changes that will facilitate healthful rest. Some suggestions are:
a. Use heavy drapes to keep night light out and better
darken the bedroom. Add white noise (such as a fan)
to muffle outside noises that come from a busy street,
airplanes, trains, or even a snoring spouse.
b. Turn down the heater or run the air conditioner. Sleep
is better when the body is cooler.
c. Invest in a mattress that works with your body, ensuring
a good night’s rest.
4. Avoid caffeine. Found in coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and even tea, this stimulant can interrupt sleep, even when consumed early in the day. Dr. Walsh’s research indicates that consuming caffeinated drinks—three cups of coffee or more—continues to provide stimulation for up to eight hours later. “Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others,” he acknowledges. Some who don’t think they are affected, however, actually are. Research subjects who said they could drink coffee before bed and sleep well “don’t sleep as well as they think when you test them in the lab,” Walsh notes.3
5. Get physical. Various studies show that exercise is beneficial. A mere 30 to 45 minutes of exercise during the day or early evening helps insomniacs enjoy better and longer sleep. For example, one “study of more than 700 Tucson, Arizona, adults found those who included regular physical activity in their daily routine slept better at night, lessened daytime sleepiness, and suffered from fewer nightmares.”4 Physical activity enhances deep, refreshing sleep by increasing metabolism and body temperature, both of which drop about four to six hours later, providing sounder sleep.
6. If you smoke, quit. Besides being a source of cancer, the nicotine contained in tobacco products stimulates brainwave activity as well as increases blood pressure and heart rate. These disturb the ability to sleep soundly. The advice from a sleep disorder specialist: if you smoke, quit.
7. Be mentally and socially engaged during the day. “Poor sleepers spend more time shopping, sitting around, and watching TV, while good sleepers spend more time working, chatting with friends, and pursuing hobbies,” notes Cornell University sleep researcher James B. Maas, Ph.D. “In other words, boredom can lead to sleep loss,” he says. “So stay mentally active.”5
8. Nix the nightcap. If you are ever tempted to take an alcoholic drink before bedtime to help you sleep, “Don’t,” advises Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., a sleep researcher at the University of California in San Diego and author of All I Want Is a Good Night’s Sleep. “Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but several hours later when the effect wears off, it starts disrupting your sleep, increasing your wakefulness during the second half of the night.”6
9. Make your bedroom a sleep haven. “Your bedroom should be associated with pleasure and rest, not stress and tension,” Maas says. It should be a place for sleep and other relaxing activities, “not for watching exciting or violent television programs, doing work or balancing the checkbook, for example. Reading something pleasurable or listening to soft music, however, might actually reduce tension and help you nod off more easily.”7
10. Don’t use sleeping pills. As a last resort, some people turn to prescription sleeping pills. These “do not solve the underlying problem, and once you start taking them, you can get hooked,” says Isadore Rosenfeld, M.D., a physician and medical journalist. “If you and your doctor decide you need a sleeping pill, use one that’s short-acting, doesn’t leave you with a hangover, works quickly, and doesn’t accumulate in the body. Don’t take it for more than three weeks and never ‘borrow’ one from a friend,” he adds.8
If you don’t feel you’ve experienced sleep improvement after trying various remedies, talk with your physician, because there may be a physical disorder that is interfering with your sleep. Chronic pain, for example, caused by anything from arthritis to an injury, can keep you awake. So will shortness of breath resulting from lung or heart disease. Also, a common but overlooked cause of insomnia is an overactive thyroid gland, which constantly revs up body metabolism.
Such physical issues can best be addressed in a physician’s office. If after a month or so the doctor’s suggestions aren’t helping, ask for a referral to a sleep specialist who may be able to lead you to a good night’s sleep.
2Richard Laliberte, “Seven Ways to Sleep Better Tonight,” McCall’s Magazine, May 1996, p. 25.
3Ibid., p. 28.
4Archives of Internal Medicine, cited in Vibrant Life, July/August 1999, p. 9.
5James Maas, “The Healing Power of Sleep,” Family Circle, September 15, 1998, p. 64.
6Nuna Alberts, “The Healing Power of Sleep,” Good Housekeeping, March 2000, p. 158.
8Isadore Rosenfeld, “For a Good Night’s Sleep,” Parade, October 25, 1998, p. 9.
Victor M. Parachin is an ordained minister and freelance writer living in Claremont, California.