Unable to sleep well at night? Find out how you can change that.

You've tried everything — skipping caffeine late in the day, avoiding heavy counting sheep for dinner, and counting sheep till you get sleep. Yet, every night, slumber seems to escape you, and you find yourself lying in bed frustrated about what's interrupting your sleep.

As Dr. Sudhir Kumar, Consultant Neurologist, Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad, explains, “Lifestyle factors like stress, night shift duties, addiction to the Internet and mobile phones are affecting sleep patterns.” Dr. Garima Shukla, Associate Professor, Department of Neurology, AIIMS, Delhi, attributes this as ‘ primary insomnia', where difficulty in getting sleep or having a non-refreshing sleep is not caused by any mental or physical condition.

Often the cumulative effect of not getting sound sleep, due to reasons like late nights, leads to the accumulation of sleep debt, which impairs the functioning of the brain, making you less alert. It also impairs gross motor activities and makes you feel tetchy and impatient. Lack of sleep also decreases the levels of serotonin, dopamine and other hormones in the body, leading to anxiety, stress and depression-related illnesses. Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation is linked to several illnesses like an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, heart attack and obesity.

Good sleep hygiene

Insomniacs looking for a quick solution often reach out for sleeping pills and alcohol to induce sleep. However, experts concur that this is just a short-term solution, which adversely affects the body. The trick lies in a few effective practices that help you relax, sleep better, and eventually live better.

Doctors believe that good sleep hygiene leads to improved sleep. Sleep hygiene are specific practices that ensure restful and effective sleep, and promote day time alertness.

According to Dr. Sanjay Pattanayak, “Have a consistent sleep and wake schedule. A daily sleep routine not only sets the body's internal clock but also allows you to feel more rested.” This, of course, is flexible for certain days when you might have to stay awake longer than usual. However, you can readjust your wake up time or take an afternoon nap to ensure you are not deprived of shuteye.

Dr. Shukla also feels that the bedroom should be sleep friendly: cool, quiet and uncluttered. “A bedroom is meant for sleep and intimacy, not to watch television, or surf the web.”

Dr. Pattanayak agrees and emphasises that a bed should be used for sleeping, and not for studying or eating. The lighting, noise and temperature in the room should be controlled to create an environment conducive to sleep.

Put on your walking shoes

“Adding exercise to the daily routine dramatically improves your sleep quality,” says Deanne Pandey, a fitness instructor based in Mumbai. In order to get maximum benefits, you must engage in cardiovascular exercise like jogging, kickboxing, walking or swimming. Simply raising the heart rate for half an hour a day helps improve sleep quality as well as sleep time.

“Strength training is also essential for building muscle and raising your metabolism. Stretching before and after exercise is also a must,” adds Pandey.

Aditi Mehrotra, a nutritionist based in Chandigarh, feels that exercise removes sluggishness by improving the circulation of blood in the body. “Deep breathing sessions in yoga empty the stale air from the lungs,” she adds.

For exercise to have a positive effect on the quality of sleep, one needs to choose the time wisely. “The best time to exercise is morning/mid-morning as exercise will help jump start your metabolism and keep you active throughout the day,” says Pandey. “Late evening exercise might make you very alert, interfering with your body's ability to relax and sleep.”

But determining the best time to get your workout depends on the individual. “If you are morning person, you can wake up a little early and go for a jog at the park. People who find it difficult to exercise in the morning can hit the gym after work”, explains Pandey.

Eat the right way

The food we eat also affects the way we sleep. Some foods make it harder for us to sleep, like caffeinated drinks or foods containing alcohol.

You may feel that alcohol helps you relax and fall asleep faster, but it actually causes disturbances in sleep. Drinking coffee at night also disturbs your sleep system, stress levels and circadian rhythm.

“Foods that are rich in tryptophan help promote sleep”, notes Mehrotra. “This amino acid increases the availability of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which elevates the mood and lulls us into a restful sleep”, she adds.

Mehrotra recommends eating an evening snack or dinner that combines a concentrated dietary source of tryptophan with a healthy carbohydrate rich food. Foods rich in tryptophan include beans, whole grains, chickpeas, peanuts, sunflower seeds, milk and milk products. “The age-old belief of drinking warm milk before bed is true,” says Dr Pattanayak.

It is also important to avoid heavy meals before going to sleep. Heavy meals make lying down feel uneasy. It can also cause indigestion and interfere with sleep.

De-stress

It is a dreadful feeling to lie in bed worrying about things that didn't go the way you wanted. It could be a task at work, or the stress of a home you are looking to buy. Stress and tension build up, even without us realising it.

Too much stress negatively impacts our psychological and physical well-being. People under stress also find it difficult to relax their muscles and experience aches and pains frequently.

“If worry is not allowing you to sleep, wake up and do something relaxing till you feel sleepy again,”. says Dr Shukla. Listen to soothing music or read a book, to distract your mind and calm you down. Opt for a massage a few hours before bedtime to release muscle tension.