Help – I can’t sleep!

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Sleeping anywhereIs there an art to falling asleep? Why is it that some people fall asleep within minutes each night, and seem to do so effortlessly? While others lie awake for hours, contemplating the next day, worrying about work, family, money, and everything else. Others find that while they can drop off when the lights go out, they find themselves awake pre-dawn and can’t get back to sleep. So while some people are naturally better at relaxing and clearing their mind, for many of us it’s not so easy.

We all know how great we feel after having a deep, uninterrupted sleep. It rejuvenates our mind and body. During sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. Don’t underestimate its healing powers.

In fact, science is just starting to uncover the many tangible health benefits associated with good quality sleep, such as a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, as well as more effective weight loss.

So how can we reap the benefits of great sleep? Here are my tips for getting the best possible sleep you can – all night, every night – so you can wake feeling refreshed, energised and healthier every day. Importantly, many of the strategies for achieving a deep, uninterrupted sleep take place long before your head hits the pillow.

• Watch your diet

Too much caffeine after lunchtime can keep you jumpy when you’re ready to relax. So avoid consuming coffee, tea, cola and chocolate in the afternoons and evenings. Herbal teas can be a good replacement, and brews such as chamomile can even help you relax. Likewise foods such as cherries, oats and turkey, which are high in melatonin, can help your body prepare for sleep.

Alcohol is also best avoided if you’re aiming for sound, uninterrupted sleep. It may make you drowsy to start with, but has a delayed stimulant effect which will cause sleep disturbances through the night. Best limit yourself to one or two drinks, and try not to drink within three hours of bedtime.

For the same reason, you should also check any medications that you are taking – ensure that you are taking them at the best times of day and that sleeplessness is not a side-effect.

• Get some exercise

Unfortunately if you’re not sleeping well, it can be hard to find the energy to exercise – but it really is important and will make a difference. So get off the couch and get moving – even just a walk around the block can help.

• Make the bedroom your sanctuary

Leave all your electronic devices at the door, and get in the habit of keeping a notepad by the bed in which to write any last-minute niggling thoughts, reminders or worries. This will help you empty your mind – once you write these things down, you can leave them until the morning without worrying about trying to remember them.

Also ensure that your mattress and pillow are comfortable and supportive of your spine. If you’re not comfortably supported, your body will not be able to relax correctly. Even if you do manage to fall asleep, you’ll remain restless and wakeful: as pain forms in your lower back, neck, hips or shoulders, your brain will tell you to move or roll over, effectively preventing you from reaching deep sleep.

• Calm your mind

To prepare your body for sleep, turn off the TV two hours before bedtime. Try and allow at least an hour before bedtime to simply relax and wind down: read a book, listen to some soft music by candle light, take a warm bath, etc. This will allow your mind to naturally relax and let you know when it is time to go to sleep.

Over time, this quiet time will become a ritual, helping to trigger sleepiness. If you’re feeling really stressed and can’t wind down, some self-guided meditation or light stretching exercises will help you unwind.

• Use soft lighting

Light stimulates the brain and tricks it into thinking it’s time to wake up, so use only soft, dim lights in the bedroom, hallway and bathroom (kids’ nightlights are best). That way you will still be able to see where you are going without having to switch on the bright bathroom lights which nearly blind you and signal your brain to wake up!

• Overcoming wakefulness

If your mind is racing and you can’t get to sleep, or if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, here are a couple of techniques I have found particularly useful:


  • Get the environment right – ensure your room is cool, dark and quiet.
  • Relaxing music – play some relaxing music at low volume – just loud enough to hear in the background (I personally find Enya very good for this purpose).
  • Meditation – it’s simple and you can do it without leaving bed.

Here is a great technique to lull yourself back to sleep when you find yourself waking up repeatedly:

Lying on your back, place your hands wherever they feel comfortable.

Take three very slow, very deep breaths. Each time you breathe out feel how your body feels a little heavier and sinks a little deeper into the mattress. Just let your mind relax.

Next picture yourself stepping into an old-fashioned elevator (the kind you see in really old buildings or on movies). Look up, and the dial says you’re on the 19th floor. Press the down button and the elevator starts to descend very slowly (as they do), and as you watch the dial, silently count down each floor, taking a long slow breath as you pass each floor.

When you arrive at the first floor the elevator comes to a stop and the door slides open to a beautiful polished timber hallway.

Across from the elevator is a grand staircase leading down to a warm, softly-lit carved wooden door which is slightly ajar. You can’t see what is in there but it somehow feels warm and inviting.

As you approach the staircase you realize there are 19 steps. As you start to descend, pause and take a deep breath on each step, feeling more and more relaxed with each step.

You should be asleep well before you get to the wooden door.

If you’re still awake after all this, DON’T PANIC, or get angry and frustrated – that will make things worse. Just grab a book and read for a while – take your mind off the ‘task’ of sleeping. Then go through the relaxation routines again – sleep will come if you let it!

Happy sleeping!

Ian Woodhouse - Sleep expertAbout the Author

Ian Woodhouse is a Director and sleep specialist with The Art of Sleep, who through his own many years of sleep issues has designed a practical and drug-free holistic approach to better quality sleep, covering all facets of body, mind and lifestyle.

He is passionate about helping people get more energy and vitality through understanding the importance of sleep and the simple things that can be done to sleep better and feel great.

And the thing he loves most about sleep? You get to reap the benefits of it the very next day!

The Art of Sleep

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