How to Solve Sleep Problems Using Science
Feb 3rd, 2021 •
Sleep is the fuel your body needs to accomplish anything. Without it, you’ll have no energy to work, socialize, or even read this article.
But what really happens when you can’t sleep properly? Your brain chemistry goes haywire, and you go through your days like a zombie, living like a lifeless object that perfectly blends with the background in a play.
You don’t want to become a zombie, do you? Well then, apply the following science-backed solutions to ALL your sleep problems.
In one sentence – sleep on your back with a thin pillow or on your side with your knees evenly pulled up.
If you have shoulder pain, you shouldn’t sleep on the side of your painful shoulder. And the worst thing you could do is sleep on your stomach.
Sleep on Your Back
A good way to avoid shoulder pain is to sleep on your back–the best sleeping position. Don’t use a thick pillow or it will cause neck pain. Choose an orthopedic pillow which has a special groove for your head.
Sleep on Your Side
If you can’t sleep on your back, sleep on your side but not on the painful shoulder. Lying on your side, pull your knees toward your chest and put a pillow between them. Use a full-body pillow if you like. Don’t lie with your head on your hand as it will be uncomfortable for your shoulder.
Why shouldn’t I sleep on my stomach?
Your spine has a natural curve, and if you sleep on your stomach, this curve flattens and puts strain on your back muscles. Sleeping on your stomach means your lower back is compressed the whole night. And your neck suffers because it is twisted to the side in this position.
How can I stop sleeping on my stomach?
Old habits die hard, so it may be hard to quit the habit. However, you can wear a pocket T-shirt to sleep in and put a tennis ball in the pocket. Every time you try to sleep on your stomach, the ball will press hard against your chest, nudging you to take the correct position. You may change your sleeping position without the tennis ball too. Do whatever works for you.
Don’t Worry, You CAN move
The right sleeping position will comfort you, not punish you. Just because you need to sleep in a certain position doesn’t mean you can’t move at all. It’s natural to move around a little bit while you sleep as it distributes the pressure on your body evenly. If you stay in one rigid position the whole night, it may cause pain in your back or shoulder.
In one sentence – sleep on your back using a thin pillow or on your side with both knees pulled up and a pillow in between.
The Biggest Reason: Lack of Physical Activity
“If you don’t make time for exercise, you’ll probably have to make time for illness.” – Robin Sharma
Yes, it’s finally time to get out of a lazy rut. The major cause of back pain is lack of physical activity. Most of us spend our days sitting on a chair at work, then on a sofa at home or lying in bed. The least we can do is to sit up straight in our chairs and, to take it a step further, exercise at least twice a week.
Sleep on Your Back
One of the best ways to avoid back pain is to sleep on your back. But, you may not want to use a pillow because it will put your head in an unnatural position. If you do use a pillow, use a thin or orthopedic pillow.
Sleep on Your Side
Another good position is sleeping on your side. But make sure that both your legs are straight as people tend to keep one knee bent up and out, twisting the pelvis, which isn’t good for your back. Also, choose a pillow whose thickness between your ear and the mattress lets your neck be comfortable.
Sleep on Your Stomach
As mentioned earlier, sleeping on your stomach is the worst position there is. It may be tempting, but there’s no way your neck and back can be comfortable when you’re sleeping on your stomach. So, never sleep on your stomach even if it requires putting a tennis ball in the front pocket of your t-shirt.
If you have to sleep on your stomach, keep a pillow under it to comfort your back.
In one sentence – use a pillow for your head and two pillows for your arms.
To recover from neck pain, sleep with a thin pillow under your head and a pillow under each of your arms. The key to recovering from neck pain is to choose the right pillow. Never use a stiff or high pillow as it will cause strain in your neck.
Choose your Pillow Carefully
Use a rounded pillow that goes with the natural curve of your neck along with a flat pillow to support your head. You can also put a small neck roll in the pillowcase of a flat pillow. Or you can use an orthopedic pillow with a special groove for the head to rest in.
Feather Pillow: a feather pillow is a great option to ease neck pain as it goes well with the natural curves of your neck. The only disadvantage is that feather pillows wear out quickly and have to be replaced every year or so.
Memory Foam Pillow: memory foam pillows “remember” the shape of your neck, which is how they get their name. In other words, the memory foam takes the shape of your head and neck and remains in that shape, providing good alignment for your spine. Memory foam pillows are a bit expensive but last longer than feather pillows.
While Traveling: when you’re out and about in your car or sitting on a plane, keep a horseshoe pillow with you to support your neck. Check that the pillow is not too thick behind your neck or your head will be tilted forward in an uncomfortable position.
See the best mattresses for neck pain
In one sentence – get out of bed; engage in a quiet activity like reading, painting, or taking a shower, and practice deep breathing to calm down quickly.
People find it hard to fall asleep when their minds are conjuring up dramatic scenarios of the future or replaying memories from the past. How can you stop being restless when you know that you have a long day tomorrow? No, you can’t pick up your phone!
Don’t keep suffering
Stop suffering in bed and do something else when you can’t sleep. But don’t do anything stimulating like playing a video game or work, and don’t turn on your laptop or smartphone, even if you want to stalk your ex. You can read a book, take a warm shower, or hum your favorite song while sitting on the sofa. Just change your environment.
A great way to calm your mind is to practice relaxation techniques like box breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Box breathing – inhale for a count of five, hold for a count of five, and then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this exercise for five to fifteen minutes, and your stress will vanish. Box breathing works so well because it makes us use the full capacity of our lungs down to the diaphragm. Usually, we take shallow breaths, but deep breaths restore and rebalance our vital energies and ground our minds in the present.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – as the name suggests, in this exercise, you relax your body muscles from the feet up to your head. But how? This involves just two steps – tensing and relaxing.
First, you focus on the muscle and apply tension by squeezing it tightly, and then, you relax the muscle. This needs to be done for about five seconds for each muscle.
The muscle groups you need to work on are: foot, lower leg and foot, entire leg, hand, arm, buttocks, stomach, chest, neck and shoulders, mouth, eyes, and forehead.
“Silence is not an absence but a presence.” – Anne D. LeClaire
If you find it hard to sleep, you need to bring meditation into your daily routine. Many people think meditation is super hard, but this isn’t true.
Although there are many forms of meditation, you can practice this simple one –
- Focus on the sensation on your nostrils as you inhale and exhale deeply.
- You don’t need to focus like you’re studying rocket science; be gentle and just observe the sensation.
- When your mind wanders, don’t fight the thought, just let it go and gently bring your mind back to the sensations on your nostrils.
Remember, “gentle” is the keyword here.
Meditation is not about paying attention, it is about paying “kind” attention.
A Regular Bedtime Routine
Just as it is recommended to have a morning routine, it is equally essential to have a bedtime routine. Do something to close the day – maybe read an interesting novel, write in your journal about your day, take a warm shower or meditate. A warm shower can especially help you fall asleep faster as it lowers your body temperature, signaling to your body that it’s time to sleep.
No Electronics Before Bed
Most of us keep our phones at arm’s length, not realizing that too much focus on electronics keeps us “alert” at times when we shouldn’t be. Moreover, the blue light from electronic devices sends the wrong cue to our bodies, keeping us awake when we shouldn’t be.
No Caffeine After 2 p.m.
Consuming coffee or tea even in the afternoon can make it hard for you to sleep. Cut out any caffeine intake after 2 p.m. and don’t drink more than four cups of coffee in a single day. If you have insomnia, it is best to avoid caffeine altogether.
Make sure that each morning, you get some sunlight on your face. Exposure to sunlight is the biggest cue for your body to set your circadian rhythm. So, an ideal way to fix your sleep routine is to go out in the sun for at least thirty minutes each morning.
Exercise is a great tool to keep your body healthy and enjoy sound sleep every night. Humans were not made to live inside four walls their entire lives. Our ancestors would walk and run long distances to hunt for food and look for shelter. So, it’s important that we exercise at least a couple of hours every week.
But don’t do any vigorous exercise before bed, such as running or lifting weights, as it can rev your mind up instead of winding it down.
Read about more weird ways to fall asleep.
In one sentence – make sure your room is dark and cool at night, and stay away from alcohol or technology before bed.
Why It’s Unhealthy
Research has proven that waking up from REM sleep leads to mood problems and is the equivalent of sleeping just four hours a night. It disturbs our cognitive capabilities such as memory retention, ability to comprehend complex information, paying attention and so on. In other words, sleep not only makes you healthy but smart too.
Cut Down On Alcohol
Alcohol is a major sleep disrupter even if it may help you fall asleep. It reduces the time spent in REM sleep, which is necessary for memory, concentration, and motor skills. Moreover, alcohol dehydrates your body, which further aggravates sleep problems.
Stay Away From Technology
Technology provides us limitless entertainment which serves us well when used in moderation but becomes toxic when used in excess. Don’t use any tech device for two hours before bed, and you’ll be able to enjoy a long, restful slumber.
Don’t Nap During the Day
Napping is not entirely bad for your sleep. But, it is best to avoid naps during the day so that you are more tired and sleep better at night. If you have to nap for some reason, don’t exceed 45 minutes, or you’ll enter REM sleep.
Sleep in a Cave
No, you don’t need to sleep in an actual cave, but make sure your room is at the right temperature, with clean bedsheets and enough space for you to enter that night slumber. Use dark curtains to block any light from entering your room. If there is any sound disturbance, use earplugs or a white noise machine to soundproof your room.
In one sentence – get sunlight for 20-30 minutes every morning and wake up at the same time every single day.
Get out in the sun
Regular sun exposure sets our circadian rhythm and helps us wake up at the same time every day. It also helps to let natural light come in your room in the morning. This sends your body the signal that it’s time to wake up.
Gradually Shift Your Bedtime
Many people can’t wake up because they go to sleep late, often at 4 or 5 in the morning. And some can’t change this sleep cycle even if if they want to. Don’t try to wake up at 7 a.m. if your regular waking time is 9 a.m. Gradually shift your time by 15 minutes earlier each day and go to sleep 15 minutes earlier each night.
Wake Up at the Same Time
If you have trouble waking up, set your alarm for the same time every day, seven days a week. If you wake up at different times, it disturbs your sleep cycle, making it difficult to wake up. Keep your alarm far away from you so that you don’t press the snooze button and doze off.
Learn about sleep-wake homeostasis.
In one sentence – sleep on your back using a thin pillow or on your side with both knees pulled up to the same level.
Nobody likes snoring. It makes your friends hate you instantly. And you don’t want to sleep in your bathroom or in a sleeping bag in that shady park across the street.
So, what can you do?
Sleep on your side
Sleeping on your back causes your throat tissues to sag, and your tongue moves back in your throat, narrowing the air passage. This narrow passage leads to snoring. To avoid this, sleep on your side, with your knees pulled toward your chest but at the same level. Don’t extend one knee way up above the other or you’ll put pressure on your back muscles.
Use the Right Pillow
Don’t use pillows that are too soft as they may cause your tongue to drop back in your throat. Use a medium-firm pillow or use an extra pillow to make sure your head doesn’t tilt backward.
Cut back on Alcohol
Alcohol relaxes your throat muscles and narrows the air passage inside your throat. This increases the chances of snoring. So, don’t drink before sleeping.
Open your Nasal Passages
Mucus in the nasal passage narrows it and leads to snoring. Before going to bed, clean your nose if it feels stuffy, using salt water. You may also want to take a hot shower as it opens your nasal passage and quickly puts you to sleep.
In one sentence – move around and massage your leg.
Nothing feels worse than leg cramps. You are all warm and cozy in bed, but all of a sudden, a muscle goes crazy, and you want to cut your leg off.
Leg cramps occur when muscles contract and tighten abruptly. You don’t need to worry as they are very common. But, if you experience cramps too often, there might be an underlying disease at play.
Don’t sit. Walk around and jiggle and shake your leg. This stretches your muscles and relaxes them, easing the cramp. If you are older than 40, it is essential to stretch and strengthen your muscles with exercise as muscles become less flexible after the age of 40.
Stretch and Massage
Stretch your leg muscles and massage the cramp area with your hands. You may want to shake your leg first to stretch the muscles and then massage the cramp area. This will soften the
muscles and ease the cramp.
Warm Shower or Pad
Taking a warm shower will relax all your body muscles. You can also put a heating pad on the affected muscle to relieve the pain.
To avoid leg cramps, you should stretch your muscles and exercise, but not too vigorously. If you don’t exercise often, then a vigorous workout may cause muscle cramps instead of prevent them.
In one sentence – keep your throat higher than your stomach while sleeping and eat lightly before bed.
Sleep With your Upper Body Elevated
When your stomach is at the level of your throat, acids from your stomach flow up through the esophagus, causing heartburn. So, you need to keep your throat elevated. In order to elevate your body, elevate the head of your bed by putting 4-6-inch blocks under its legs. Or you can sleep on a wedge shaped pillow that keeps your head higher than your stomach.
You shouldn’t consume foods or drinks that may trigger heartburn. These are alcohol, coffee, tea, colas, chocolate, peppermint, garlic, onion, milk, fried foods, and acidic foods such as tomato ketchup.
When you eat early, the acids in your stomach can empty out in time before you sleep, which reduces the chance of heartburn while sleeping. Moreover, heavy meals put pressure on your stomach, so eat light to avoid heartburns.
Relax During Dinner
Eating while stressed or eating in haste produces more acids in your stomach, leading to increased chances of heartburn. Also, relax after you eat. Do some deep breathing for a few minutes to relax, but do it before you eat.
In one sentence – take deep breaths, write down your thoughts or engage in a quiet activity like reading or painting.
The best solution for stress, anxiety, or racing thoughts is deep breathing. You need to breathe deep down into your diaphragm and use all your lung capacity to remove the stress from your body. Inhale deeply, hold for a moment, and exhale slowly. Do this for fifteen minutes and your mind will calm down.
Write Things Down
Quite often when our minds are racing, we are trying to make sense of an unresolved issue or concern. This is similar to how your headphone wires get tangled when you leave them alone. Your neural wires get tangled due to unresolved issues, firing up at each other endlessly, producing an endless train of thoughts. By writing about the core issue, we can untangle these neural wires and bring harmony to our minds.
Engage in a Quiet Activity
When we find it hard to sleep, we tend to distract ourselves with our smartphones or computers. Why? Because technology provides quick entertainment, and we are addicted to it. The right thing to do is engage in a quiet activity like painting, reading, knitting, or taking a warm shower. The key here is to relax your mind as opposed to stimulating it with TV, Facebook, or YouTube.
In one sentence – keep your room dark and cool and drink lots of water.
Did you know that your sleep cycle is tied to certain cues, such as light, food, and temperature? Your body uses these cues, also known as zeitgebers, to set your body clock.
Keep Your Room Dark
Sometimes it is not your mind that troubles you, but the outside environment. If your room gets too much sunlight early in the morning, it makes sense to use thick curtains to guard your sleep. You can get “blackout curtains” that allow you to get an additional hour or two of restful slumber in the morning.
Cool Down Your Room
Temperature is really important for your sleep because your body relies on the natural temperatures of day and night to set your body clock. It is warmer in the day and cooler at night. So, it is essential that you keep your room cool at night and warm in the morning.
Get a Cooling Pillow or Sheet Set
To keep your body cool at night, you can buy a cooling pillow that absorbs body heat and keeps you cozy all night. On the other hand, cooling bed sheets provide greater cooling capacity, although they are a bit expensive. But, since this one-time investment will keep you cool for a year or two, it is completely worth it.
Instead of cooling down your room, how about cooling down your body directly? Yes, drinking lots of water will keep your body cool. If you’re a male, drink at least 3 litres of water, or 13 cups, per day. If you’re a female, drink at least 9 cups, or 2.2 litres, per day.
In one sentence – get sunlight in the morning and stay awake one full day.
Monitor Your Exposure to Light
If you can take away a single piece of advice from this article, take this. Your body needs light at the right times to set your sleep cycle. So, if you want to reset your sleep cycle, take a 30-minute walk after sunrise every morning, and your sleep cycle will reset within a week. On the other hand, you also need to darken your surroundings when it’s time to sleep. This means no smartphone or computer at least two hours before bed.
Stay Awake One Full Day
If your sleep cycle is twisted and you sleep late at night, it’s best to pull off an “all-dayer”. It may take some willpower and mild stimulation (use the Internet, socialize or go out; don’t drink too much coffee) to keep awake the whole day when you have been awake since last night. But once you make it through the day, you will instantly go to sleep and wake up early the next day.
This may sound unusual, but camping is a great way to reset your sleep cycle. This is because when you’re out in the wild, your body synchronizes with the natural cues of sunlight and temperature, resetting your sleep rhythm to normal. However, you cannot take your smartphone, laptop, or any electrical lighting with you (except an emergency torch). Research published in Current Biology Journal shows that camping works magnificently, especially for night-owls.
Use Your Body’s In-built Food Clock
Researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that our sleep cycle not only responds to light but also to food. The best part is that the food clock can override the main clock. According to Clifford Saper, the lead researcher at Harvard, “you should just flip into that new time zone in one day.”
To use the food clock, stop eating 12-16 hours before your desired waking time. So, if you want to wake up at 6 a.m. in the morning, start fasting at 2 p.m. or 6 p.m. the previous day. This is especially helpful when you’re traveling to another country, as you can find out when they serve breakfast and then stop eating 12-16 hours before that time.
Delayed sleep can disturb your work or school productivity; hence, it’s essential to reset your sleep cycle. Only when you’ve tried everything else and are unable to go to sleep at an appropriate time should you consider taking 0.5 to 1mg of melatonin. If this doesn’t work, seek professional help.
See the best over-the-counter sleep aids.
In one sentence – exercise, stay away from technology, and don’t eat heavy meals at night.
No Technology before bed
If you are in the habit of scrolling through instagram before sleeping, you need to change your habits. Commit to not using any technology such as a smartphone, laptop, or TV two hours before bed. The bright light from such devices affects your sleep cycle and ruins the quality of your sleep. If you are bored at night, read a book, listen to soothing music, write in your journal, paint, or meditate. Engage in a quiet, low-stimulation activity.
Wake Up at the Same Time
If you wake up at different times on different days, it disrupts your sleep cycle. Maintain a strict schedule to keep a healthy sleep cycle. Wake up at the same time, even on the weekend.
Exercise in the Morning
Don’t be lazy when you wake up. Wash your face and move your body. Do a simple exercise such as jumping jacks at home, or go out for a run around the park.
Use the Right App to Wake Up
If you wake up during REM sleep, you will feel groggy and tired. Use the “Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock” app to wake you up at the right time. It analyzes your sleep patterns using the accelerometer in your phone and wakes you up when you’ve completed the REM cycle in your sleep.
Eat light and Eat Early
If you eat a heavy dinner before sleep, your body gets busy digesting the food. This disrupts your ability to fall asleep. Eating late only adds to this problem, as your body is internally active when you go to bed and this makes it hard to fall asleep. So always eat early and eat light.
Sleep problems can disrupt your lifestyle and harm your health. The good news is that you can fix your sleep fairly quickly if you use the solutions mentioned above.
Just so you remember, here are the keys to healthy sleep:
- Exercise: Even a couple hours of exercise every week brings huge benefits to your physical health.
- Morning sun exposure: Your body uses light as a cue to fix your internal sleep clock. So get out in the sun every morning and dim the lights two hours before sleep.
- No technology before bed: Blue light from your smartphone or laptop may disrupt your sleeping patterns. Also, excessive use of technology produces anxiety, so it must be avoided.
- Less caffeine: Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, so never drink more than 4 cups of coffee per day and drink your last coffee before 2 p.m.
- Cool environment at night: Temperature is another cue that determines your internal sleep clock. So turn on the AC at night, or use a cooling pad if you have to.
- A bedtime ritual: Don’t distract yourself on technology before bed. Engage in a quiet activity like journaling, reading, etc. A daily ritual works like a magic switch and puts you to sleep.
- Relaxation Techniques: Some nights are tougher than others. So practice deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation to get into a calm and tranquil state mentally.
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