Sleeping Difficulties

At some point in life one in three adults report some degree of insomnia. If you are having trouble sleeping, certain changes in your lifestyle can help you regain a good night’s sleep.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

The need for sleep varies widely from individual to individual. If you are sleeping "only" five hours a night but waking up feeling alert, oriented and energetic, that is probably all the sleep you need. Other people need 8 to 10 hours to feel well rested. Your need for sleep may decrease if you are exercising regularly and doing things you enjoy. Conversely, if you are under a lot of stress or have become less active, your need for sleep may increase. Experiment to find the right amount of sleep for you.

Strategies for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Setting Your Body Clock

  • Keep a regular schedule for sleeping. Go to bed at about the same time and get up at the same time, every day. If you get to bed late or haven’t slept well, don’t oversleep to try to make up for the lost time. Sleeping late for even a couple of days can reset your body clock to a different cycle.
  • Go to bed later when you are having trouble falling asleep, not earlier. If you are only managing 5 hours of sleep a night, don’t go to bed until 5 hours before you have to get up. When all your time in bed is good sleep time, then begin moving your going-to-bed time back 15 to 30 minutes a night, until gradually you work your way up to a full night’s sleep.
  • Light helps restart you body clock to its active, daytime phase. In the mornings, open the curtains, go outside and get some sunlight, if possible, or turn on all the lights in the room.
  • Try not to nap, especially on the day after you haven’t slept well. If you must nap, limit it to 20 minutes or so. Any longer and it will interfere with your ability to sleep that night. 

Exercise and Diet

  • Exercise regularly. Keeping physically active during the day is one of the best things you can do to promote restful sleep. Be cautious of exercising in the evenings; however, as this tends to keep many people awake.
  • Avoid caffeine after 12 noon. This includes coffee, tea, and caffeinated soda! Also be wary of chocolate, which contains a fair amount of caffeine as well.
  • Avoid late, high-fat, or spice-laden dinners, which are harder to digest. For an evening snack choose carbohydrates and milk, both of which contain tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter believed to be associated with triggering sleep onset.
  • Avoid or cut down on alcohol when you are having trouble sleeping. Alcohol may make you sleepy initially, but it results in shallow, disturbed sleep, abnormal dream periods, and frequent early morning awakening.

Getting Ready for Bed

  • Develop a bedtime routine. Stop doing anything that is stimulating (such as physical activity, listening to loud music, or watching a violent or dramatic TV show) 30 minutes before going to bed. Do something relaxing, such as reading light material or listening to quiet music.
  • Take a long, hot bath before going to bed. Baths are soothing and help relax your muscles. Avoid showers, on the other hand, as they seem to wake people up.
  • Pay attention to your environment. Most people sleep much better in a cool room (60 degrees or so). Some people sleep better if there is some “white noise” in the background, such as a fan, while others need absolute quiet. Determine what’s best for you and try to arrange your bedroom accordingly.
  • Bed should be for sleeping. Don’t get into a pattern of reading, watching TV, eating, arguing or talking on the phone from bed. When you get into bed you want your body to assume you are doing so to go to sleep, not to continue the day’s activities.
  • If you are in bed and unable to sleep, get up and do some quiet activity for a time. Read, play solitaire, or write letters until you start to feel sleepy again. Then go back to bed. Turn your clock away from you so you are not focusing on how late it is getting. Doing so will only leave you feeling more frustrated and make it harder to relax and go to sleep.
  • If you wake up during the night, relax in bed for a short while. If you can’t go back to sleep, get up and do some quiet activity until you are sleepy again. Repeat this if necessary.
  • Sleep medications may provide some short-term relief if your insomnia is transitory. They are not good for chronic insomnia, however, as over the long term they can cause significant changes in the sleep cycle. See your physician or University Health Services if you would like to know more about sleep medication.

Other Things You Can Do

  • Insomnia is almost always a symptom of something else, such as stress, relationship problems, worry about grades or money, and so forth. One trick many find effective is keep a pencil and paper handy, and when you can’t sleep write down what’s bothering you. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things you have to get done, make a “to-do” list. Tell yourself you’ll deal with these things in the morning, and try to put them out of your mind.
  • Relaxation and stress reduction techniques can help a great deal when you are having problems sleeping. CAPS offers individual counseling for stress management and stress management workshops fall and winter semesters. Many health insurance plans also offer classes through local hospitals (check your medical insurance). Yoga, tai chi, biofeedback or meditation can also help you sleep better. (Yoga and tai chi are offered through Eastern Michigan University’s REC/IM.) There are also audio tapes available for purchase from most bookstores with relaxation instructions and soothing music.