The sleep struggle is real. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 4 out of 5 Americans are unhappy with their quality of sleep. However, there are many small changes we can make that have a huge impact not only on our sleep quality but on the duration, as well. Check out this Cup of Calm for more information on the connection between sleep and stress.
Now, Dr. Perlman answers your burning sleep questions:
Q. What can I do to fall asleep faster?
A: Stress and worry are what keep most people awake—and wired. But unlike electronic devices, our minds don’t just power off at the push of a button right before bed. “That’s why it’s important to make time throughout the day for activities that will de-stress us and help us fall asleep easier and sleep better,” says Dr. Perlman. “It could be some deep breathing, a cup of tea, or going for a walk.” He calls this becoming a “daytime de-stresser.”
Perlman practices what he preaches, working out most mornings. However, it doesn’t matter what time of day or type of fitness activity you choose. Studies show time and again that regular exercise helps you fall asleep and improves the quality of your rest.
Setting a regular wakeup time every morning also helps regulate your body clock, which will help you fall asleep at night. Even if you have trouble dozing off and feel tired in the morning, stick to your schedule—including on weekends.
Q. How can I keep my energy up during the day?
A: “Of course, better sleep means more energy throughout the day. If you’re not getting enough rest in general, or you’ve had a fitful night, when afternoon rolls around, you’ll feel fatigued,” says Perlman. “But an afternoon energy lull can also be a post-lunch phenomenon, especially if you eat a big meal of simple carbohydrates, like white bread or pasta. Those foods can cause spikes in our insulin and affect our blood glucose, which can lead to an afternoon crash.”
Smaller meals of lean protein, veggies, whole grains, and legumes (like beans, peanuts, or peas) are better lunch options. Snacks of fresh fruit or some nuts will also help ward off sluggishness.
“There’s been more data recently on the restorative effects of a ‘power nap,’ a brief nap of 20 to 30 minutes, which can be very rejuvenating,” Dr. Perlman continues. Studies show that a short snooze is refreshing, and can improve concentration and memory. “Just don’t go longer than half an hour, or you’ll get into deeper levels of sleep and wake up disoriented and more fatigued.
“On the other hand,” says Perlman, “if you consistently can’t keep your eyes open during the day, it could indicate a sleep disorder. If that sounds like you, you’ll want to get evaluated by your healthcare provider.”
Q. How can I get back to sleep when I wake up in the middle of the night?
A: At 3 a.m., without any daytime distractions, our minds easily shift into overdrive. When this happens, “recognize that 9 times out of 10, the things that are keeping us up ultimately have very little impact on our lives,” Dr. Perlman suggests. “If you try to think back to what kept you awake a week ago, a month ago, you probably don’t even remember. Of course, such rational thinking is challenging in the moment, but it helps to put things into perspective.”
Dr. Perlman also recommends keeping a pen and pad by your bed. “Whether it’s something you don’t want to forget to do, or something you’re stressed about, rather than ruminating about it, write it down. This takes it out of your head so you can let it go. It clears your mind.” Keep the lights dim, whether you’re jotting down notes or getting up to use the bathroom. Bright light can disrupt your body’s clock, so use a flashlight or nightlight instead.
“Here’s something a little different: a technique I learned at a health conference,” says Perlman. “Most of us are dreaming when we wake up. The moment you wake up, think about what you were dreaming and then close your eyes and mentally try to get back into that story, back into that dream—assuming it wasn’t a nightmare! This often works for me—though not every time,” says Perlman. “And it’s helped some of my patients, and also some of my friends.”