By Kylie Gilbert | SHAPE | Sep 19, 2017
Experts share science-backed relaxation techniques to help you get your healthiest sleep possible.
Not feeling 100 percent—whether you’re sick, stressed, sore, or suffering from a more serious medical condition—can make falling asleep seem like an impossible task.
“Any discomfort you experience, even if it’s mild, aggravates sleep, putting you at risk of developing chronic sleep problems,” says sleep researcher Mark Muehlbach, Ph.D., the clinical director at the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis. “And if you’re not sleeping well, it will only further aggravate any discomfort you have.” It’s a vicious and frustrating cycle.
Good news: There are ways to break that cycle. By implementing these smart habits, you’ll get to sleep faster, snooze more soundly, and be able to soothe yourself back to sleep if you wake up from pain, discomfort, or a racing mind.
Relax Your Muscles
Progressive muscle relaxation can help both mind and body wind down, says Muehlbach. Do this: Start at your forehead, working your way down your body, tensing up muscle groups for five seconds, then relaxing them. Take your time with each muscle group in your neck, shoulders, arms, torso, and down to your legs and feet. This purposeful muscle release forces the body to relax and let go of tension. It can be a mental exercise, too, since it keeps your mind from wandering.
Track Your Stress
“Stress is a core cause of sleep disorders, so anything we can do to keep it in check is great for sleep,” says Prudence Hall, M.D., founder of The Hall Center. That’s why she recommends monitoring stress levels with a tracker. Such a device will keep tabs on your heart rate and alert you when you’re super stressed. You can learn your triggers and get back into a zen state of mind.
Consider a Supplement
Melatonin—the “sleep hormone” that helps regulate our biological clock—is a great supplement to have on hand. It can be helpful as an occasional sleep aid for some when taken an hour before bed, and it doesn’t have a lot of side effects, Muehlbach says. Bonus: It actually helps with more than just sleep, says Dr. Hall. “Melatonin has been shown to decrease breast cancer in women and is an antioxidant for the brain, which means it can help optimize the brain’s cognitive function and protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia,” she explains.
Unload Your Thoughts with Pen and Paper
“Any kind of mild stressor can wake you up in the middle of the night,” says Muehlbach. Take, for example, when you have an early morning flight to catch and you’re worried you’ll sleep through your alarm, so your brain wakes you up every hour. That’s why it’s so important to get those things out of your head before bed. Take time to think about the things that are bothering you from the day, or what you have to do tomorrow, and write them down so they don’t run through your mind and interfere with sleep, he says.
Work Out In the Morning
According to the National Sleep Foundation, working out in the morning can help you sleep longer and experience deeper, more reparative sleep than exercising later in the day. “Working out at night when you’re already not feeling your best puts extra stress on your body, which can keep you from being able to sleep deeply,” says Dr. Hall. Also, if you exercise outside in the morning, the exposure to sunlight will help reset your body’s sleep/wake cycle.
Soak In the Tub
If you’re feeling tense, sore, or otherwise uncomfortable, a warm bath with Epsom salts can help relax your muscles, Muehlbach suggests. Just avoid soaking too close to bedtime so you can give your body a chance to cool down, he says. You might also want to consider some lavender bubble bath or essential oil—there is some research that says the scent of lavender helps you relax and sleep better, he says.
Focus On Your Breathing
Diaphragmatic deep breathing couldn’t be easier (or better for calming you down): While sitting up or lying down, breathe in for two seconds and out for two seconds. Make sure your belly rises when you inhale and contracts when you exhale.
Keep Your Bedroom Cool
Keeping the bedroom cool—ideally 63 to 68 degrees—is a smart and easy sleep habit everyone should adopt, Muehlbach says. Here’s why it’s so important: “Our body temperature increases during the day and decreases at night. We like to sleep when our body temperature is dropping,” he says. “If the room is too hot, it will disrupt our sleep.”
Skip the Rich Dinner
Eat a really heavy meal right before bed and you’re asking for discomfort and bloating, says Muehlbach. Not to mention, eating too close to bedtime means your body will be digesting while you sleep, which can keep you from getting deep, restorative sleep, Dr. Hall says. “It also signals to the body that you’re in full daytime mode, which can keep you from falling asleep in the first place
If You Wake Up, Just Rest
Find yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night? Before you turn on the lights or get out of bed, just focus on rest, rather than sleep, Dr. Hall says. “Lying in a gentle and relaxed alpha state can be almost as good for you as sleeping,” she says. “If you’re able to keep your mind in a state of peace, it can put your brain into a restorative, sleep-light pattern, much like meditation.”