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Thirteen Tips for a Great Nights Sleep

Thirteen tips for a great nights sleep

By Blake Graham, BSc (Honours), AACNEM

If you find yourself tossing and turning every night or you are waking up before the birds you may want to try this list of recommendations for overcoming insomnia and achieving a great nights sleep. Insomnia is caused by a vast array of physical and emotional components so no one of these recommendations helps everyone. Overcoming stubborn cases of insomnia may require combining a number of treatments at once to achieve results. I suggest working your way through this list and sticking with anything that appears to help.

1. Medical causes.
There are many different causes of insomnia. See our page on Insomnia which lists the many possible causes of insomnia. Find and work with a professional who can help you identify the cause(s) of your sleep problems. A few considerations:

  • If your partner hears gasping noises during the night, and/or you have two or more of the following (snoring, high blood pressure, unrestful sleep, snoring, large neck circumference, overweight and family history of sleep apnea), ask your doctor to consider 'sleep apnea'. Sleep apnea is 2-3 x more common in males. Risk increases with age and family history. If your partner snores have them cheked for sleep apnea and move to another room until they have eliminated their snoring.
  • If you experience one or more of the following (kick sheets around, partner noticing restlessness and feel jumpy and uncomfortable at rest at night), ask your doctor to consider 'restless leg syndrome' (RLS). RLS can usually be treated effectively by nutritional means.

If symptoms persist ask your doctor for a referral to a 'sleep medicine specialist'.

2. Exercise.
Exercise is a great tool to improve sleep, although to be effective it can't just be any type or any amount. In my experience the most effective program of exercise to improve sleep is as follows:

Exercise should ideally be approximately 3-4 hours before going to bed and at roughly the same time every day.

  • It should be in the form of aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, running, swimming, etc.).
  • Exercise must be everyday.
  • The amount of time spent exercising is critical. You may find that 30 minutes/day does nothing for you but 45 minutes/day does wonders. Or you may find 45 minutes/day does nothing for you, but 60 minutes/day works great. In most people there is a time point they hit which suddenly starts helping.
  • So even if you've you given up on exercise fixing your sleep problem, give this program a go.

3. Temperature reduction and optimisation.
A slight lowering of body temperature which occurs at night time plays a very important role in modulating the chemical signals which induce sleep. In one study a group of insomniacs were instructed to have a hot shower approximately 3 hours before bed. Many reported this had a dramatic effect on improving their sleep. If this doesn't helping you try combining it with a cold shower right before going to bed. While trying to fall asleep in bed always take steps to achieve a comfortable temperature as being too hot or too cold can inhibit sleep.

4. Dietary salt intake.
In a long forgotten study from the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1945, a group of patients with insomnia were treated with a severely restricted salt intake. After 4-7 days the majority of individuals began to fall asleep easier. A few weeks later most noticed big differences in their ability to fall asleep.

  • Low Sodium Chloride intake in the treatment of insomnia and tension states. Journal of the American Medical Association. September 22, 1945.

Most people think they follow a low salt intake but in fact are wrong. On average 90% of our salt intake comes from packaged foods, while only 10% comes from the salt shaker. Cutting way back on salt involves not only avoiding the salt shaker but avoiding packaged food and cooking meals from scratch. Check labels of foods to see if they contain salt. NOTE: Some people feel unwell on a very low salt intake, for example feeling fatigued and light headed. People with adrenal problems should not attempt a low salt diet.

5. Bright light therapy and night time light minimisation.
When we wake up in the morning light hits our eyes and sends a signal to the pineal gland in our brain, which is a major regulator of sleep in the body. This signal regulates our circadian rhythm ('body clock'). This process can be utilised to improve sleep in the following ways:

  • Try sitting in the sun first thing every morning or preferably obtain a 'Bright Light Box' ( and sit in front of it, looking directly into it at times, for 30 minutes each morning. In both cases you must do this at the exact same time every morning, as this process is resetting your body clock.
  • At the same time try avoiding bright light for ~1 hour before going to bed.
  • Avoid as much light exposure (use an eye mask if necessary) as possible while in bed.
  • Some people may be photosensitive. Try avoiding computers/TV's for two hours before going to bed and see if this helps.

6. Diet.
There is often a connection between the type and size of the meal you eat prior to going to bed, and your sleep. Everyone responds differently to different meals, with some people reporting a high whole grain meal helps them fall asleep, while others report a high protein or high fat meals helps them sleep. Try experimenting with the following:

  • For a week try making the meal you have before bed high in protein and low in carbohydrates. For example a vegetable and meat/fish dish.
  • Another week try making the meal you have before bed high in unrefined carbohydrates (e.g. whole grain rice, vegetables) and low in protein (meat, eggs, dairy products).
  • Compare the effect of large meals and small meals as your final meal for the day.
  • You may notice a connection between different meals and your sleep.

The following are general dietary recommendations that everyone trying to improve their sleep should follow:

  • Avoid caffeine (caffeine is in some medications), other stimulants, soft drinks and alcohol after lunch.
  • Avoid tyramine containing foods (bananas, avocado, cheese, sour cream, pizza, fermented dairy products, beer, wine, MSG, fermented soy products, pickled salamis, liver, caviar, beans) in the evening as tyramine can alter brain neurotransmitter levels inhibiting sleep.
  • Avoid excitotoxin rich foods: MSG (monosodium glutamate), glutamic acid or anything that contains the word glutamic or glutamate, aspartame (Nutrasweet), hydrolyzed vegetable protein, red/yellow food dyes.
  • Balance blood sugar (avoid refined grains/sugar [including fruit juice]).
  • Don't drink any fluids within ~1.5-2 hours of going to bed to avoid or minimise night urination.
  • Avoid excessively low calorie diets as they can interfere with sleep patterns.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other unrefined foods.
  • Ensure optimum hydration.
  • Ensure a good balance of essential fatty acids in your diet.

7. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
A very large subset of those suffering with insomnia respond very well to EFT. The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) are based on the same principles as acupuncture, although involve tapping on selected points rather than using needles. EFT is particularly effective if insomnia is related to any stress/depression/anxiety, however if there is no emotional cause using EFT focusing purely on the insomnia itself is still often very effective. See for an introduction to EFT and quality EFT consultations and workshops in Perth, Western Australia. Visit the official EFT website for more information and for a worldwide listing of EFT practitioners.

8. Meditation audio tracks.
Relaxing meditation or hypnosis audio tracks work very effectively for some people. Listen to them with while lying in bed trying to go to sleep. The following are examples of tracks available.

  • FREE - The Silva UltraMind Centering Exercise
  • Cure Your Insomnia Instant Hypnosis Track
  • Sleep Deprivation CD
  • Cure Insomnia Hypnosis Track

9. Basic Sleep hygiene.
These steps are basic 'sleep hygiene' recommendations. They are rarely enough alone to cure serious insomnia, but should be followed as part of a basic foundation of sleep guidelines.

  • Have consistently regular sleeping times. (e.g. 10 PM-7AM)
  • If too much noise or quiet is a problem in your bedroom try leaving a fan on, use a white noise generator, or wear ear plugs.
  • Avoid regularly over-sleeping and do not spend an excess amount of total time in bed.
  • If your mattress, pillow or items of clothing you wear to bed are not comfortable, replace them.
  • Do not do anything too stimulating before going to bed.
  • Try reading a book/magazine while lying down in bed until you have trouble staying awake.
  • Do not 'clock watch' while trying to get to sleep. Remove your clock from view.
  • If possible, avoid/minimize napping during the day (particularly after 2 PM) and never nap for more than 1 hour during the day.
  • If possible mainly use your bedroom for sleep (rather than for TV, computer use, study, etc.).
  • Do not smoke for 2 hours before going to bed.
  • If you are bothered by cold feet in the night, or wake up in the night feeling cold, wear socks to bed.
  • If you are bothered by cold feet in the night, or wake up in the night feeling cold, wear socks to bed.
  • Breath through your nose as much as possible while in bed. This improves respiratory function and hormone balance contributing to more refreshing sleep.

10. Sex.
Sexual activity directly before bed helps some people nod off easily.

11. Supplements.
There are many nutritional and herbal supplements that can help people sleep better. Unfortunately no one supplement helps everyone. Among the most effective in my opinion include melatonin (which is a supplement of this sleep inducing hormone produced by the pineal gland) and 5-hydroxy tryptophan (5-HTP – a precursor of serotonin). Supplements should be individualised and guided by a knowledgeable professional. Avoid any potentially stimulating supplements/herbs (e.g. many B-vitamins, fish oil, tyrosine, phenylalanine, glutamine, ginseng, DHEA, licorice, etc.) in the evening or late afternoon. As a general rule if you have insomnia take the bulk or all of your supplements with breakfast.

12. Electromagnetic fields and chemical avoidance.
Some people are sensitive to electromagnetic fields (EMF's) to a point where it can inhibit sleep. Try minimising all EMF's near your sleep area for a week or so and see if it makes a difference. Consider sources near your bed and keep them as far as possible from your body: power boxes [other side of wall], clock radios, mobile phones, electric blankets, coils of cable, waterbed heater, phone charger, etc. Keep electrical devices in your bedroom as far away from you as possible and ideally unplugged. Avoid other major sources in the hours before going to bed: operating microwave ovens, operating electric toothbrushes, etc. You may even wish to turn the power off at the mains for a night and see if this make a difference.

Some individuals are also sensitive to environmental chemicals, molds, dust mites, cat/dog hair, etc. which can potentially impair sleep. Keep your bedroom very clean from dirt, dust, mold, etc. Follow the guidelines below to minimise synthetic chemical exposures in your bedroom:

  • Never smoke or allow anyone to smoke in your house.
  • Ensure good ventilation in bedroom. Keep windows open as much as possible.
  • Don't spray insecticides or other chemical sprays inside or outside your home or workplace.
  • Avoid all the following products in our bedroom as they pollute the air you breath: hair sprays, mothballs, air fresheners, stain removers, dryer sheets, essential oils, aftershaves, fabric softeners, deodorizing products, scented products, nail polish remover, nail polish, glues, paints (use water-based and the least odorous paints and adhesives), smelly plastics, plastics generally (including furniture), waxes or finishes, degreasers, spot removers, urethanes (e.g. hardwood floor covering), varnish, flea sprays for pets, pest strips, DVD/CD cleaner spray.
  • Use 100% cotton pyjamas, sheets and pillow cases. These should be washed weekly using a synthetic chemical free washing powder (e.g. Planet Ark in Australia).
  • Hang newly dry-cleaned clothes outside until they lose that chemical smell and don't store in your bedroom.
  • Keep computers, faxes and printers out of your bedroom as they release volatile organic compounds (VOC's).

13. Other therapies to consider:

  • Massage. Massage raises endorphin levels.
  • Subliminal messaging []. Informal research by Dr. Phil Bate reports that subliminal messaging is effective in treating insomnia.
  • Acupressure points [see:] have been studied in the treatment of insomnia.
  • Try sleeping with a bag of lavender in your pillow. Inhale the lavender smell deeply through your nose.

Blake Graham, BSc (Honours), AACNEM
Clinical Nutritionist
Perth, Western Australia


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