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Getting a Good Night’s Sleep: Basic Strategies Including What to Eat and How to Relax

Last Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Strategies for getting a good night's sleep

Sleep is as essential to your health as food, air, and water, yet sometime in your life, you may experience difficulty sleeping. About one in three adults report having insomnia at some point in their lives. If you do have trouble sleeping, there are several lifestyle changes that can help you regain a satisfactory sleep pattern. Experiment with these helpful strategies offered here.

Jump to:

Five basic strategies
Additional strategies
Learning to relax
Is your environment conducive to sleep?
How much sleep do you need?

Five basic strategies

1. Never oversleep

Never oversleep because of a poor night’s sleep. This is the most crucial rule. Get up at about the same time every day, especially the morning after you’ve lost sleep. Sleeping late for just a couple of days can reset your body clock to a different cycle – you’ll be getting sleepy later and waking up later too.

2. Set your body clock

Light helps reset your body clock to its active daytime phase, so when you get up, go outside and get some sunlight. Or if that’s difficult, turn on all the lights in your room.

Once you’re up and in some light, walk around for a few minutes. Your calves act as pumps to get blood circulating, carrying more oxygen to your brain to help get you feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

3. Exercise

Keep physically active during the day. This is especially important the day after a bad night’s sleep. When you sleep less, you should be more active during the day. Strenuous exercise (brisk walking, swimming, jogging, squash, etc.) in the late afternoon seems to promote more restful sleep.

Insomniacs tend to be too inactive a couple of hours before bed, so doing some gentle exercise can help you burn energy and fall asleep easier. Stretching routines help many people.

If you are studying, get up regularly (every 30 minutes, or more often if necessary) to walk around your room. Do a gentle stretch. That will increase the flow of oxygen to your brain and help you to be more alert.

4. Don't nap

Do not take any naps the day after you’ve lost sleep. While they might make you feel more refreshed, they can be counterintuitive to helping you reset your sleep cycle. When you feel sleepy, get up and do something. Instead, take a walk, make the bed, or do your errands.

5. Set a bedtime schedule

First, try to go to bed at about the same time every night. Be regular. Most people get hungry at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. because they’ve eaten at those times for years. Going to bed at about the same time every night can make sleep as regular as hunger.

Second, go to bed later when you are having trouble sleeping. No naps! Make the time you spend in bed sleep time. This promotes good sleep hygiene: if you only use your bed to sleep rather than laying there awake all night, it’ll help your brain re-associate your bed with time to sleep. This can help carry you off to dreamland faster.

For example, if you’re only getting five hours of sleep a night during a period of insomnia, don’t go to bed until five hours before your wake-up time. If you’ve been waking up at 7 a.m., don’t go to bed until 2 a.m. Still experiencing some insomnia? Go to bed proportionately later. Then, as your time in bed becomes good sleep time, move your going-to-bed time back 15 to 30 minutes a night and do that for a week or so.

This is the opposite of what we want to do: we want to go to bed earlier to make up for the lost sleep. Learn to do what many sleep laboratories teach – go to bed later the night after losing sleep.

Additional strategies

Develop a bedtime routine

Stop studying and don’t get into any stimulating discussions or activities a half-hour or hour before bed. Do something that’s relaxing for you:

  • Read “light” material
  • Play guitar
  • Listen to quiet music
  • Catch a mindless TV show

Some people sleep better in a clean and neat environment, so they like to straighten and clean their room just before going to bed. Whatever it looks like, find your own sleep-promoting routine.

Warm bath, yes; shower, no

Take a long, hot bath before going to bed. This helps relax and soothe your muscles. Showers, on the other hand, tend to wake you up. Insomniacs should avoid showers in the evening.

List gotta do's

Keep a pad and pencil handy. If you think of something you want to remember, jot it down. Then let the thought go. There will be no need to lie awake worrying about remembering it.

Stretch and relaxation

Some people find that a gentle stretching routine for several minutes just before getting into bed helps induce sleep. Others practice relaxation techniques. Libraries and bookstores have books on developing stretching or relaxation routines. The Counseling Services has some material on both to try as well.

To eat or not to eat

Some sleep centers recommend a light breakfast and lunch to help you stay alert during the day. They advise you to make the evening meal the major meal of the day. Schedule it at least four hours before bedtime so your digestive system will have worked through a majority of it by the time you’re ready to sleep.

Warm milk?

It helps some people to have a glass at bedtime. Milk has an essential amino acid, tryptophan, which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, believed to play a key role in inducing sleep. A piece of whole wheat bread, or another carbohydrate, enhances the sleep-inducing effect of milk by helping the tryptophan to be absorbed. Or try taking a tryptophan supplement, beginning with about two grams about an hour before bedtime.

Avoid caffeine and tyrosine-rich foods in the late afternoon

Caffeine, a chemical in coffee, colas, tea, and chocolate (among other delicious foods), causes hyperactivity and wakefulness. Tyrosine, an amino acid, can also make you feel more alert. Some sleep laboratories encourage people to avoid tyrosine-laden foods such as:

  • Fermented cheeses (cheddar is about the worst; cottage cheese and yogurt are OK
  • Ripe avocados
  • Some imported beers
  • Fermented meats (bologna, pepperoni, salami)
  • Red wine (especially chianti)

Cut down on alcohol

Alcohol might help you get to sleep, but it results in shallow and disturbed sleep, abnormal dream periods, and frequent early morning awakening. A nightcap every once and a while is okay, but drinking alcohol regularly before bed can keep you from feeling rested.

Make sure you’re getting enough key nutrients

Having a diet that’s rich in nutrients is vital for good sleep. Several large research studies have investigated potential links between nutrient deficiencies and short sleep times (usually defined as less than seven hours a night). While researchers are still studying this topic, the studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be deficient in nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E. Bolstering those nutrients with your diet – and avoiding bad eating habits close to bedtime – can help to improve your sleep.

Sleeping pills

Sleeping pills can help short-term, but they can also have a big impact on your daily waking life. Some reasons to avoid sleeping pills include disturbed sleep patterns, short-term amnesia, and impaired motor skills. Research shows that the most commonly prescribed type of sleeping pills – benzodiazepine hypnotics such as triazolam (Halcion) – impair short-term memory, reaction time, thinking, and visual-motor coordination (such as driving).

Learning to relax

Make a list

If tomorrow’s to-dos tend to race around your brain as you try to drift off, get them out of your head by jotting them down. Whether you prefer to use a pen and paper or type up a quick note on your smartphone, this strategy ensures that you won’t forget about anything the next day, which may help you stop worrying.

Another option: Keep a nightly journal, where you can record any anxieties and frustrations — and then close the cover and leave them on the page for the night.

Take five breaths

Even a few inhales and exhales can calm your nervous system. Place a hand on your lower belly and feel it rise and fall as you breathe in for a count of three, and then breathe out for another count of three. Repeat this cycle five times.

Tune in to your senses

Paying attention to the world around you keeps you in the present moment, which prevents you from focusing on sleep-inhibiting stressful thoughts. Think about how the sheets feel against your skin, what sounds you hear out your window, and how the air smells.

Tense your toes

Yes, you’re trying to relax, but by tensing and then relaxing your toes, you can help your whole body become calm. Lie on your back and close your eyes. Focus on how your toes feel. Now, tense and pull all ten toes up toward your face and hold them there for a count of ten. Then release them and count to ten. Repeat this exercise ten times.

Is your environment conducive to sleep?

Room temperature

Sleep in a cool room (60 degrees or so). If you get cold, pile on another blanket or add one under the mattress pad rather than turn up the heat. A physician I know used this principle while in medical school: he kept an air conditioner on in his room all year. He said it helped him sleep better so he felt more refreshed and needed less sleep. You don’t need to go to such extremes, but do keep it cool.

Humidity

Even a little thing like a dry throat may make sleeping more difficult. Most heating systems dry the air in your bedroom, so borrow a humidifier to see if it will help. Keeping heat down and having a window open can also keep the humidity up.

Noise

Some people seem to sleep better if there is a white noise – a fan running, for example – in the background. For others, noise can interrupt sleep.

In addition to the fan strategy, try particular kinds of music to blot out the noise. Play a recording of music that has no words, no definite melody, and not a lot of change in the volume. Baroque music is a good choice. There are many tapes of sounds that aid sleep by quieting the mind, emotions, and body. Check at your local counseling center, a mental health center, or a holistic health center. There are even playlists of them on many streaming services.

If desperate, you might try earplugs that workers use on noisy jobs. If you use cotton earplugs, be sure to use balls large enough that they won’t work down into your ear canal while you sleep and have to be removed by a physician.

Worrying about insomnia?

Focusing on insomnia might make it worse. It is frequently a symptom of something else: excessive worry or anxiety about grades, money, relationships, and more. If you think a particular worry might be keeping you awake, get up, find paper and a pencil, and jot down something you can do about that worry tomorrow. Put the note where you’ll see it when you wake up. You can set aside your worry and use the remainder of the night for restful sleep. If necessary, add this to the strategies already described to get back into a regular sleep pattern.

In bed and unable to sleep?

If you are in bed and unable to sleep, many experts suggest getting completely out of bed, sitting in a chair, and reading, writing letters, or doing some quiet activity away from screens. As you get sleepy, go back to bed and use a relaxation technique to fall asleep. Make your bed a place to sleep, not a place to get other things done.

Don’t get mad at yourself! Try not to worry about not sleeping. Your body’s wisdom will take over and you’ll begin sleeping regularly as long as you use the five basic strategies described earlier.

Exercising?

The role of exercise cannot be stressed enough! Adding regular exercise – brisk walking, riding an exercycle (perhaps while watching TV), swimming – has helped many people sleep better. The more active your body is during the day, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to go to sleep when it’s time for your body to be quiet. Quiet time for sleep needs to be a contrast to a more active day.

Waking up at night

What should you do when you’re awake after just two, three, or four hours of sleep? Do not drink, eat, or smoke when you wake up. If you do, you’ll find yourself waking up for them after just three or four nights of such treats.

Do get out of bed, read, write letters, or do some quiet activity. Reactions to the stresses of everyday life can result in a level of sleep that is easily interrupted. A good stress-management program can help. Contact your counseling service for such a program.

Awake 4 or 5 a.m? Now what?

Get up and begin the day. If you’re rested, you’ve probably had enough sleep and have a head start on most people. If you’re still tired, get up anyway and go through the day, avoiding naps. Start the routines suggested in the basic strategies to rebuild your sleep cycle.

You can also build an exercise program and stress-management training into your life. By learning to be less stressed during the day, you also learn to sleep better at night.

Not managing stress very well?

Difficulty in effectively managing normal, everyday stress in life is a common problem. Insomnia is a frequent reaction to daily stressors, either sleep-onset insomnia (difficulty falling asleep) or sleep-interrupting insomnia.

A good stress-management program helps you learn how to manage those frequent stressors so you can go more easily through each day. You can also find out about stress-management programs from your local guidance and mental health centers, extension agencies, and family physicians. More and more hospitals are also offering such programs to help people develop healthier lifestyles.

How much sleep do you need?

Sleep needs vary from person to person. Some need only four hours per night, but others may need 10.

Some people complain because they only sleep five or six hours each night, yet many of these people wake up feeling rested in the morning and function well during the day. If that’s the case, five or six hours of sleep is all they need most of the time. Needing less sleep doesn’t mean that you have insomnia.

Other people feel tired after eight hours of sleep. They need more than the “normal” seven-to-eight-hour average. Just one more hour of sleep often gives these people the rest they need. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the amount of sleep you need.

Remember, too, that the amount of sleep you need will vary over time. Your need for sleep may decrease and your ability to go to sleep may improve when you are exercising regularly and doing things you enjoy and do easily. You may need more sleep and experience more sleeplessness if you are under more stress or as you become less active. (We’ve got a separate page all about proper amounts of sleep if you want to learn more.)