By Dr. Michael Breus, PhD The Sleep Doctor
I hear a countless variety of sleep complaints, but certain sleep issues crop up again and again. Here are five of the most common sleep problems, and my sleep-better solutions.
Sleep Problem: My husband snores.
Sleep-Better Solution: As many as 50% of adults snore, making snoring one of the most common sleep disorders. Snoring is caused by a narrowing of the airway, which limits the flow of air and also increases the speed of airflow through the nose and air passages. This faster-moving air creates a vibration at the back of the mouth and throat. It is these vibrations that create the sounds we know as snoring.
Snoring is a sleep issue that can affect the health of the snorer. But snoring also affects the sleep of partners as well. A study showed that bed partners of people who snore lose an average of an hour of sleep per night because of their bedmates’ snoring. Here are my strategies for improving a snoring situation:
- Decongest: There are a number of non-prescription methods that can help allay congestion, including nasal sprays and nasal strips, and over-the-counter decongestant medications. A steam bath can help to clear the nasal passages before bed (and help you relax in the process), and a nasal wash with a saline solution using a neti pot can also be effective in reducing congestion.
- Elevate: Keeping the snorer’s head and neck elevated can help to keep the airway open. Invest in a foam wedge pillow or specialty pillow that tilts the head back to open the airway. Using a nasal strip with this type of pillow provides a solution that can really keep that airway open all night!
- Limit alcohol: Alcohol relaxes the muscles of the airway, which can contribute to snoring. Keep drinking moderate, and don’t consume alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Mask the sound: While it’s important to address the snoring itself, it’s also important that partners get some peace and quiet. Earplugs, a sound machine, and even a wall of pillows can act as a sound barrier.
- Lose weight: Even a modest weight loss for snorers – 5% of body weight – can make a difference in the severity of snoring.
Sleep Problem: I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep.
Sleep-Better Solution: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this one from my patients. They fall asleep only to wake at some point deep in the night – often at the same time. One look at the clock sets in motion an anxious cycle. They immediately calculate how much sleep they can get if they fall back to sleep NOW. They roll over and try to fall asleep again, but they’re already worrying about the minutes ticking away on that clock over their shoulder. Before long, they’re rolling over to check the time and setting the whole anxious process in motion again.
Sound familiar? Here’s what I recommend instead:
- Banish the alarm clock: There is no need for you to know what time it is in the middle of the night. Put your clock in a drawer or set it up to go off just outside the bedroom. Or if not having it nearby makes you too anxious, simply turn it around so you cannot see it during the night.
- Try Magnolia bark supplement: This natural extract has been used for thousands of years in Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve sleep and mood.
Sleep Problem: I wake up feeling tired and un-refreshed.
Sleep-Better Solution: One common cause? Waking in the middle of a sleep cycle. Our sleep is cyclical, and interrupting that cycle can cause us to feel sluggish upon waking.
Here’s a quick overview of our sleep cycles:
- There are 5 stages of sleep in a cycle
- A complete cycle takes about 90 minutes to complete
- Deeper sleep – Stages 3 and 4 – and REM sleep occur later in the cycle
If you’ve ever woken from a nap and actually felt worse than before you fell asleep, this is because you awakened in the middle of Stage 3 or 4 sleep, or REM sleep. (I strongly recommend naps, but ones that are short and well timed.)
Here are some strategies for improving your cyclical sleep:
- Limit caffeine: Caffeine stays in the body for 8 to 10 hours and can affect your ability to sleep long after it’s been consumed. To protect your sleep, don’t consume caffeine after 2 p.m.
- Limit alcohol: Drinking alcohol in the evening may make you feel sleepy and relaxed, but it is disruptive to sleep, and makes the stages of deep sleep and REM sleep more difficult to achieve. Keep drinking moderate, and don’t consume alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Cut the lights: Those gadgets we tote with us everywhere, even into the bedroom –tablets, smartphones, computers – are light-emitting, and this light can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. I encourage you to create an “Electronic Curfew,” where you power down all electronic devices – including the TV – one hour before sleep.
Sleep Problem: I cannot turn off my brain at night.
Sleep-Better Solution: Racing thoughts keep many people awake at night. Worrying about finances, ruminating on relationships, running through daytime tasks, trying to “memorize” a series of upcoming to-dos – all this thinking can inhibit sleep. One of the most effective remedies is what’s known as a Worry Journal. This is a practice that allows you to take your worries from your mind to the written page, helping you to relax.
Here’s how to start keeping a Worry Journal:
- Select a notebook or notepad
- On a blank page, draw a line down the center, creating two columns. Do this on three pages.
- At the top of the first page, write: I need to remember to take care of...
- At the top of the second page, write: I can’t forget to...
- At the top of the third page, write: I am so worried about...
- In the left column of each page, finish the sentence at the top, writing down everything that occurs to you.
- In the right column, address the concern, worry, or task, by scheduling a time to think about it or deal with it.
Don’t hold back. This is your journal. No thought is too small, and no worry is silly.
Sleep Problem: I can't get comfortable in bed.
Sleep-Better Solution: There are many reasons people have difficulty relaxing comfortably in bed – including a bedroom environment that isn’t conducive for sleep. Very often, though, this has to do with tight muscles. The solution: Bed Yoga. After a long day, some simple stretching can help loosen muscles and prepare you for sleep. Here are two of my favorites, which you can do right in bed:
- Sit up in bed and cross your legs while they are either straight out, or sit cross-legged style.
- Turn your body to the left and try to look directly over your left shoulder.
- Breathe deeply: Breathing in 1, 2, 3 and out, 1, 2, 3.
Repeat by turning your body to the right. Do this stretch at least twice.
The Figure-4 Stretch
- Sit up in bed with your legs straight out in front of you.
- Next bend your right leg at the knee and lay it across your other leg so your right ankle is resting comfortably on top of your left knee. This configuration looks like the number 4.
- Now reach your right hand into the center of the “4” and your left hand on the outside of your left leg.
- Gently lift your left leg toward your chest.
- You should begin to feel the stretch in your right glute.
Repeat with the opposite leg. Do this stretch at least twice.
You can also try my guided progressive muscle relaxation exercise for a good night's sleep.