Simple, Science-Based Solutions to Fix Your Sleep Problems

Even if you don’t have a bonafide sleep disorder like sleep apnea, there are still plenty of physical issues that can compromise your nightly need for zzzz’s. Have no fear, we’re here to help with some simple solutions to fix some of the most common sleep problems.

Problems Falling Asleep

While there are many reasons people may not be falling asleep at night as quickly as they should be, one of the most common culprits these days is “blue light” emitted from our TVs, computers, iPhones, and other devices. Blue light is actually everywhere (it’s why the sky is blue!), but our increased exposure to it via our electronics is messing with our melatonin levels.

When the sun goes down, our bodies naturally release melatonin (the sleep hormone) to signal that it’s time for shut-eye. If you’re like most people, you probably still watch TV and look at your computer or something similar after dark, but the blue light essentially tricks our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime. Dr. Charles Czeisler of Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been studying this phenomenon for years. “We’ve done studies showing that if we read, for example, from an iPad in the few hours before bedtime, that that resets our circadian clock by about an hour and a half later,” says Dr. Czeisler. And, it doesn’t have to be a tablet, even the light from an eReader can wreck your bedtime. At least one study found that people took longer to fall asleep when they read an e-book than when they read a printed book.

So, if you’re looking for some nighttime entertainment, a good old-fashioned book is the best choice to battle sleeping problems. (For more advice, click through to learn how to fall asleep fast: 11 utterly unexpected tips and tools.)

Waking Up During The Night

You fell asleep fine, but your eyes unexplainably pop open long before the bells of your alarm clock. Sound like you? Instead of tossing and turning in frustration, use some good old reverse psychology and try staying awake instead. "Thinking about sleep and wishing for it to happen is a recipe for staying awake. This is where paradoxical thinking comes in. If you give yourself the paradoxical instruction to stay awake instead, you'll be more likely to fall asleep,” says Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford. “If you can be comfortable with the idea of remaining awake, then the performance anxiety and frustration that are associated with trying to sleep have nowhere to go and your arousal level drops." One key thing to remember with this tactic is thinking of positive things while you’re awake like good memories, your happy place, etc. Negative or stressful thoughts can hinder your hopes of drifting off to dreamland.

Waking Up Too Early

There's something truly disappointing about waking up earlier than you have to. It’s not so bad if you easily doze off again, but it’s the worst when you simply can’t get back to sleep. It may come as a surprise, but the foremost cause of chronic difficulty staying asleep in the morning is actually insomnia. First things first, if you suffer from this, talk to your primary care provider. Then, assess your sleep hygiene habits in general (take our simple survey to help!) and start taking steps to improve things like avoiding caffeine late in the day, getting adequate exercise, creating a relaxing ritual for bedtime, etc. Also, turn your clock away so you can’t see it. Watching the sleepless minutes tick-tock away just makes it harder to fall back to sleep.

Teeth Grinding

Gnashing, clenching, and grinding your teeth while you sleep is known as bruxism and it can lead to headaches, jaw disorders, and tooth problems. In most cases, treatment isn’t necessary, but it’s still wise to bring it up with your dentist and/or doctor. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following tips to help prevent or treat bruxism:

  • Reduce stress. Listening to music, taking a warm bath or exercising can help you relax and may reduce your risk of developing bruxism.
  • Avoid stimulating substances in the evening. Don't drink caffeinated coffee or caffeinated tea after dinner and avoid alcohol during the evening, as they may worsen bruxism.
  • Practice good sleep habits. Getting a good night's sleep, which may include treatment for sleep problems, may help reduce bruxism.
  • Talk to your sleep partner. If you have a sleeping partner, ask him or her to be aware of any grinding or clicking sounds that you might make while sleeping so you can report this to your dentist or doctor.

Leg Cramps

Almost 60% of adults have nighttime leg cramp problems and it’s often difficult figuring out why because they’ve been linked to a wide variety of diseases, multiple medications, and even excessive exercising. Dr.s Richard Allen and Karl Kirby of St. Mark's Family Medicine Residency in Salt Lake City, Utah offer some simple advice: Passive stretching and deep tissue massage are harmless, patient-controlled maneuvers that may be suggested as a therapeutic trial...Forceful stretching also is thought to inhibit and relieve an acute cramp, and the mechanism of dorsiflexing the foot may be helpful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mild exercise, such as a few minutes on a stationary bicycle or treadmill before bedtime, can relieve nocturnal leg cramps.” If your nighttime charley horses don’t ride off into the sunset, talk to your doctor.

Frequent Urination

Nocturia is the medical term for excessive urination at night and it’s quite common among older adults as our bodies’ ability to hold fluids decreases. Not surprisingly, consuming too much liquid before bed is associated with this annoyance, as is drinking alcohol or caffeine after dinner. If you’ve kicked evening liquids to the curb and are still having problems, the U.S. National Library of Medicine has some simple advice:

  • Keep a diary of how much fluid you drink, how often you urinate, and how much you urinate.
  • Record your body weight at the same times and on the same scale daily.
  • Call your healthcare provider if:
    • Waking to urinate more often continues over several days.
    • You are bothered by the number of times you must urinate during the night.
    • You have a burning sensation when urinating.

Snoring

Sawing wood, calling hogs, whatever you call it, snoring is annoying. Not so much for the snorer, but definitely for anyone trying to sleep nearby. If someone you love is begging you to address it (or even if they’re not, but you know you do), take some initiative to silence your inner beast.

“People who suffer mild or occasional snoring, who wake up feeling refreshed, and function well during the day may first try the following behavioral remedies, before consulting their doctor,” writes Dr. Victor Hoffstein from the National Sleep Foundation. “Lose weight. Avoid tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and antihistamines before bedtime. Avoid alcohol for at least four hours and heavy meals or snacks for three hours before retiring. Establish regular sleeping patterns. Sleep on your side rather than your back.”

Neck Pain

Do you frequently wake up with a kink in your neck? Lucky for you, simply changing your pillow could be all you need to do to avoid those awkward days when you can’t turn your head. Here are recommendations for both side- and back-sleepers from the experts at Harvard Medical School:

If you sleep on your back, choose a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, with a flatter pillow cushioning your head. This can be achieved by tucking a small neck roll into the pillowcase of a flatter, softer pillow, or by using a special pillow that has a built-in neck support with an indentation for the head to rest in. Here are some additional tips for side- and back-sleepers:

  • Try using a feather pillow, which easily conforms to the shape of the neck. Feather pillows will collapse over time, however, and should be replaced every year or so.
  • Another option is a traditionally shaped pillow with "memory foam" that conforms to the contour of your head and neck. Some cervical pillows are also made with memory foam. Manufacturers of memory-foam pillows claim they help foster proper spinal alignment.
  • Avoid using too high or stiff a pillow, which keeps the neck flexed overnight and can result in morning pain and stiffness.
  • If you sleep on your side, keep your spine straight by using a pillow that is higher under your neck than your head.
  • When you are riding in a plane, train, or car, or even just reclining to watch TV, a horseshoe-shaped pillow can support your neck and prevent your head from dropping to one side if you doze. If the pillow is too large behind the neck, however, it will force your head forward.

  • Back Pain

    It seems counter-intuitive, but sleeping can actually put strain on your back. You can relieve it by simply supporting your spine with pillows. If you sleep on your side, put a pillow between your knees. If you sleep on your back, place the pillow under your knees. Sleeping on your stomach is the worst for your back, but if you can’t sleep in any other position, place a pillow under your lower abdomen and pelvis. Still getting out of bed with a groan every morning? A new mattress might do the trick. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 63% of people say things improved after switching to a new mattress. They recommend getting a medium-firm or firm mattress – or, if a new mattress isn’t an option, placing a sheet of plywood under your existing mattress for support.

    Shoulder Pain

    The most common cause of nocturnal shoulder pain is sleeping on your side. The obvious solution? Don’t sleep on your side! Can’t help but side-sleep? Chiropractor Dr. Ryan Schuetz recommends using a neck pain pillow in combination with a body pillow. He says, “I tell patients to reach one leg and arm over the pillow and turn half way onto the stomach for a good sleep position that takes pressure off the shoulder and neck area.”

    Have any sleep problems we haven’t addressed here? Let us know in the comments so we can try to help you out!


    All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.



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