Even when we’re exhausted, falling asleep can be difficult. We may stress about the things we need to do the next day or worry about the things we did the day before. Sometimes we get stuck rerunning a conversation or argument we had with a family member or a friend.
Incredibly, poor sleep has been linked to feeling more pain, being overweight, depression in teens and postpartum mothers, quicker aging, and emotional problems for all age groups. Getting a good night’s rest is essential to being a healthy, well-functioning member of society. Of course, knowing that doesn’t make it magically easier to sleep.
Here are some suggestions for improving the quality of sleep and falling asleep more quickly.
Write a to-do list
Before settling into bed, grab a piece of paper and a pencil. Researchers at Baylor University say that writing a to-do list last thing can help you fall asleep more quickly. In 2018, they invited 57 university students to spend the night in their lab. They asked half to write a list of things they needed to do the next day. The others wrote about tasks they had completed in the previous days.
The scientists used overnight polysomnography to monitor electrical brain activity. They found that the participants who wrote to-do lists slept better than their counterparts. The improved sleep may be because once the participants wrote down the things they needed to do, they didn’t have to worry about forgetting anything and rested more peacefully.
Sleep with your lover’s sweaty T-shirt
People sleep better when they are with a long-term romantic partner. Women and men feel safer, more relaxed, and calmer. These feelings contribute to improved sleep. Interestingly, it now looks like the smell of a romantic partner is sufficient for more peaceful rest in the absence of the physical presence. How do scientists know this? They used sweaty T-shirts.
Participants in a 2020 study wore T-shirts for 24 hours and refrained from using deodorant or perfume. Scientists at the University of British Columbia gave these T-shirts to the T-shirt wearers’ romantic partners to use as pillowcases for two nights. They were also given a clean T-shirt to use as a pillowcase for two nights. Researchers observed participants with an actigraphy sleep watch to monitor their movements. When sleepers had a sweaty T-shirt worn by their lover for a pillowcase, they rested better than with the clean one. Sleeping with a stranger’s sweaty T-shirt did not improve sleep.
What are these researchers going to study next? They are preparing an investigation into whether babies sleep better when they smell their parent’s scent.
Eating foods like artichokes, lentils, cabbage, onions, and leeks may help people sleep better. We all know that fiber is good for having regular bowel movements, but it’s looking like it’s healthy for the brain as well.
This is how it works: we all have healthy bacteria in our gut, called probiotics. They help us digest food, and release chemicals called metabolites that can positively influence our brains, buffer the effect that stress has on us and help us sleep more soundly. Eating a diet high in certain types of fiber provides food, or prebiotics, for our gut bacteria, augmenting the metabolites they produce. This can have a powerful effect on our brains and behavior.
We know this because scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder tried it on rats. In 2020, researches separated rats into two groups. One group ate food infused with prebiotics. The other consumed food that was not. Rats on prebiotics spent more time in restorative NREM sleep.
Next, the scientists exposed the rats to stress. The rats with regular food produced higher levels of allopregnanolone precursor and Ketone Steroid, which are metabolites that could affect sleep. When rats slept after stress, the high-fiber group spent more time in REM.
The researchers say that they aren’t sure if changing diet is enough to improve sleep in humans. They’re studying that now. They do hope that the results of this research lead to the development of a non-narcotic sleeping pill.
Mindfulness and meditations
Mindfulness means awareness of the current moment and what is going on without feeling reactive or stressed by our surroundings. One way to achieve mindfulness is through meditation and mindfulness classes. Mindfulness has been shown to improve focus and reduce stress, but what effect does it have on our sleep? Scientists at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, studied this in 2012.
In a small clinical trial, researchers divided adults with sleeping problems into two groups. They were asked to take either a mindfulness meditation class or a sleep hygiene class. Scientists used the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index to measure participants’ sleep quality before and after attending classes. Both groups improved, but the group in the mindfulness classes improved more significantly.
How does a person learn meditation and mindfulness? A great place to start is Mindful.org. They offer a free 20-minute guided meditation for sleep.
Count your blessings
Remember the song in the film White Christmas? The characters are worried that there’s no snow in a touristy Vermont inn at Christmastime, and if there are no guests, the owner of the inn risks losing his entire investment. They respond by singing “Count Your Blessings.”
Interestingly, the song was written by Irving Berlin after a visit to his doctor about his persisting insomnia. The doctor suggested that he try to count his blessings to overcome his sleep problems.
In 2019 a survey conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign confirmed the advice of Berlin’s doctor. They found that optimistic people sleep better. Optimistic individuals were identified through a 10 question test. Later, when they reported how they had rested, they were far more likely to report having slept soundly. They were less likely to report having symptoms of insomnia or feeling drowsy during the day.
While a person can’t automatically become more optimistic to achieve better sleep, he or she can engage in practices that increase optimism. One of these is counting blessings at bedtime.