Stop Counting Sheep and Get to Sleep

Victoria Roberts, RD, LDN

Stop Counting Sheep and Get to Sleep

Victoria Roberts, RD, LDN

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We’ve all been there. You’ve been lying in bed for at least an hour, trying desperately to fall asleep. Your body is restless, your mind whirring and you’re continually checking how many hours of sleep you have left in the night if you fell asleep right now. Restless nights like this are not uncommon. Maybe it was brought on by a stressful situation at work, a looming deadline or excitement over an upcoming event. But if what is described above has been or is starting to become more of the norm than an exception for you, you could be at risk for health problems as you age like depression, obesity, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure. Considering the seriousness of the long-term ramifications of chronic sleep deprivation, this is not a problem to brush aside.

You likely know these first-line strategies, but they bear repeating here as they often really do work to address sleepless nights beyond the old “counting sheep” trick.

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and evening.
  • Avoid screens an hour before bedtime.
  • Dim interior lights in the evening and closer to bedtime.
  • Stay with a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends
  • Practice daily physical exercise.

As an RD, I can also tell you that it is very important to consider your diet, as that can have a major impact on your sleep. Be mindful of what you’ve had to eat or drink before your most restless nights. Jotting down your afternoon and evening intake and noting any difficulty you had falling or staying asleep the next morning can help you find patterns you may not have noticed. Is that glass of wine that seems to help you fall asleep quickly waking you up at 2AM? Maybe you notice that on evenings when you indulge in a bowl of ice cream before bed, you struggle to fall or stay asleep more than other nights. While individual responses to certain foods can vary greatly, studies have shown that in general, a healthful diet pattern that resembles the Healthy Plate model discussed in the Healthy Habits Program is a significant factor in overall sleep quality.

If you struggle with quieting your mind before sleep, or wake in the middle of the night with your brain going a mile a minute, utilizing some tools that can help to calm your thoughts may be necessary. First of all, be gracious with your mind and body. Allowing yourself to become agitated and frustrated that sleep evades you will only exacerbate the cycle of stress and sleeplessness. Practicing guided meditations that focus your attention on your physical body rather than external worries may help you fall back asleep. There are many apps available now that can guide you through these exercises or teach you to do them on your own. One such practice that has been particularly helpful to me is to lie on my back and starting at my forehead, slowly and methodically focus on relaxing every muscle group, one at a time, from the top of my head, moving down through my cheeks, chin, neck, shoulders, chest and so on, down through to my toes. Going slowly, the whole process should take about 15-20 minutes. I usually forget what I was thinking about around my neck and I’m generally asleep somewhere around my knees!

If you still find yourself struggling with sleeplessness after trying these strategies, I encourage you to speak to your doctor about your concerns. Some physical issues can cause problems like sleep apnea which can contribute to sleep disturbances. Your doctor may be able to help you find an underlying cause through a sleep study or other diagnostic measures. Treatment may be available through medical devices that open your airways or referral to someone like a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in insomnia and can help you break a disordered sleep-stress cycle.

American Psychological Association. (2004, July). Tips for sleep success. Monitor on Psychology, 35(7). http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug04/tips

Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, Breen EC, Irwin MR. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494–501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Anja Mikic, Cara E Pietrolungo, Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 7, Issue 5, September 2016, Pages 938–949, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.116.012336

Weir, K. (2017, October). The power of restorative sleep. Monitor on Psychology, 48(9). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/10/cover-sleep