12 Tips for Better Sleep in Bad Times

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 04, 2001

Oct. 4, 2001 -- Terrorism, anthrax, war. In the wake of theseevents, it is not uncommon to see people suffering both physically andmentally. Simply watching the horrific scenes on TV or reading the headlinescan shake one's inner faith in both government and personal safety.

So it is probable that many people, both those who are directlyassociated with the events, such as firefighters, the National Guard, police,victims, and those who have watched the events unfold on television or in thepress, may find themselves having trouble sleeping.

Here are a dozen tips to help you get a better night'ssleep:

  1. Caffeine is a stimulant and should be stopped four to six hours beforebedtime. Caffeine is in coffee, soda, iced tea, chocolate, and variousover-the-counter medications. Remember, caffeine builds up throughout the day,so two cups of coffee at dinner and some chocolate ice cream can be close to500 milligrams of caffeine, a large dose. It is also a little-known fact thatcaffeine can stay in the system for up to 12 hours. So try not to have any pastlunchtime and have decaffeinated coffee after dinner. One note of caution: Becareful if you are a big caffeine person and you cut yourself off too quickly,because you will get headaches, which of course will keep you awake.
  2. Nicotine is also a stimulant and should be avoided near bedtime and if youwake up during the night. Thus, having a smoke before bed, although it feelsrelaxing, is actually putting a stimulant into your bloodstream. Recentresearch has shown that if you must smoke, take long, slow drags and pausebetween puffs, as this method produces the least stimulating effects, asopposed to short, quick puffs. (We are not condoning smoking, but if you must,at least follow these suggestions for more restful sleep). Also, cut backbefore bed -- have fewer cigarettes during the four hours before bed, and don'thave any 30-45 minutes before bed.
  3. Alcohol is a depressant; although it may make it easier to fall asleep, itcauses you to wake up during the night. As alcohol is digested your body goesinto withdrawal from the alcohol, causing nighttime awakenings and oftennightmares. Excessive alcohol use can lead to dependence, and the withdrawalfrom alcohol dependence can also affect your sleep.
  4. A light snack may be sleep inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtimeinterferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates.Research has shown that small snacks rich in carbohydrates may help improvesleep. In addition, milk or dairy products have been shown to be sleepinducing. Milk has L-tryptophan, which has been shown to help people go tosleep. So skim milk and a low-fat snack may be a good nighttime treat.
  5. You may not want to exercise vigorously just before bed. It may be best toexercise late in the afternoon. Still, some studies have shown that exerciseright before bed is not as bad as was once thought, unless you are the type ofperson who becomes more alert with exercise.
  6. Minimize noise, light, and excessive cold or hot temperature during sleepby using ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditionerappropriately. If your room is too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54degrees), it can affect your sleep.
  7. Try not to drink anything after 8 p.m. Often people wake up to go to thebathroom (once or twice a night as you get older is normal).

    Some general insomnia guidelines:

  8. Restrict the amount of time you spend in bed to the actual amount of timeyou sleep. You are not sleeping anyway, so do something worthwhile.
  9. Go to bed only when you are sleepy. This avoids that time you often spendtrying to sleep but failing to do so. Get out of bed if you can't fall asleepor go back to sleep within 10-15 minutes; return to bed only when you feelsleepy. Repeat this step as often as necessary during the night. You can read,listen to soft music, or watch a movie. Don't fall asleep on the couch.
  10. Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only; do not watch TV, listen to theradio, eat, or read in bed.
  11. Get up at the same time each morning. Keep your biological clock going inthe right direction, otherwise you will be fighting against it. Do not napduring the day. The time it takes you to fall asleep is decreased by the longeryou have been awake.
  12. Allow yourself one hour to unwind before bed. Brush your teeth one hourbefore getting into bed and wash your face slowly with warm water. Set the moodfor relaxation before bed. This is not a time to be rushing about or planningthe following days events. Do this earlier in the evening.