12 Tips for Better Sleep in Bad Times

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 04, 2001
From the WebMD Archives

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

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

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

  1. Caffeine is a stimulant and should be stopped four to six hours before bedtime. Caffeine is in coffee, soda, iced tea, chocolate, and various over-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 to 500 milligrams of caffeine, a large dose. It is also a little-known fact that caffeine can stay in the system for up to 12 hours. So try not to have any past lunchtime and have decaffeinated coffee after dinner. One note of caution: Be careful 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 you wake up during the night. Thus, having a smoke before bed, although it feels relaxing, is actually putting a stimulant into your bloodstream. Recent research has shown that if you must smoke, take long, slow drags and pause between puffs, as this method produces the least stimulating effects, as opposed to short, quick puffs. (We are not condoning smoking, but if you must, at least follow these suggestions for more restful sleep). Also, cut back before bed -- have fewer cigarettes during the four hours before bed, and don't have any 30-45 minutes before bed.
  3. Alcohol is a depressant; although it may make it easier to fall asleep, it causes you to wake up during the night. As alcohol is digested your body goes into withdrawal from the alcohol, causing nighttime awakenings and often nightmares. Excessive alcohol use can lead to dependence, and the withdrawal from alcohol dependence can also affect your sleep.
  4. A light snack may be sleep inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates. Research has shown that small snacks rich in carbohydrates may help improve sleep. In addition, milk or dairy products have been shown to be sleep inducing. Milk has L-tryptophan, which has been shown to help people go to sleep. 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 to exercise late in the afternoon. Still, some studies have shown that exercise right before bed is not as bad as was once thought, unless you are the type of person who becomes more alert with exercise.
  6. Minimize noise, light, and excessive cold or hot temperature during sleep by using ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner appropriately. If your room is too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees), it can affect your sleep.
  7. Try not to drink anything after 8 p.m. Often people wake up to go to the bathroom (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 time you 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 spend trying to sleep but failing to do so. Get out of bed if you can't fall asleep or go back to sleep within 10-15 minutes; return to bed only when you feel sleepy. 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 the radio, eat, or read in bed.
  11. Get up at the same time each morning. Keep your biological clock going in the right direction, otherwise you will be fighting against it. Do not nap during the day. The time it takes you to fall asleep is decreased by the longer you have been awake.
  12. Allow yourself one hour to unwind before bed. Brush your teeth one hour before getting into bed and wash your face slowly with warm water. Set the mood for relaxation before bed. This is not a time to be rushing about or planning the following days events. Do this earlier in the evening.