You’ve bored yourself to tears counting sheep – and when that didn’t work, you moved on to goats, cows and former child stars who’ve turned their sorry lives into talk show fodder. The fact is, trying to force yourself to sleep is stressful business. And the harder you try to drop off, the more your body rebels, knotting itself into a tightly wound ball of tension.
Before you give up and resort to counting sleeping pills, try this simple, safe technique that’s helped many people loosen up and fall asleep naturally. Known as progressive relaxation, it helps you unkink your tense muscles one body part at a time. Here’s how it works:
As you’re lying in bed waiting for sleep, clench your right fist as tightly as you can. Hold for about 10 seconds, then release the tension immediately and completely, as though you were turning off a switch. All the tension should drain out of your body. Feel the looseness in your right hand and notice how much more relaxed it seems. Now do the same thing with your left hand; then clench both fists at the same time and relax them.
Next, bend your elbows and tense your arms. Hold a moment, then relax your muscles and let your arms sink into the mattress. Continue by tensing and relaxing your head and brows. Then squeeze your eyes and clench your jaw. Finally, tense and then relax your stomach, lower back, buttocks, thighs, calves and feet. By the time you’re finished, your whole body should feel limp, relaxed and ready for sleep.
Take a Bite of Fobidden Fruit
Call it the perversity of human nature: Chocolate is never more seductive than when you’re on a diet, and no lover is more appealing than one who’s unavailable. Sleep, too, becomes terribly tempting when you can’t have it; so if you have trouble falling asleep, imagine a time when you had to stay awake but didn’t want to, suggests Dennis Gersten, MD, a San Diego psychiatrist. Whether you were working late, driving at night or studying for an exam, picture yourself struggling to stay awake. Imagine the weariness overtaking your whole body as you struggle to keep your eyes open. Finally, you just give in to the urge to fall asleep. Practice this imagery as you lie in bed at night.
Take Steps to End Insomnia
Instead of tiptoeing around the kitchen looking for a midnight snack, try taking a walk around your bathtub. Cold water treading before bed is a classic hydrotherapy remedy for insomnia that gives new meaning to the word sleepwalking. Fill your bathtub with enough cold water to cover your ankles, suggests Agatha Thrash, MD, codirector of Uchee Pinees Institute, a natural healing center in Seale, AL. Holding on to a stable railing, march in place in the water for anywhere from five seconds to five minutes.
A Hollywood Cure for Sleepless Nights
Somewhere between the late show, the late late show and the so-late-it’s-early show, you happened upon that classic scene from The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and the gang pass out in a field of fragrant poppies. If you’d like nothing better than to drift off to sleep surrounded by the aroma of fresh flowers, try adding some pure essential oils to a hot bath before retiring for the night, suggests Los Angeles aromatic consultant John Steele. Six to eight drops of lavender, marjoram or ylang-ylang oil should be enough to relax you and usher you off to dreamland. If you’d like to take some of the sumptuous fragrance with you, put four drops of lavender, marjoram, rum or chamomile essential oil on your pillow before heading off to bed.
A Kinder, Gentler Sleeping Pill
If the idea of taking a sleeping pill makes you nervous, there is a natural alternative. Herbal sleep formulas — in teas, tinctures and capsules — are available in most health food stores, says Varro E. Tyler, PhD, professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University. Be sure to take your reading glasses along for the trip, though, since you’ll need to check out the fine print on the labels to find one that’s a safe, effective sleep aid. Look for a product that contains a blend of hops, valerian, chamomile, oats, passionflower and balm, suggests Dr. Tyler, and be sure to follow the directions on the label.
Don’t do it in the Dark
Considering how hard you worked out after dinner, you should fall into a coma the moment your head hits the pillow. But here you are staring at the ceiling again, and your eyes couldn’t be open any wider if you’d chugged an entire pot of coffee. Exercise can be a big help in getting a good night’s sleep, but exercising late in the day can put your body into overdrive, making it a lot harder to drop off. How late is too late for exercise depends on your body, but experts recommend finishing your workout before 7 p.m.