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10 Tips and Tricks to Sleep Better When You're Not Feeling Your Best

Sleep Tight

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Not feeling 100 percent—whether you're sick, stressed, sore, or suffering from a more serious medical condition—can make falling asleep seem like an impossible task.

"Any discomfort you experience, even if it's mild, aggravates sleep, putting you at risk of developing chronic sleep problems," says sleep researcher Mark Muehlbach, Ph.D., the clinical director at the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis. "And if you're not sleeping well, it will only further aggravate any discomfort you have." It's a vicious and frustrating cycle.

Good news: There are ways to break that cycle. By implementing these smart habits, you'll get to sleep faster, snooze more soundly, and be able to soothe yourself back to sleep if you wake up from pain, discomfort, or a racing mind.

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Relax Your Muscles

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Progressive muscle relaxation can help both mind and body wind down, says Muehlbach. Do this: Start at your forehead, working your way down your body, tensing up muscle groups for five seconds, then relaxing them. Take your time with each muscle group in your neck, shoulders, arms, torso, and down to your legs and feet. This purposeful muscle release forces the body to relax and let go of tension. It can be a mental exercise, too, since it keeps your mind from wandering.

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Track Your Stress

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"Stress is a core cause of sleep disorders, so anything we can do to keep it in check is great for sleep," says Prudence Hall, M.D., founder of The Hall Center. That's why she recommends monitoring stress levels with a tracker (such as The WellBe). Such a device will keep tabs on your heart rate and alert you when you're super stressed. You can learn your triggers and get back into a zen state of mind.

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Consider a Supplement

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Melatonin—the "sleep hormone" that helps regulate our biological clock—is a great supplement to have on hand. It can be helpful as an occasional sleep aid for some when taken an hour before bed, and it doesn't have a lot of side effects, Muehlbach says. Bonus: It actually helps with more than just sleep, says Dr. Hall. "Melatonin has been shown to decrease breast cancer in women and is an antioxidant for the brain, which means it can help optimize the brain's cognitive function and protect against Alzheimer's and dementia," she explains.

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Unload Your Thoughts with Pen and Paper

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"Any kind of mild stressor can wake you up in the middle of the night," says Muehlbach. Take, for example, when you have an early morning flight to catch and you're worried you'll sleep through your alarm, so your brain wakes you up every hour. That's why it's so important to get those things out of your head before bed. Take time to think about the things that are bothering you from the day, or what you have to do tomorrow, and write them down so they don't run through your mind and interfere with sleep, he says.

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Work Out In the Morning

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According to the National Sleep Foundation, working out in the morning can help you sleep longer and experience deeper, more reparative sleep than exercising later in the day. "Working out at night when you're already not feeling your best puts extra stress on your body, which can keep you from being able to sleep deeply," says Dr. Hall. Also, if you exercise outside in the morning, the exposure to sunlight will help reset your body's sleep/wake cycle.

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Soak In the Tub

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If you're feeling tense, sore, or otherwise uncomfortable, a warm bath with Epsom salts can help relax your muscles, Muehlbach suggests. Just avoid soaking too close to bedtime so you can give your body a chance to cool down, he says. You might also want to consider some lavender bubble bath or essential oil—there is some research that says the scent of lavender helps you relax and sleep better, he says. (Here are more relaxing bath products.)

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Focus On Your Breathing

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Diaphragmatic deep breathing couldn't be easier (or better for calming you down): While sitting up or lying down, breathe in for two seconds and out for two seconds. Make sure your belly rises when you inhale and contracts when you exhale. (Use these yoga breathing exercises for relaxation.)

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Keep Your Bedroom Cool

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Keeping the bedroom cool—ideally 63 to 68 degrees—is a smart and easy sleep habit everyone should adopt, Muehlbach says. Here's why it's so important: "Our body temperature increases during the day and decreases at night. We like to sleep when our body temperature is dropping," he says. "If the room is too hot, it will disrupt our sleep."

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Skip the Rich Dinner

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Eat a really heavy meal right before bed and you're asking for discomfort and bloating, says Muehlbach. Not to mention, eating too close to bedtime means your body will be digesting while you sleep, which can keep you from getting deep, restorative sleep, Dr. Hall says. "It also signals to the body that you're in full daytime mode, which can keep you from falling asleep in the first place." (Check out the best and worst drinks for a peaceful night's rest.)

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If You Wake Up, Just Rest

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Find yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night? Before you turn on the lights or get out of bed, just focus on rest, rather than sleep, Dr. Hall says. "Lying in a gentle and relaxed alpha state can be almost as good for you as sleeping," she says. "If you're able to keep your mind in a state of peace, it can put your brain into a restorative, sleep-light pattern, much like meditation."

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5 Ways to Reduce Stress After a Long Day and Promote Better Sleep at Night

Unmask the sleep-stress connection

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One night of lousy z's, just one night, is all it takes for your stress level to go through the roof, scientists are discovering. "The quality of your shut-eye plays a crucial role in the way you cope with stress," says Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at UCLA. "Lack of sleep affects the brain's ability to regulate your emotional response to events," she says. More specifically, after that single bout of tossing and turning, the areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotions become so hypersensitive that your reaction to something stressful may rocket out of proportion, according to studies from University of California, Berkeley—meaning you freak out for no reason.

It doesn't end there, because the extra stress makes sleep even more elusive the following night. "Your cortisol levels are elevated and your heart is pumping faster—two things that keep you awake and impair the quality of your rest once you do drift off," Martin says. In fact, research shows that people who slept just four hours one night had higher levels of cortisol the next night, making it hard for them to get back on track.

It's a classic catch-22: You need sleep to de-stress but are too frazzled to turn in, and the lack of rest makes you even more tense. Break free of the draining cycle with the latest research and expert advice.

 

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Work out at night–it's fine

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Traditionally, it was believed that exercising too close to bedtime would hype you up, making it harder to nod off. That's not necessarily true, says Kelly G. Baron, Ph.D., a sleep expert and an assistant professor in behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "If it's best for you to work out in the evening, don't skip it just because of the time," Baron says. "It doesn't disrupt sleep as much as we once thought." Plus, research shows that people who go to the gym regularly sleep better than those who don't. "Exercise is so great for sleep that it's better to work out late in the day than not at all," Baron says. (Here are 9 reasons you may want to start working out in the dark.)

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Get your minerals

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Over half of adults in the U.S. don't get enough magnesium in their diets, according to USDA research. That shortfall could create a deficiency and lead to anxiety and insomnia. The mineral plays an important role in the function of the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body's main stress-response system; when your levels are low, the axis becomes more sensitive and you have a higher risk of becoming anxious and having sleep disturbances. (And it's one of these five minerals that seriously supercharge your workouts.) To stay on an even keel, eat magnesium-rich foods throughout the day to hit the recommended daily target of 310 to 320 mg for women. Try almonds (an ounce has 77 mg), spinach (a cup of boiled spinach has 157 mg), soy milk (61 mg a cup), and black beans (1⁄2 cup of cooked beans contains 60 mg). Before bed, snack on an ounce of almonds and an ounce or two of chocolate (up to 41 mg of magnesium) to help make you sleepy.

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Eat foods with prebiotics

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Raw garlic, leeks, and onions are packed with prebiotics, a type of fiber that improves your gastrointestinal health and affects brain function in such a way that it becomes easier for you to let go of stress, researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. (Related: Why your probiotic needs a prebiotic partner.) They found that prebiotics help induce deep, restorative sleep after periods of intense anxiety. The special fiber also protects the body from some of the damage stress can cause, says Monika Fleshner, Ph.D., one of the study's authors. Other good sources of prebiotics include raw jicama, dandelion greens, asparagus, and chicory root; the fiber can be found in supplements too.

 

 

 

 

 

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Go offtrack

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Thanks to the popularity of activity trackers, people are becoming obsessed with getting the perfect night's sleep, a condition that's sometimes known as orthosomnia, according to a study at Rush University Medical School. Trouble is, "sleep is one of those things where the more you try to do it, the harder it gets," says Baron, the study's lead researcher. Putting pressure on yourself to wake up to a superlative reading on your tracker can create a level of anxiety that winds up keeping you awake, she says. Instead, whenever you can, "try to arrange your schedule so you can spend about eight hours in bed every night, which should wind up giving you around seven hours of actual sleep," Baron says. It's fine to use a tracker to get a general sense of how many hours you're logging a night, but remember that most devices give only an estimate at best. You may also want to take a break from it after a superstressful day to avoid subconsciously sabotaging your shut-eye.

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Don't force it

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Going to bed earlier isn't always better. In fact, turning in too prematurely can be another way of unproductively stressing out about your snooze time, Martin says. "Trying to fall asleep is a great way to give yourself insomnia," she says.

There's no one bedtime—or sleep ritual—that works for everyone. Some of us love slipping between the sheets earlier; others would rather stay on the couch until their eyelids droop. Both ways are fine, as long as you start doing something restful—reading a book, watching something chill on Netflix (with the screen dimmed to minimize your exposure to blue light, which can disrupt your z's)— about 30 minutes before you want to be asleep. If you're not drowsy in that time frame, though, don't get anxious. The more relaxed you are, the easier it'll be to eventually drift off.

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If You Wake Up, Just Rest

Find yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night? Before you turn on the lights or get out of bed, just focus on rest, rather than sleep, Dr. Hall says. "Lying in a gentle and relaxed alpha state can be almost as good for you as sleeping," she says. "If you're able to keep your mind in a state of peace, it can put your brain into a restorative, sleep-light pattern, much like meditation."

Photo: Shutterstock

Skip the Rich Dinner

Eat a really heavy meal right before bed and you're asking for discomfort and bloating, says Muehlbach. Not to mention, eating too close to bedtime means your body will be digesting while you sleep, which can keep you from getting deep, restorative sleep, Dr. Hall says. "It also signals to the body that you're in full daytime mode, which can keep you from falling asleep in the first place." (Check out the best and worst drinks for a peaceful night's rest.)

Photo: Vladimir Godnik/Getty Images