Good Sleep Guide
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5 Medication-Free Ways to Improve Your Sleep

By Bailey Miller
August 18, 2022

Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.

If you’re among the almost 70 million Americans with sleep problems, you're likely no stranger to the world of sleep medications and supplements. But as much as these medications can give temporary relief, they don't help solve sleep problems or lead to fulfilling sleep in the long run. In fact, they may hurt your body’s natural ability to have and maintain a restful night’s sleep.

In a Twill webinar, sleep expert Michelle Jonelis, M.D., discussed ways to sleep better without medication and get the fulfilling rest you need. Here are five of her best tips and tricks:

1. Understand “Bad” Sleep

One of the first mistakes people make when trying to improve their sleep, Jonelis says, is assuming that there is one correct way to sleep well. “There's a lot of information out there in the press that's not incorrect but can be misleading in the picture it gives you of how you’re supposed to sleep, and this leads to a lot of anxiety,” she says.

The truth is that everyone needs different amounts and kinds of sleep. The sleep you need depends on your age, height, and gender, among other factors. “How your sleep looks is just how your sleep looks,” Jonelis says. “Don’t compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to yourself.”

Stress plays a big part in abnormal sleep. “The mistake that people make is they think they need to do something to their sleep,” Jonelis explains. “But the sleep changes that come with stress are just a byproduct of the stress.”

A stressful time, when you may lose sleep to worry, is when you're more likely to try sleep medications and other unfulfilling methods in an attempt to "fix" your slumber. “If you’re just taking a sleeping pill, you’re not addressing the stress, and you actually have to change your focus,” Jonelis explains. “Recognize what’s going on, focus on managing the stress, and the sleep will improve.”

2. Find Your Light

One factor you can manipulate to reset your body’s natural sleep cycle is light. “Try to follow the pattern of the sun," Jonelis says. By making sure you get enough light in the morning and during the day, your body will know when it should be awake and alert. "You want to get bright light, especially in the morning, and then keep things as bright as you can throughout the day,” she says.

In the same way, you should control your light exposure in the evening to make sure your body is producing melatonin naturally when it should be. “Melatonin is our body’s natural darkness hormone,” Jonelis says. “You don’t want to take it by mouth as a supplement. Most of the time, you want your body to produce melatonin naturally.”

You can do this by limiting your light exposure at night. Specifically, Jonelis says, you should limit blue light, which mimics sunlight, and instead opt for warmer light in the evenings.

3. Rethink Your Bedtime

Another common mistake people with sleep problems make is spending too much time awake in bed. “If you're noticing that you have a lot of time awake during the night, the first thing you want to do is actually spend less time in bed, not more,” Jonelis explains.

To recalculate your sleep-wake system, you must create a routine for yourself and limit your time in bed rather than force yourself to toss and turn aimlessly. “It’s counterintuitive, and people never want to do this one, but it really, really works.”

To successfully limit your time in bed, Jonelis recommends being consistent with when you wake up and turn in—and yes, that includes weekends and holidays. “Varying your sleep schedule is completely incompatible with healthy sleep,” she says. Your body will appreciate the adjustment to a healthy routine, and your sleep will improve exponentially.

4. Manage Your Substance and Media Intake

“Substances play a big role in sleep quality,” Jonelis says, adding that our intake of things like alcohol, caffeine, and cannabis, as well as the amount of time we spend looking at screens, can be detrimental to our sleep.

What you watch and when can also have a big impact on your sleep. “Media itself is very stimulating for the brain, so we want to be aware of how much we’re consuming during the day, and particularly before bed,” Jonelis urges. She recommends cutting off screen time one to two hours before bedtime.

5. Be Proactive About Your Worry

For many, stress and anxiety seem to pop up in full force the second we hit the pillow. “If you distract yourself from your worries all day, when you turn off the lights and go to bed, your brain still wants you to think about them,” Jonelis explains. To combat this, she recommends managing your anxieties earlier in the day so your worries aren't begging for your attention at bedtime.

Jonelis recommends three ways to manage daily anxiety and stress:

  • Simply write out all your worries during the day. “Our brain is a lot less rational during the night, so it’s not the best time to think about those worries,” she explains. Fleshing them out earlier in the day will help you feel calmer.
  • Write out a to-do list for the next day so that all your concerns and responsibilities are laid out for you to tackle right at the start of your day.
  • Practice mindfulness and gratitude, writing down three things that happened that day for which you are thankful. “Learning mindfulness is a great way to reduce stress overall,” Jonelis says, and reducing that stress will lead to more restful sleep.

The main takeaway, Jonelis explains, is that there's so much more you can do for your body and your sleep than just popping a pill and hoping for the best. By using these tips and focusing on getting restful sleep, you can slowly build yourself up to getting the best sleep every night—without medication.

“There’s this idea that people get fixated on the fact that they need a perfect night of sleep every single night, but that’s just not true,” Jonelis says. “Don’t sweat the fluctuations.” If you simply focus on the tips that help you get better sleep, your body and mind will thank you.

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