One of the easiest things we do in life is sleep.

Once embraced in its warm folds, we recuperate, replenish, and de-stress from the days events. We aren’t conscious of doing anything. Our bodies take over and begin an hours long process of healing.

Yet, sleep may also be a mysterious challenge. We can lie in bed, unable to enter that magical stage of dreams, instead lying for hour after hour in a state of frustrated exhaustion. Our lives may be so worrisome that we can’t let go of those worries to sleep. Forgotten tasks on our to-do list may pop us awake in the middle of the night. For caregivers, a struggling loved one may mean that sleep is punctuated by interruptions or simply hard to attain because their situation is so upsetting.

So what can you do? Sleep is vital to health and mental well-being. Without adequate sleep our thinking becomes fuzzy. We may become depressed, irritable, anxious, and forgetful. Our risk of dementia is increased by 33%, colorectal cancer by 36%, and heart disease by 48%, according to John Hopkins sleep researchers. Our immune system can falter, and hunger hormone levels shift, so cravings for sweet, salty and starchy food increases and our risk of obesity also climbs by 50%.

Just contemplating these risks or the fact that sleep deprivation can age your brain 3-5 years may make us so perturbed that it’s even harder to fall asleep. But there are ways to help improve your sleep. Here are some ideas to get you started.

1) Check Your Habits

Even some healthy habits may create problems for your sleep. For example, if you exercise within three hours of the time you fall asleep, the hormone cortisol, which is released during exercise, signals your brain to remain alert, so sleep may become elusive. Big meals within three hours of bedtime can also make sleep difficult, and both naps and even mildly caffeinated beverages like tea can cause problems after 5 p.m. Even replenishing water can be a challenge. Before bed, it’s important to drink enough water that you aren’t thirsty, but not too much that your sleep will be interrupted by the need for a bathroom visit.

2) Brainstorm the Problems

Pull out a piece of paper and fill a page with your sleep issues, then consider possible solutions. For example, when a friend did this, she realized that her cat often interrupted her sleep by cuddling near her in the middle of the night. The cat wanted a late-night snack, so my friend began making sure her cat had ample food and water before bed. Another friend would remember things she had to do the next day while falling asleep, so she put a notepad beside the bed to write these things down so her brain didn’t cling to them instead of sleeping. Each person is different, so take a few minutes to see if there are things like these that can be changed. Is your room noisy, too hot or cold, stuffy, or filled with distracting items like a computer, TV, or work materials? Can any of these things be improved?

3) Listen to the Gurus

Sleep researchers recommend creating a relaxing routine before bed. For example, you could take a late bath, which induces drowsiness, or listen to a sleep meditation via an app like Insight Timer or Calm assuming the phone itself won’t distract you and keep you awake. Simultaneously, avoid anything stressful, whether it’s work or emotional discussions, as the hormones released will keep you awake. Turn off the TV at least two hours before bed, and go to sleep at the same time each night. This will help set your internal body clock. Also, wake at the same time each morning, even if you weren’t able to get to sleep at your normal time. It will help you reset when you try again that night.

Of course, sleep issues can also connect to deeper issues. Perhaps you or your loved has sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, and a call to a doctor might be in order. Regardless, keep searching for answers until you find a restful way to sleep each night. Your health and happiness is worth it.

Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and stay well! —KK

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