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Secret Weapons for Restless Nights, According to Wirecutter’s Sleep Journalist


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I sleep for a living. Or, more precisely, as one of Wirecutter’s resident sleep writers, I make a living trying to help people get a better night’s rest.

 

I’ve tested everything from mattresses to meditation apps, and I know all about good sleep hygiene. But despite having all the best gear and routines, I still often find my mind racing at 4 o’clock in the morning, counting the minutes until my alarm goes off. At times like that, I need help to shut off my brain, calm my body down, and get the sleep I need.

 

These are the six simple practices I use to fall asleep when all else fails. Each is backed by scientific research or expert advice. Most importantly, they’re easy to do and require no specialized gear or preparation. Of course, if you regularly suffer from sleeplessness, your first step should be to speak with a doctor. But if you’re like me, and you wrestle with the occasional bout of insomnia, these secret weapons may help you vanquish it. Here’s what I do.


I scan my body

 

Although it sounds like a strange, high-tech term, body scanning is a form of mindfulness meditation that involves methodically taking in the sensations in each part of your body, from head to toe. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation techniques improve sleep quality, and they may be a viable treatment for adults with chronic insomnia. This is because mindfulness meditation tends to quiet the disruptive, anxiety-inducing thought patterns that lead to sleeplessness.

 

There are plenty of places to learn effective mindfulness meditation techniques, from meditation apps to full-blown online courses (our favorite meditation app, Headspace, offers guided body-scanning meditations). But what makes body scanning so accessible is that it requires no external prompts or preparation, so it’s easy to do from bed, even if you’re only half-awake. To begin, get comfortable, close your eyes, and “scan” your body, starting at your head. Do you have a headache? Is there tension in your jaw? Move down to your neck, then to your chest, middle, hips, legs, and down to your feet. Any sensations, pain, or tension sitting in these areas? Before you move on, take 10 to 20 seconds to sit with each part of your body. If you’re still awake when you reach your toes, just start scanning from your feet up in the same way. For me, performing five or six scans seems to do the trick. During the first few scans, I struggle to fully focus. But by the fourth, fifth, or sixth scan, my intrusive thoughts have melted away, I feel in tune with the sensations in my body, and I’m no longer aware of whatever worries had kept me from sleeping.


I warm my feet

 

It turns out that people who wear socks to bed know what they’re doing. A small, 2018 study showed that sleeping with socks on may help you fall asleep faster. As sleep scientist Roy Raymann, PhD, told Wirecutter’s Joanne Chen, when the skin is warm, the temperature sensors in your body send signals to the area of your brain that is involved in sleep and temperature. The brain interprets warm skin as a signal that it’s okay to doze off.

 

Personally, I don’t like wearing socks at night; it feels like shoving my feet into a cramped sauna while the rest of my body gets to breathe. So in the turmoil of chilly, sleepless nights, I place a heating pad at the foot of my bed. My trusty PureRelief XL King Size Heating Pad, the top pick in our heating pad guide, has been stationed by my bedside for years now, thanks to consistent cramps from hell. It’s such a small effort to lay it flat at the base of my bed, right where my feet rest, and turn it on high for a little warmth when I have trouble falling asleep. You could also invest in a heated mattress pad, like the Sunbeam Zoned Heated Mattress Pad, which offers zoned heating for the lower legs and feet. Foot warming has pre-bedtime benefits, too: Wirecutter editor Marilyn Ong has written about how her nightly foot-soaking ritual helps her sleep better.


I massage my head

 

When I’m lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, unable to drift off, I sometimes use my middle and pointer fingers to locate two points right behind my ears. These are the Anmian acupoints; according to traditional Chinese medicine, they play a role in promoting sleep. (Anmian means “peaceful sleep.”) There isn’t strong scientific evidence that acupuncture (which uses hair-thin needles) or acupressure (in which pressure is applied to certain spots on the body through massage) are effective for treating insomnia. (A few small, peer-reviewed studies, including one from 2013, and a 2009 systematic review showed the practices were effective treatments for insomnia.) Since acupressure is a noninvasive practice, there’s little downside to seeing whether it works for you. Lie on your back, close your eyes, and locate the Anmian points just behind the lobe of your ear, slightly above the bony part. Massage one or both of your Anmian points with your middle or pointer finger for a couple of minutes. I massage with light, circular movements until I feel my body lose its tension—it’s almost like putting myself in a trance.

 

Vanessa Smith, DACM, a licensed acupuncturist, told me that in traditional Chinese medicine, difficulty sleeping is related to “an ungrounded mind that’s suspended up in the head.” Pressing the Anmian points helps to calm the mind and ground it again, initiating restful sleep. For me, Anmian massage seems to work because the physical movement helps me feel more connected to my body. It reminds me to breathe deeply and, eventually, relax enough to drift off.


I grab a hug

 

Most of us need a hug sometimes. A racing mind or an intense bout of anxiety at bedtime can feel like battling Goliath in the dark. If you don’t have a pet or a person to reach out and hug, it might be a good idea to invest in something to hug. A 2013 study showed that physical contact with a huggable device decreased the levels of cortisol (commonly referred to as the stress hormone) in both saliva and blood. A 2020 study found that out of five stress-relief methods (which included squeezing a stress ball and listening to music, among others), hugging a pillow was the most effective technique in decreasing stress levels. As Wirecutter’s Sarah Gannett has written, some adults find that cuddling with a stuffed animal helps them sleep.

 

Because I’m high maintenance, a simple pillow or stuffed animal isn’t enough when I want something to hug during the night. Instead, I have a comically large, U-shaped body pillow (similar to this one, from our body pillow guide), which hogs my entire bed. But I’m happy to be cuddled on both sides every night. If you don’t want to commit to a behemoth of a pillow like that, we also recommend more aesthetically pleasing, space-efficient, curve-conforming body pillows; they are long enough to engage in a full-body hug without taking up the whole bed.


I stimulate my senses

 

This hack involves ASMR, and I’ll preface it by acknowledging that it definitely isn’t for everyone. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) refers to tingly, warm, pleasurable, or relaxing sensations some people experience when listening to certain sounds, such as whispering, stroking, or gentle tapping. Over the past decade, videos with ASMR creators whispering, chewing, and breathing directly into fluffy mics have proliferated on YouTube (and now TikTok). The science on ASMR lags behind its social popularity, and some people just don’t feel it. There isn’t any scientific evidence showing that ASMR can help induce sleep, but studies have shown that for some people, ASMR induces relaxation and reduces feelings of stress, both of which are important precursors to sleep. And a large majority of ASMR participants report using it to fall asleep.

 

Unfortunately, I fall into the sizable group of people who can’t stand listening to traditional ASMR. The whispering, mouth-breathing, and other amplified sounds creep me out, and the subsequent sensations feel unpleasant rather than relaxing. So I was surprised when TikTok fed me a different type of ASMR, one that I actually enjoyed: so-called lo-fi ASMR. There’s no big fluffy mic, no bone-chilling whispering, no mouth breathing. These recordings usually feature a person speaking at a lower volume without a microphone, sometimes making snappy, textured noises with common household objects like pens and hairbrushes, or tapping different surfaces. When it’s 3 a.m. and I’ve exhausted every other method to fall asleep, I’ll listen to a few short videos of my favorite ASMR TikToker. Instead of the weird, tingling, almost itchy sensation I got from standard ASMR videos, lo-fi ASMR makes my brain go warmly numb, and I’m able to let go of the overbearing thoughts that keep me up at night.


I get out of bed (and get back in)

 

When all else fails—when the quiet tappings of lo-fi ASMR and the mindfulness meditation and the foot warmer combined can’t put me to sleep—I get out of bed. Sleep experts caution that leaving the bed should be your last-ditch effort. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends stepping out of the bedroom and doing some reading or other quiet activity (while keeping the lights low) if you’re awake and restless after 20 minutes of failed sleep. Sometimes, obsessing over the fact that I can’t sleep just makes it harder. Instead, I treat my sleeplessness like hiccups—I just do something else to forget that I can’t sleep. I sit on the couch and read a book, play a low-stakes, cozy video game, or write in my journal. When I feel relaxed and sleepy again, I crawl back into bed and do it all over again.

 

It’s Sleep Week at Wirecutter! Read more about the best Sleep Week deals on our expert-recommended mattresses, bedding, and more for your bedroom.

 

This article was edited by Courtney Schley.


Sources

 

1. Vanessa Smith, DACM, acupuncturist, Zoom interview, January 9, 2023

 

2. Kai Keng Ang, Zheng Yang Chin, et al., Investigating different stress-relief methods using electroencephalogram, IEEE Xplore, July 2020

 

3. Jason Jishun Hao and Michele Mittelman, Acupuncture: past, present, and future, Global Advances in Health and Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2014

 

4. Yelin Ko and Joo-Young Lee, Effects of feet warming using bed socks on sleep quality and thermoregulatory responses in a cool environment, Journal of Physiological Anthropology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 24, 2018

 

5. Hidenobu Sumioka, Aya Nakae, et al., Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels, Scientific Reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, October 23, 2013

 

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