Simple Strategies to Improve Your Sleep

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Dr. Mirgain on NBC-15

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain discusses sleep tips on a recent NBC-15 interview. Watch the interview


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Woman sleepingMadison, Wis.– Americans are becoming increasingly sleep-deprived. We're always looking to squeeze more time out of 24 hours. Unfortunately one of the first things to go is sleep.


While some may boast that they can get by with just a few hours of sleep, the truth is, sleep is absolutely critical for your good health.


Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, UW Health psychologist, explains that being sleep-deprived impacts almost every area of your life. It can lead to depression and can also make you prone to illness and even weight gain.


"Research suggests that individuals need an average of 7.5 hours minimally for our bodies to function well," comments Dr. Mirgain. "If an individual is chronically sleep- deprived, he or she will never know what peak performance feels like, and won't be able to be as effective in daily tasks."


While people may sacrifice sleep in order to get more work done, the reality is that sleep deprivation impairs their productivity, creativity and decision-making abilities.


"Sleep research shows that sleep, even a short nap, primes our brains to function at a higher level. It allows us to experience better cognitive functioning, such as being able to focus more easily, come up with better ideas, find solutions to problems more quickly, and remember information more accurately," says Dr. Mirgain.


While we make time to exercise, watch our diets and even manage our stress, if we're not getting a good night's rest, we're completely undermining all of the other efforts we're making to live a healthy lifestyle. For those who don't (or can't) get enough sleep, Dr. Mirgain offers these tips.


1. Make Sleep a Priority


Give yourself permission to make sleep a priority, says Dr. Mirgain. Try to have a regular bedtime and wake time most days of the week.


Research out of the University of Michigan by Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D. found that getting one extra hour of sleep at night had more of an effect on daily happiness than a $60,000 increase in annual income. But, we often have so many commitments that sleep starts to become a low priority.


"If you have to, make an appointment with your sleep the way you would make an appointment during the daytime," comments Dr. Mirgain.


2. Practice Sleep Hygiene


It's hard to quiet your mind when your environment is full of noise and activity. Try to make sure the bedroom is conducive to sleep. That means making sure it's dark and cool. The body actually rests better when the temperature is on the cool side, so adjust the thermostat accordingly. If needed, blackout curtains or a sleep mask can help make the room feel darker, while ear plugs or a sound machine can help block outside noise.


A few other habits to follow include avoiding large meals just before bedtime. And, exercise regularly, ideally four or five hours before bedtime.


"Also, if you're a coffee or soda drinker, try to stop drinking caffeine late in the day," says Mirgain. "If you're finding you can't quiet your mind at night, your beverage of choice just might be the issue."


3. Limit Screen Time Before Bed


While it may seem like watching TV or surfing the Web helps quiet your brain, research shows that light from televisions, computer screens, tablets or even phones can obstruct the body's production of melatonin.


"Technology allows us to be so connected with the outside world that we lose connection to our internal environment," notes Mirgain.


Try unplugging, literally. And, if you just know you won't be able to sleep no matter how hard you try, try turning your clock away from you.


"Looking at the clock repeatedly, knowing you're going to be exhausted when the alarm goes off, is a recipe for insomnia," says Mirgain.


4. Relax Your Body


If you're a person who can't unwind at the end of the day, relaxation techniques may be the secret you've been looking for. These techniques take advantage of the body's natural relaxation response to create a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response.


"Relaxation techniques help quiet the mind and relieve tension in the body, but they also help you fall asleep faster and get back to sleep more quickly if you awaken in the middle of the night," explains Mirgain.


Part of a relaxation technique is developing a bedtime routine, just as parents often do with their kids. It helps trigger the mind to say, "It's now time for rest" and helps the body transition from a state of activity to a state of rest.


And, similar to a kid's routine, reading a book or taking a bath can be a great way to unwind at the end of the day.


"One of my favorite relaxation exercises to do at bedtime is progressive muscle relaxation," says Mirgain. "Lie down or make yourself comfortable. Starting with your feet, tense the muscles tightly. Hold for several seconds as you breathe in, and then as you breathe out let that tension go, allowing the muscles to become as relaxed as possible. Continue to do this for every muscle group in your body, working your way up from your feet to the top of your head."


Relaxation techniques can also help if you don't fall asleep 20 to 30 minutes after going to bed, or if you wake up and can't fall back asleep. If you still have trouble falling asleep, you might try getting up out of bed and doing an activity that is relaxing to you, returning to bed once you feel more tired.


5. Calm The Mind


Sometimes it may be impossible to avoid stressful situations before bedtime, like arguments with your spouse. But when possible, postpone that discussion about finances until another day.


"If it is a big worry, see if you can let it go and think about a relaxing place or time in your life," suggests Mirgain.


The problem with sleep is that the more you worry about it, the more elusive it can become. Agonizing and expecting sleep difficulties only makes sleeping more difficult.


"You may dread going to sleep because you know you're going to toss and turn for hours, but worrying only creates adrenaline in your body, which keeps you awake," says Mirgain.


Some people find journaling a useful way to write out the day's worries before trying to go to sleep. Others make to-do lists for the next day so their minds don't continually think about what needs to get done. It takes practice and patience, but it is possible to break a habit of chronic worrying.


When Nothing Else Seems to Work


You've tried relaxation techniques, warm baths and no television after 8pm. But nothing seems to work. What else is there?


"If you find yourself still having problems with sleep, it may be helpful for you to talk to your physician to rule out any medical problems that may be the reason why you don't sleep well," says Mirgain.


Your physician can provide additional guidance for strategies to try, and determine when a referral to sleep specialists, such as Wisconsin Sleep, may be helpful.

Date Published: 04/18/2013

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgain

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