By Healing Lifestyles & Spas

The definition of insanity, Albert Einstein once quipped, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But for the millions of Americans who head to bed each night, only to spend most of it lying awake in the darkness, the hope for deep, restorative sleep isn’t a laughing matter. According to the National Sleep Foundation (who host our 2nd favorite relaxing week, “Sleep Week“) in Washington, D.C., 75% of us experience at least one indicator of a sleeping problem a few nights a week, a number that’s increased significantly in the last four years. And while most of us know that we need eight hours of sleep a night to be at our best, only about a quarter of Americans regularly get that much rest.

Not only does sleep improve your skin (it’s called Beauty Sleep for a reason!), a study from Columbia University and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City concluded that regularly cutting into your sleep time could also put you at greater risk for gaining weight. Researchers discovered that people who average less than 4 hours of sleep a night are 73% more likely to become obese than those who got the recommended 7 to 9 hours of rest. “Sleep deprivation may lower levels of leptin, a blood protein that suppresses hunger,” says lead researcher James Gangwisch. Stay up late a few nights in row, and you’ll probably notice that your appetite has spiked.

While lifestyle and environmental factors play a major part in the rest that we get, our minds often get the last word on how well we’ll sleep. To help patients get some rest (without the use of prescription medications), sleep specialists and naturopaths will often suggest a series of activities or exercises designed to relax the mind and take the focus off the day’s stressful events. Here are some of their most reliable sleep techniques.

1. Create a pre-sleep routine

“You need transitional downtime—you can’t just switch from ‘worry, worry, worry’ straight into soothing sleep,” says Joanne Getsy, medical director at the Drexel Sleep Center in Philadelphia. Make a cup of decaf tea, climb into cozy pajamas, and read an article in your favorite magazine. By creating a short wind down ritual, you’ll signal to your body that its time to enter rest mode.

2. Turn on the steam heat

Taking a hot bath or shower can depress the nervous system and encourage the muscles to relax. “At first this can be stimulating and wake you up, but after about twenty minutes, you’ll feel yourself start to get very drowsy,” says naturopathic physician Suzanne Lawton. The scent of lavender can also be relaxing, so try to find a bath product, which features it as a key ingredient. (This lavender shower fizzer by Essential Addictions is only $4)

3. Offer yourself hypnotic suggestions

Your brain can either work against you—or for you—in bed. Clear away stressful daytime thoughts by replacing them with those more conducive to sleep. “Tell yourself that you’re feeling incredibly tired, that your eyelids and body are getting heavy,” says Lawton. “Once you’ve given your brain the suggestion, the body quickly follows.”

4. Engage in deep breathing

(Elena Brower taught you this WEEKS ago!) Allow yourself to expel the stress you’ve been holding onto by exhaling it out. To begin, get settled on your back and rest your hands lightly on your belly. “Inhale slowly, feeling your hands lift on your stomach as you draw air in. Hold it for a moment; then slowly let it out. The act of deep breathing can be surprisingly emotional, so take as few or as many breaths as you feel comfortable with,” suggests Fleishmann.

5. Think of calming visuals

“Creating an image in your mind can help lead you away from stressful thoughts and into a dream-like state,” says Joanne Getsy, medical director at the Drexel Sleep Center in Philadelphia. “Some people like to imagine walking along a path near the ocean, while others might think of making snow angels in winter.” She suggests choosing a visual that’s soothing and relaxing, and if you’re inclined, building a simple story around it.

6. Get Moving

Engaging in stretches, poses, and guided relaxation just before bedtime can help release the day’s tension, preparing you for a restorative night’s sleep. If you’re not already a practiced yogi, follow along with movement expert Ann Dyer in zYoga: The Yoga Sleep Ritual (Sleep Garden; $25) for a combination that will take you from type A to Zzz in fifty minutes or less.

7. Supplementing Sleep

Taking sleeping pills isn’t the only way to tackle symptoms of insomnia. These natural remedies can help speed you towards dreamland, without a prescription.

  • Chamomile If you’re feeling agitated, brew a pot of tea made from the leaves of this fragrant herb. A strong cup can soothe aching muscles and relieve stress, enabling you to fall asleep.
  • Kava Root This member of the pepper family is a natural relaxant, which can have a therapeutic effect on your body. Take care to consume products made from the root only, as those made with the leaves and stem could have adverse side effects.
  • Valerian A non-addictive sedative with anti-anxiety benefits, valerian can keep you from feeling wired and worried, reducing the amount of time it takes you to drift off at bedtime.
  • Melissa Extract Also called Lemon Balm (thanks to its citrus-like scent), this member of the mint family works to relax agitated nerves and encourage proper digestion.

Lead Image via, ocean image via chichacha’s flickr