Blessed sleep — the holy grail of health. Lack of sleep can send your blood sugar levels skyrocketing, contribute to weight gain, lead to depression, put you at risk for diabetes, and cause brain damage.
That’s just the warm-up. Sleep deprivation can alter your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, potentially affecting everything from your memory to your immune system, heart, and metabolism. Of course, lack of sleep can kill you instantly — as when you run your car off the road because you’ve dozed at the wheel (an estimated 71,000 people are injured in fall-asleep crashes each year). In fact, studies find that if you’ve been awake through the night, it’s as if you had a performance impairment equal to .10 percent blood alcohol content, more than enough to get you arrested for drunk driving in most states.
Given the evidence, you’d think we’d all be hitting the pillow as soon as the sun dropped below the horizon. Ha! Today Americans get 25 percent less sleep than they did a century ago. Nearly 4 out of 10 don’t get the minimum 7 hours of sleep necessary for optimal health and daytime functioning, while 15 percent get less than 6 hours most nights.
Since we’re all in agreement that a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for your health and mood, pick three of these tips to follow each night until you get the night’s sleep you so desperately crave.
1. Create a transition routine. This is something you do every night before bed. It could be as simple as letting the cat out, turning out the lights, turning down the heat, washing your face, and brushing your teeth. Or it could be a series of yoga or meditation exercises. Regardless, it should be consistent to the point that you do it without even thinking about it. As you begin to move into your “nightly routine,” your mind will get the signal that it’s time to chill out and tune down, dialing down stress hormones and physiologically preparing you for sleep.
2. Figure out your body cycle. Ever find that you get really sleepy at 10 p.m., that the sleepiness passes, and that by the time the late news comes on, you’re wide-awake? Some experts believe sleepiness comes in cycles. Push past a period of sleepiness and you likely won’t be able to fall asleep very easily for a while. If you’ve noticed these kinds of rhythms in your own body clock, use them to your advantage. When sleepiness comes, get to bed. Otherwise, it might be a long time until you are ready to fall asleep again.
3. Sprinkle just-washed sheets and pillowcases with lavender water and iron them before making up your bed. The scent is scientifically proven to promote relaxation, and the repetition and mindlessness of ironing will soothe you. Or, instead of ironing your sheets, do the next best thing: Put lavender water in a perfume atomizer and spray above your bed just before climbing in.
4. Hide your clock under your bed or on the bottom shelf of your night stand, where its glow won’t disturb you. That way, if you do wake in the middle of the night or have problems sleeping, you won’t fret over how late it is and how much sleep you’re missing.
5. Switch your pillow. If you’re constantly pounding it, turning it over and upside down, the poor pillow deserves a break. Find a fresh new pillow from the linen closet, put a sweet-smelling case on it, and try again.
6. Choose the right pillow. One Swedish study found that neck pillows, which resemble a rectangle with a depression in the middle, can actually enhance the quality of your sleep as well as reduce neck pain. The ideal neck pillow should be soft and not too high, should provide neck support, and should be allergy tested and washable, researchers found. A pillow with two supporting cores received the best rating from the 55 people who participated in the study. Another study found that water-filled pillows provided the best night’s sleep when compared to participants’ usual pillows or a roll pillow. Yet another study found that a pillow filled with a special “cool” material composed of sodium sulfate and ceramic fiber provided a much better night’s sleep than one filled with polyester. The reason, the researchers suggest, is that the cooler pillow kept the subjects’ head cooler during the night, improving their sleep. While you may not be able to find a sodium sulfate-filled pillow, you can buy a pillow made of natural fibers, which are better at releasing heat than polyester.
Other pillow tips: if you’re subject to allergies or find you’re often stuffed up when you awake in the morning, try a hypoallergenic pillow. And experiment with the pillow’s thickness. While a thick, fluffy pillow might sound appealing, it might be too thick for you, leading to neck strain. Try a thin pillow.
7. Switch to heavier curtains over the windows, and use them. Even the barely noticeable ambient light from streetlights, a full moon, or your neighbor’s house can interfere with the circadian rhythm changes you need to fall asleep.
8. Clean your bedroom and paint it a soothing sage green. Or some other soothing color. First, the more clutter in your bedroom, the more distractions in the way of a good night’s sleep. The smooth, clean surfaces act as a balm to your brain, helping to smooth out your own worries and mental to-do lists. The soothing color provides a visual reminder of sleep, relaxing you as you lie in bed reading or preparing for sleep.
9. Move your bed away from any outside walls. This will help cut down on noise, which a Spanish study found could be a significant factor in insomnia. If the noise is still bothering you, try a white noise machine, or just turn on a floor fan.
10. Tuck a hot-water bottle between your feet or wear a pair of ski socks to bed. The science is a little complicated, but warm feet help your body’s internal temperature get to the optimal level for sleep. Essentially, you sleep best when your core temperature drops. By warming your feet, you make sure blood flows well through your legs, allowing your trunk to cool.
11. Kick your dog or cat out of your bedroom. A 2002 research study found that one in five pet owners sleep with their pets (and we’re not talking goldfish here). The study also found that dogs and cats created one of the biggest impediments to a good night’s sleep since the discovery of caffeine. One reason? The study found that 21 percent of the dogs and 7 percent of the cats snored!
12. Sleep alone. Sure you love your spouse or partner, but studies find one of the greatest disruptors of sleep is that loved one dreaming away next to you. He might snore, she might kick or cry out, whatever. In fact, one study found that 86 percent of women surveyed said their husbands snored, and half had their sleep interrupted by it. Men have it a bit easier; just 57 percent said their wives snored, while just 15 percent found their sleep bothered by it. If you absolutely will not kick your partner out (or head to the guest room yourself), then consider these anti-snoring tips:
- Get him (or her) to stop smoking. Cigarette smoking contributes to snoring.
- Feed him (or her) a light meal for dinner and nix any alcohol, which can add to the snoring.
- Buy some earplugs and use them!
- Play soft music to drown out the snoring.
- Present your lover with a gift-wrapped box of Breathe Right strips, which work by pulling the nostrils open wider. A Swedish study found they significantly reduced snoring.
- Make an appointment for your sleeping partner at a sleep center. If nothing you do improves his or her snoring, your bedmate might be a candidate for a sleep test called polysomnography to see if sleep apnea is the cause. Better to help your partner — and yourself — than to exile the poor sonorous soul!
13. Take a combination supplement with 600 mg calcium and 300 mg magnesium before bed. Not only will you be providing your bones with a healthy dose of minerals, but magnesium is a natural sedative. Additionally, calcium helps regulate muscle movements. Too little of either can lead to leg cramps, and even a slight deficiency of magnesium can leave you lying there with a racing mind.
14. Eat a handful of walnuts before bed. Walnuts are a good source of tryptophan, a sleep-enhancing amino acid.
15. Munch a banana before bed. It’s a great natural source of melatonin, the sleep hormone, as well as tryptophan. The time-honored tradition, of course, is warm milk, also a good source of tryptophan.
16. Drink water before bed, not fruit juice. One study found it took participants an extra 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep after drinking a cup of fruit juice, most likely because of the high sugar content in juice.
17. Take antacids right after dinner, not before bed. Antacids contain aluminum, which appears to interfere with your sleep.
18. Listen to a book on tape while you fall asleep. Just as a bedtime story soothed and relaxed us when we were children, a calming book on tape (try poetry or a biography, stay away from horror novels) can have the same effect with us grown-ups.
19. Simmer three to four large lettuce leaves in a cup of water for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, add two sprigs of mint, and sip just before you go to bed. Lettuce contains a sleep-inducing substance called lactucarium, which affects the brain similarly to opium. Unlike opium, of course, you won’t run the risk of addiction!
20. Give yourself a massage. Slowly move the tips of your fingers around your eyes in a slow, circular motion. After a minute, move down to your mouth, then to your neck and the back of your head. Continue down your body until you find you’re so relaxed you’re ready to drop off to sleep. Another option: alternate massage nights with your significant other. You get Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Your significant other gets Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. You do each other on Sundays.
21. Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. A research study published in the journal Sleep found that women with insomnia who took a hot bath during this window of time (water temperature approximately 105°F), slept much better that night. The bath increased their core body temperature, which then abruptly dropped once they got out of the bath, readying them for sleep.
22. Use eucalyptus for a muscle rub. The strongly scented herb provides a soothing feeling and relaxing scent. You can find eucalyptus oil to mix into a carrier oil, or even a eucalyptus-scented cream.
23. Spend 10 minutes journaling the day’s events or feelings after tucking yourself into bed. This “data dump” will help turn off the repeating tape of our day that often plays in our minds, keeping us from falling asleep.
24. Keep a notepad at your bedside along with a gentle night-light and pen. Then, if you wake in the middle of the night and your mind starts going, you can quickly transfer the to-do list to the page, returning to sleep knowing you “caught” those thoughts.
If you’re tired of feeling like you’re not at your best or like you’re not getting the sleep you need, then it’s time to take action! Sign-up for the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Challenge today!