Set a sleep schedule—and stick with it
If you do only one thing to improve your sleep, this is it, says Dr. Breus: Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning—even on weekends.
A regular sleep routine keeps your biological clock steady so you rest better. Exposure to a regular pattern of light and dark helps, so stay in sync by opening the blinds or going outside right after you wake up
Keep a sleep diary
To help you understand how your habits affect your rest, track your sleep every day for at least 2 weeks.
Write down not only what’s obviously sleep related—what time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, how you feel in the morning—but also factors like what you ate close to bedtime and what exercise you got.
Comparing your daily activities with your nightly sleep patterns can show you where you need to make changes.
Reason number 1,001: Nicotine is a stimulant, so it prevents you from falling asleep. Plus, many smokers experience withdrawal pangs at night.
Smokers are 4 times more likely not to feel as well rested after a night’s sleep than nonsmokers, studies show, and smoking exacerbates sleep apnea and other breathing disorders, which can also stop you from getting a good night’s rest.
Don’t worry that quitting will keep you up nights too: That effect passes in about 3 nights, says Lisa Shives, MD, sleep expert and founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine.
Review your medications
Beta-blockers (prescribed for high blood pressure) may cause insomnia; so can SSRIs (a class of antidepressants that includes Prozac and Zoloft). And that’s just the beginning. Write down every drug and supplement you take, and have your doctor evaluate how they may be affecting your sleep.
Exercise, but not within 4 hours of bedtime
Working out—especially cardio—improves the length and quality of your sleep, says Dr. Shives. That said, 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise keeps your body temperature elevated for about 4 hours, inhibiting sleep. When your body begins to cool down, however, it signals your brain to release sleep-inducing melatonin, so then you’ll get drowsy.
Cut caffeine after 2 pm
That means coffee, tea, and cola. Caffeine is a stimulant that stays in your system for about 8 hours, so if you have a cappuccino after dinner, come bedtime, it’ll either prevent your brain from entering deep sleep or stop you from falling asleep altogether.
Write down your woes
“The number one sleep complaint I hear? ‘I can’t turn off my mind,’ ” says Dr. Breus. To quiet that wakeful worrying, every night jot down your top concerns—say, I have to call my insurer to dispute that denied claim, which will take forever, and how can I spend all that time on the phone when work is so busy?
Then write down the steps you can take to solve the problem—I’m going to look up the numbers before breakfast, refuse to stay on hold for more than three minutes, and send e-mails tomorrow night if I can’t get through—or even I can’t do anything about this tonight, so I’ll worry about it tomorrow. Once your concerns are converted into some kind of action plan, you’ll rest easier.
Take time to wind down
“Sleep is not an on-off switch,” says Dr. Breus. “It’s more like slowly easing your foot off the gas.” Give your body time to transition from your active day to bedtime drowsiness by setting a timer for an hour before bed and divvying up the time as follows:
First 20 minutes: Prep for tomorrow (pack your bag, set out your clothes).
Next 20: Take care of personal hygiene (brush your teeth, moisturize your face).
Sip milk, not a martini
A few hours after drinking, alcohol levels in your blood start to drop, which signals your body to wake up. It takes an average person about an hour to metabolize one drink, so if you have two glasses of wine with dinner, finish your last sip at least 2 hours before bed.
Snack on cheese and crackers
The ideal nighttime nosh combines carbohydrates and either calcium or a protein that contains the amino acid tryptophan—studies show that both of these combos boost serotonin, a naturally occurring brain chemical that helps you feel calm. Enjoy your snack about an hour before bedtime so that the amino acids have time to reach your brain.
Listen to a bedtime story
Load a familiar audiobook on your iPod—one that you know well, so it doesn’t engage you but distracts your attention until you drift off to sleep, suggests Dr. Shives. Relaxing music works well, too.
Experts usually recommend setting your bedroom thermostat between 65° and 75°F—a good guideline, but pay attention to how you actually feel under the covers. Slipping between cool sheets helps trigger a drop in your body temperature.
That shift signals the body to produce melatonin, which induces sleep. That’s why it’s also a good idea to take a warm bath or hot shower before going to bed: Both temporarily raise your body temperature, after which it gradually lowers in the cooler air, cueing your body to feel sleepy. But for optimal rest, once you’ve settled in to bed, you shouldn’t feel cold or hot—but just right.
…especially if you’re menopausal
During menopause, 75% of women suffer from hot flashes, and just over 20% have night sweats or hot flashes that trouble their sleep. Consider turning on a fan or the AC to cool and circulate the air. Just go low gradually: Your body loses some ability to regulate its temperature during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, so overchilling your environment—down to 60°F, for instance—will backfire.
Spray a sleep-inducing scent
Certain smells, such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang, activate the alpha wave activity in the back of your brain, which leads to relaxation and helps you sleep more soundly. Mix a few drops of essential oil and water in a spray bottle and give your pillowcase a spritz.
Turn on the white noise
Sound machines designed to help you sleep produce a low-level soothing noise. These can help you tune out barking dogs, the TV downstairs, or any other disturbances so you can fall asleep and stay asleep.
Eliminate sneaky light sources
“Light is a powerful signal to your brain to be awake,” explains Dr. Shives. Even the glow from your laptop, iPad, smart phone, or any other electronics on your nightstand may pass through your closed eyelids and retinas into your hypothalamus—the part of your brain that controls sleep.
This delays your brain’s release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Thus, the darker your room is, the more soundly you’ll sleep.
Consider kicking out furry bedmates
Cats can be active in the late-night and early morning hours, and dogs may scratch, sniff, and snore you awake. More than half of people who sleep with their pets say the animals disturb their slumber, according to a survey from the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.
“But if your pet is a good, sound sleeper and snuggling up with him is comforting and soothing, it’s fine to let him stay put,” advises Dr. Shives.
Check your pillow position
The perfect prop for your head will keep your spine and neck in a straight line to avoid tension or cramps that can prevent you from falling asleep. Ask your spouse to check the alignment of your head and neck when you’re in your starting sleep position.
If your neck is flexed back or raised, get a pillow that lets you sleep in a better-aligned position. And if you’re a stomach sleeper, consider using either no pillow or a very flat one to help keep your neck and spine straight.
This technique helps reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, releases endorphins, and relaxes your body, priming you for sleep. Inhale for 5 seconds, pause for 3, then exhale to a count of 5. Start with 8 repetitions; gradually increase to 15.
To see if you’re doing it right, says Dr. Breus, buy a bottle of children’s bubbles, breathe in through your belly, and blow through the wand. The smooth and steady breath that you use to blow a bubble successfully should be what you strive for when you’re trying to get to sleep.
Stay put if you wake up
“The textbook advice is that if you can’t fall back asleep in fifteen minutes, get out of bed,” says Dr. Shives. “But I ask my patients, ‘How do you feel in bed?’ If they’re not fretting or anxious, I tell them to stay there, in the dark, and do some deep breathing or visualization.”
But if lying in bed pushes your stress buttons, get up and do something quiet and relaxing (in dim light), such as gentle yoga or massaging your feet until you feel sleepy again.