20 ways to sleep better every night

Sound slumber results in increased energy
and productivity, improved heart and
immune system health, a better mood,
even a longer life. And hey, you just feel
so much better after a satisfying 8 hours
of rest. But chances are, you're not
getting it. "Sleep issues are epidemic
among women today," said Michael
Breus, clinical psychologist and author of
The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan.
Not surprisingly, women tend to get less
sleep than men do overall, said Dr.
Marianne Legato, director of the
Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine
at Columbia University. Even if you don't
have children, levels of sleep-promoting
estrogen sink regularly during
menstruation and then permanently in
menopause. And symptoms related to
both--cramps, headaches, hot flashes,
and night sweats--also disrupt slumber.
But experts agree that these biological
facts don't mean that sleep deprivation
has to be your destiny. "Feeling tired
should never be considered normal," said
Breus. Yet there are no stock sleep
solutions, either: Finding out what works
for you takes some trial and error, but
it's well worth it, said Dr. Lawrence
Epstein, chief medical officer of Sleep
HealthCenters. "Sleep is a basic biological
necessity--just like eating--and it has an
impact on every aspect of your health and
your life," he notes.
Try these 20 ideas to find the sleep
formula that works best for you.
1. Set a sleep schedule--and stick with
it
If you do only one thing to improve your
sleep, this is it, said 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.
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2. Keep a sleep diary
To help you understand how your habits
affect your rest, track your sleep every
day for at least two 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. For a sample sleep diary, go to
sleepdoctor.com .
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3. Stop smoking
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
four 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, said Dr. Lisa Shives, sleep expert
and founder of Northshore Sleep
Medicine.
4. 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.
5. Exercise, but not within four hours
of bedtime
Working out--especially cardio--improves
the length and quality of your sleep,
according to 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.
6. Cut caffeine after 2 p.m.
That means coffee, tea, and cola. Caffeine
is a stimulant that stays in your system for
about eight 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.
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7. Write down your woes
"The number one sleep complaint I hear?
'I can't turn off my mind,'" said 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.
8. Take time to wind down
"Sleep is not an on-off switch," said
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).
Last 20: Relax in bed, reading with a
small, low-wattage book light or
practicing deep breathing.
9. 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
two hours before bed.
10. 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.
Some good choices:
• one piece of whole grain toast with a
slice of low-fat cheese or turkey
• a banana with 1 teaspoon of peanut
butter
• whole grain cereal and fat-free milk
• fruit and low-fat yogurt
11. 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, suggested
Shives. Relaxing music works well, too.
12. Stay cool...
Experts usually recommend setting your
bedroom thermostat between 65 degrees
and 75 degrees--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.
13. ...especially if you're menopausal
During menopause, 75 percent of women
suffer from hot flashes, and just over 20
percent 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 degrees, for
instance--will backfire.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Eliminate sneaky light sources
"Light is a powerful signal to your brain to
be awake," explained 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.
17. 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,"
advised Shives.
18. 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.
19. Breathe deeply
This technique helps reduce your heart
rate and blood pressure, releases
endorphins, and relaxes your body,
priming you for sleep. Inhale for five
seconds, pause for three, then exhale to a
count of five. Start with eight repetitions;
gradually increase to 15. To see if you're
doing it right, Breus said to 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.
20. 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," said 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.