Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep

Surefire methods to get well rested.

To some people, the need for sleep is viewed as a sign of weakness. It’s the new macho — and women, especially, are buying into it. But while you’re asleep, every system in your body is being fine-tuned, reset, cleaned up and restored to its optimal operating mode by an army of molecular troubleshooters. New things you have learned are being processed, memories are being organized and stored, and the immune system is building a new contingent of natural killer cells to fight off battalions of infectious agents. Growth hormone is being produced to repair damaged tissue (in adults) or build new tissue (in children) and to block the corrosive effects of stress.

When you sleep well, you’re in peak operating condition. When you don’t, you feel groggy and none of your systems are firing on all cylinders. You don’t think straight, make good decisions, remember where you parked the car or feel like making love. The resulting chemical glitches will put you on the fast track for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even obesity. Here are some surefire strategies from top specialists for a truly good night’s sleep.

The Daily Schedule
Wake up at the same time every day. A good night’s sleep actually starts in the morning. The second your eyes flutter open, light shoots down the optic nerve and into the brain’s biological clock. That stimulates production of hormones that regulate everything from how you think to how you feel. “Sunlight activates the brain,” says Frisca L. Yan-Go, MD, medical director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. And activating it at the same time every morning teaches your body that at midnight it’s supposed to be asleep and at noon it’s supposed to be awake.

Wake up at a different time every day and the clock is out of sync. You feel groggy and hungover for hours.

Give yourself an hour — the one right before bed. You need it to wind down and make the transition from the person-who-can-do-everything to the person-who-can-sleep. Unfortunately, most women are not giving themselves one single second. According to a 2007 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, during the hour before bed about 60 percent of them do household chores, 37 percent take care of children, 36 percent do activities with other family members, 36 percent are on the Internet, and 21 percent catch up on work.

Put yourself first. Women aren’t used to putting their needs ahead of others’, but sleep is so necessary to health and happiness, they must. If the dog’s snoring wakes you up, put him in another room. If your partner’s snoring wakes you up, help him get treatment. If he refuses to cooperate, put him in another room.

Work and Life
Dump the 24-7 stuff. Even if we manage to drop into bed for the six hours researchers claim most of us spend there, our minds are full of what-if’s, why-did-we’s and what’s-on-the-agenda-tomorrow’s.

All this rumination and agitation ignites stress hormones that keep us in a state of perpetual arousal. That’s why we should make a serious attempt to simplify our lives, says Cecile Andrews, PhD, author of Slow Is Beautiful. Draw up your to-do list, then take a big breath and start crossing things off, she says. It’s a bit humbling to realize, but you really don’t have to do it all.

Don’t work so late. The prevailing thought is that you have to stay late to get the job done. But working right up until bedtime is bound to affect your sleep. Go home at a reasonable hour. The truth is that it’s better to go get some sleep, then come back and do more work in the morning. Studies show that after a good night’s sleep, your increased ability to concentrate means that you can work faster and more accurately.

Manage the electronics. Being eternally hooked up to your cell phone or BlackBerry creates stress by forcing on us what Rockefeller University’s Bruce McEwen, PhD, calls “a wholly artificial sense of urgency.” You don’t have to do without your gadgets to cut stress — just control them. Turn off your cell in the evening, and the instant notification on your e-mail too. Switch off your monitor, ditch the night-light and rotate the clock-radio display. Your brain can misinterpret even dim lights and wonder if it should wake you up. Total darkness tells your brain it’s time to sleep.

Food and Drink
Stick to water, juice, decaffeinated diet soda — anything but coffee, hot chocolate or tea within six to ten hours of bed. Caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical that makes you sleepy. In fact, the caffeine in just one cup will rev your circuits enough to reduce both the length and restorative depths of sleep. It will also wake you during the night for a trip to the bathroom.

And no merlot or cosmos either. Even if you’re a charter member of Divas Uncorked, if you’re having trouble sleeping you need to limit your alcohol, especially after dinner and right before bed. Despite its reputation as a relaxer, alcohol keeps you in the lighter, less restorative stages of sleep, when you’re likely to wake if the dog so much as sighs.

Think rice for dinner. Although a well-balanced diet throughout the day is necessary to produce the neurochemicals your brain needs to function efficiently, researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia have discovered that eating a high-carb meal four hours before bed — jasmine rice, in this case — can halve the time it takes to fall asleep.

Put cookies and milk on your nightstand. The tryptophan in milk will help you feel sleepy, but you need some carbs to get it where you want it to go in your brain, says Mary Susan Esther, MD, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Cookies are her carb of choice.

Buy a new mattress. Don’t even try to comparison shop. Every mattress in every store has a different name and comes with different features. And every store owner says his mattresses are better than any others. The mattress to choose is the one that you can try in your home for 30 days. Find a store that offers that option, pick out the mattress you and your partner think is the most comfortable, make sure it has a guarantee, and flash your plastic. Don’t worry about fancy coils and foam and toppers. The mattress that allows you to sink into a deep, natural sleep and wake up in the morning without aches and pains is the one you want.

Cool it
. Turn down the thermostat a few degrees before you climb into bed, experts advise. Lower temperatures signal your body that it’s time to sleep. Your temperature also goes down after a hot bath in the evening. Studies show that pulling on socks works too — maybe because warming your feet and legs allows your internal temperature to drop.

Naps, Exercise, News and Sex
Join the pod people. Want to get some sleep and boost job performance by 34 percent? “Take a 26-minute nap,” says Sara Mednick, PhD, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. Studies show that one nap of up to 90 minutes between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m. will reduce your sleep debt, invigorate your day, boost your on-the-job performance and not affect night sleep.

But what if you’re at work? “If you can take a 20-minute break to run out for coffee,” she says, “you can find 20 minutes for a nap.” If your boss is dubious, send him to Mednick. She’ll pull out the NASA studies demonstrating that napping gives us a mental edge.

Work it.
“Exercise improves sleep as effectively as some medications,” according to Kalyanakrishnan Ramakrishnan, MD, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. On average it reduces the time it takes to get to sleep by 12 minutes and increases total sleep time by 42 minutes. And it doesn’t take much either. Studies at the University of Arizona show that walking six blocks at a normal pace during the day significantly improves sleep for women.

Scientists suspect that exercise sets the biological clock in a consistent sleep-wake pattern, or it may boost the brain’s production of serotonin, a neurochemical that encourages sleep.

Just make sure you finish your walk at least two hours before bed. Any later and the energizing effect of the activity can keep you up.

Avoid murder and mayhem.
Those late-night newscasts turn on every arousal mechanism in your body. There’s no way you’re going to drift into a peaceful sleep after 30 or 60 minutes of watching violence and listening to disturbing stories. So turn off the late news. Same goes for scary movies and Stephen King novels. If you have to know what’s going on, try watching the news in the morning, when the shot of adrenaline it may trigger will help you do battle with rush hour traffic.

Have sex instead. Enjoy a quickie, suggests Dr. Wang-Cheng. Some 44 percent of midlife women say they don’t have time for sex. But the Big O is still one of the most powerful sleep-inducing agents around.

Mind and Balance

Begin the day in gratitude. Take ten minutes every morning to sit down, close your eyes and give thanks for the blessings in your life. The sense of gratitude you’ll experience will set a serene tone for the day and reduce the stress hormones that can trigger insomnia at night.

Center yourself. Toning down a tightly wired nervous system will encourage a balanced sleep-wake cycle, says Dr. Yan-Go. Consider tai chi, meditation, prayer, biofeedback, yoga — any daily activity that allows you to cultivate a peaceful center.

Play with friends. Studies at UCLA reveal that women who have healthy friendships sleep better. These “tend and befriend” studies, conducted by Shelley Taylor, PhD, indicate that when women are stressed, they seek out other women, possibly an ancient survival mechanism that allowed them to band together to protect themselves and their families. Doing so raises oxytocin, which blocks cortisol, the body’s chief stress chemical, allowing women to rest easier than their wired male counterparts.

Spritz lavender. A quick spray of soothing lavender water on your pillows before bed may help calm your exhausted mind.

Use guided imagery. Slip a CD of guided imagery into your player (check out healthjourneys.com), snuggle into bed, turn out the lights and follow the imagery into sleep. It helps shut down the adrenaline that’s keeping you wired, while the voice, tone and music settle your ramped-up nervous system with a shot of calming hormones.

Fight brain clutter. Every time you start thinking about bills or work or kids gone astray, turn off your brain and focus on something less stimulating. One person may pray. Another meditates. A third dreams of what she’s going to plant in her garden. As long as it doesn’t make you worry, you’ll probably be asleep in no time.

On the Night Shift
We’re indebted to those who work around the clock to keep us safe: doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, EMTs and airline crews. But studies show that 85 percent of cops, 80 percent of regional pilots and 48 percent of air-traffic controllers nod off on the job. And a frightening 41 percent of medical workers admit they’ve made fatigue-related errors. In one survey, 19 percent report worsening a patient’s condition.

Shift workers have seriously lower levels of the neurochemical serotonin than their day-working counterparts. Low levels of serotonin are associated with anger, depression and anxiety as well as poor sleep. If you have to work at night, here’s what you can do:

Live close to your job. A long commute steals sleep and contributes to drowsy-driving accidents.

Don’t drive. Two-thirds of shift workers report driving drowsy after a shift, so use public transportation or arrange to be picked up.

Forget the quick fix.
There aren’t any, although there are plenty of people around who will sell you one. One example: Millions of dollars’ worth of the herb valerian are sold each year. Yet a review of 37 sleep studies reveals that taking it doesn’t do a thing.

Give your body a warning.
If your schedule is about to undergo a major change, start altering your sleep time three days in advance.

Use room-darkening drapes. The ones with heavy light-blocking fabric will help convince your brain it’s time to go to sleep.

Create a cocoon of quiet.
Close the windows, turn off the phone, wear earplugs and use a white noise machine or fan to mute outside sounds.

Get outdoors. Once you wake up, open the drapes, take a walk outside, sit in the sun. That cues your biological clock that it’s time to be alert.

Work clockwise. If your hours rotate, ask your manager to schedule succeeding shifts so that a new one starts later than the last one, advises the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. If you’ve just finished a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, you’ll be more alert and sleep better if the next one is 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Sleep and Hormones

Those little molecular mavericks can make women toss and turn with premenstrual insomnia or keep them up at 3 a.m. during the hormonal roller coaster of perimenopause. They can disrupt the most well-balanced woman and send her tumbling into a sleepless void from which she returns exhausted, stressed and desperately seeking caffeine. Here’s help.

Think about short-term HRT Surprised? Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has largely fallen out of favor among women and their doctors, and for good reason. Studies on postmenopausal women have found it can increase the risk of blood clots, breast cancer and gallbladder disease. Still, perimenopausal women who use HRT sleep better. Whether that’s because it reduces hot flashes or has some other effect isn’t known. Weigh the risks and benefits with your doctor, as well as the various forms (pills, patches, creams), and try the lowest dose possible.

Consider an alternative. Women reluctant to use estrogen may want to talk with their doctors about the antidepressant Effexor, says Becky Wang-Cheng, MD, of Kettering Medical Center in Ohio. It decreases the hot flashes that can disrupt sleep and is even prescribed for breast cancer patients. “It’s not as good as estrogen,” she says, “but it reduces hot flashes by 40 to 60 percent and will make you drowsy.”

Wick away the problem.
Buy pj’s in fabrics designed to absorb or drain moisture. They won’t stop a hot flash, but they may keep you from having to get up and change.

Chill out. The Chillow, a pillow with a cooling water insert that helps lower your temperature, can reduce the intensity of hot flashes.

Sleep and Kids

Parents are notoriously troubled sleepers. But when kids sleep better, so do moms and dads. Have little kids sleep alone Lying down with younger kids as they fall asleep is fine, until they wake up in the middle of the night. Try the sleeping bag trick. Have your child go to sleep in it on the floor near you, then night after night, gradually move the bag away from your bed, out the door and down the hall to his own room. It can take a while, says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, but eventually he’ll gain confidence to sleep independently.

Get teens to bed earlier. Yeah, we know it’s a challenge. Still, it’s worth the push, as 28 percent of teens report they fall asleep in school, and studies have found that teens who don’t get enough sleep are at an increased risk for depression, rage, use of stimulants and alcohol, low grades and car accidents.

Establish a bedtime routine. Kids should always do three or four calming activities before bed, says Mindell, and they should be exactly the same activities every night. Bath, reading, prayer, whatever — daily repetition cues your child’s body for sleep. And a routine is just as important for a 15-year-old as it is for a toddler.

Sleep and Slimming

How many calories does an extra two hours of sleep save? Almost 300, according to a study at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.Thirty-two students kept diaries of how much sleep they got and which foods they ate over a three-week period. The first week, students stuck to their normal eating and sleeping schedules. The second week, they were asked to sleep an extra two hours a day. And the third week, they went back to their normal routines.

Researchers found that the students who got an extra two hours of sleep during week two ate nearly 300 calories a day less than in week one. When they returned to their normal sleep-deprived routines in week three, they ate more food.

Popular Videos

Originally Published in Reader's Digest