We’ve all seen them; the news stories and blog posts reminding us that we don’t get enough sleep.
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We know that people who get fewer than seven or eight hours of sleep a night are less able to concentrate until they make up for lost time. We even know that if we’re chronically sleep-deprived, we run an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure… and that’s independent of our increased risk of obesity! We read those articles, nervously count the number of hours we sleep, and make a mental note to go to bed early, only to find ourselves staying up late and getting up early again, and again, and again. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and sleep always seems to draw the short straw.
Chances are that you’re already doing everything you can to get enough sleep, so this article isn’t about getting you to try harder. It’s about finding the best ways to take those too-few hours you’re able to set aside for sleep and make the most of them. If you only get to spend five hours in bed, it’s critical to make them five hours of restful sleep instead of five hours of fitful tossing and turning.
Create a Perfect Sleep Space
In order to get a good night’s sleep, you need to make your bedroom a well-oiled sleep machine. Start by turning down the heater; experts recommend that you sleep at around 65 °F (or 18 °C). At night, your body temperature naturally lowers, and a warm room raises your core temperature and tells your body that it’s time to wake up. Your bedroom should have as little light as possible at night; nightlights, over-bright windows and lights from charging devices can all tell your brain that it’s still early evening rather than bedtime. Similarly, even a little bit of noise can keep you up. Blackout curtains, sleep masks, earplugs and white noise machines can help if your room tends to be bright or noisy.
Eat Smart, Drink Smart, Sleep Sound
You know better than to drink an espresso right before bed, but there are other, subtler ways that your diet could be sabotaging your sleep. Fatty and spicy foods can upset your stomach, and caffeine can keep you jittery even if you drink it hours before turning in. Too many beverages before bed can cause your bladder to keep you awake all night. Perhaps the most surprising culprit to a bad night’s sleep is alcohol. That’s right! That nightcap might make you drowsy at first, but studies show that it disrupts the quality of your sleep later in the night by pulling you from deep sleep to a lighter REM doze.
On the other hand, there are ways you can use food to your advantage. A light snack before bed can keep you from getting too hungry. Certain foods can raise your serotonin levels and contribute to a good night’s sleep, particularly those that are high in complex carbohydrates, heart-healthy fats or tryptophan, the notorious turkey protein that makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. Whole grains, nuts and lean meats are good choices.
Set Up a Bedtime Routine
Having a peaceful routine before bed can help you tell your brain that it’s time for sleep. Any activity that you find relaxing can help. Read a good book that isn’t too full of thrills and car chases, take a warm bubble bath, listen to soothing music, knit or talk to your partner. One important exception: Avoid screens in the hour before bed. The light from TVs, computers and other electronic devices can confuse your brain into thinking it’s the middle of the day.
Separate Sleep and Wakefulness
You’ve probably heard that you should avoid using your bed for anything except sleep and sex, as other activities can break down the association between bed and sleep in your mind. However, there’s a good chance that you’re doing a disastrous non-sleep activity in your bed every night: tossing and turning while waiting for sleep to come. Lying awake in bed can damage that crucial bed-sleep association. It also sabotages your chance of falling asleep that night, as you keep yourself awake worrying about whether you’ll be able to sleep. If you still feel wide-awake after 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing until you feel drowsy, then go back to bed.