Yawwwn. Didn’t get enough sleep last night? Me neither. And we’re not alone. An estimated 50–70 million Americans struggle with sleep disorders. Ideally, adults should get a solid seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and with all we try to pack into a 24-hour day, many of us come up short.
How Sleep Affects Health
But what’s the big deal? With so much to do and so little time, isn’t it great if we can take advantage of as many waking hours as possible? Actually, no.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), our collective lack of sleep is a public health problem. Insufficient Zs play a role in automobile accidents, industrial disasters, and occupational and medical errors. (Note to self: If your surgeon is yawning, you may want to ask how they slept last night before going under the knife.)
Beyond these obvious dangers, lack of sleep can contribute to numerous psychological and physiological problems, including depression, irritability, memory loss, depleted sex drive, and lack of productivity. Poor sleep can be a factor in chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
Conversely, catching plenty of Zs has numerous benefits, including stress reduction, increased creativity and productivity, and improved mental sharpness and memory. A healthy sleep habits can help you lose weight, reduce inflammation in the body, improve athletic performance and recovery, and keep you looking younger. The bottom line: quality sleep is critical to overall quality of life.
The How-Tos of Better Sleep
Clearly, we need to prioritize our sleep. Let’s explore a number of ways to achieve better sleep habits and sleep hygiene (yes, that’s a thing), naturally.
Create a Calming Pre-Sleep Routine
Think of the 30-60 minutes before bedtime as prep for the sweet sleep that’s sure to follow. Create a routine that calms your body and mind. Try one or more of these:
- Take a warm bath or shower
- Listen to music or a guided imagery podcast
- Avoid stressful activities such as work or emotionally-charged conversations (when stressed, the body secretes cortisol, which is associated with alertness)
Sleep When Sleepy
Go to bed when you’re tired, but don’t try to force it. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes of tossing, get up and do something else relaxing (take a bath, read, or listen to music) until you feel tired.
Create a Comfy Sleep Space
Boost your bedroom’s sleep-ability with these tips:
- Make sure that your bed, bedding, pillows and PJs are all comfortable
- Keep the temperature on the cool side, and the room well ventilated
- Banish TV and tech devices from the bedroom
- If your room is loud, try sleeping with earplugs
- Try blackout curtains to block unwanted light
- Devote your bedroom solely to sleep and sex. Don’t work, watch TV, eat, or pay bills in bed.
Kick the Clock
If you tend to stare at the clock when you’re trying to sleep, either turn it around or get rid of it altogether. Likewise, if you wake in the middle of the night, don’t check the time—seeing that it’s 3:00 a.m. will only cause you to stress, rather than fall back asleep. Instead, use your phone as an alarm clock. Just be sure to switch it to vibrate (so that notifications don’t keep you awake) and keep it face down (to avoid seeing the time or being bothered by the light).
Blue Light, Be Gone
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in our bodies that aids in sleep, and which begins being released a few hours before bedtime. Blue light (the light emitted from television screens and tech devices) has a negative impact on melatonin. Therefore, try your best to avoid exposure to blue light after 8:00 p.m. That means no computer, TV, handheld devices, or cell phone. It’s a big ask, but truly, nothing life-changing is likely to happen on social media that won’t still be available for viewing in the morning (and your improved sleep will be well worth the sacrifice). If you simply can’t kick your late night gadget habit, try dimming the screen or consider eyeglasses specifically tinted to block blue light.
Keep Naps Early and Brief
If you’re a daytime napper, aim for 20-30 minutes max (aka, the power nap)—otherwise you’ll drift into deep sleep and have a hard time getting over the grogginess when it’s time to get up. And don’t nap past afternoon or you’ll be wide awake at bedtime.
Pick the Right Time to Exercise
Regular exercise is critical for countless health-related reasons, and helping with sleep is no exception. But exercise too close to bedtime and you might keep yourself awake. Like stress, exercise triggers the release of cortisol, which can leave you wired, rather than lull you to sleep. If you need to fit exercise in just before bed, opt for a soothing yoga session.
Stick to a Schedule
Be as consistent as possible with both your bedtime and the time you wake up each morning. Be sure you go to bed early enough to allow seven to eight hours of sleep.
Say No to Nighttime Stimulants
Sipping an espresso after your evening meal can seem glamorous, but it’s a glaring mistake for anyone struggling to sleep. Caffeine stays in your system for up to 12 hours, so your best bet is to stick with a morning brew. Alcohol may initially make you sleepy, but it can actually wake you up in the middle of the night or prevent restful sleep. If you drink, stick to one serving to limit the negative impact on your Zs.
Plan your dinner to end a few hours prior to bedtime. Steer clear of spicy or rich foods that cause you indigestion. If you’re hungry for a pre-bedtime snack, try something light from the dairy or carb department.
Don’t Be Foiled by Fluids
Drinking plenty of fluids is important to stay hydrated and for overall health. But drink too much too close to bedtime and you’ll be back and forth to the bathroom throughout the night.
Home Remedies for Better Sleep
If you’re still having trouble after improving your basic sleep habits, try these home remedies and techniques.
Sleep-Inducing Supplements, Food, and Drink
Supplementation with melatonin can help increase the natural levels in your body, thus enhancing your sleep.
Some foods contain natural melatonin, help your body manufacture melatonin, or contain naturally sedative tryptophan. Among these are walnuts, dairy products, tart cherry juice, hummus, turkey, and elk. Foods with a high glycemic index, such as pretzels, cereal, and jasmine rice, can also help you sleep. The spike in blood sugar and insulin levels from high glycemic index foods—which is generally considered a negative—can have a positive effect by shortening the onset of sleep.
Drinking hot tea is a wonderful way to wind down, and certain herbal teas are widely believed to help with sleep. Chamomile is a top choice for calming, valerian root has actual sedative properties, and lavender and peppermint are favorites for enhancing relaxation. Other herbs often associated with insomnia cures—St. John’s wort and kava root—come with ample health warnings, so be sure to consult your doctor before trying these.
CBT for Better Sleep
Last, but not least, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is at the forefront of potential insomnia solutions. In fact, physicians now often prescribe CBT as a first line of defense against poor sleep, in lieu of sleep medications. For anyone facing a significant sleep deficit, CBT is certainly worth a try, as the techniques involved can help solve sleeplessness by addressing the underlying causes of insomnia.
CBT combines cognitive techniques—training your brain to eliminate the negative thoughts and stressors that keep you awake—and behavioral techniques—including many of the habits and hygiene suggestions listed above—to improve sleep for the long-term. CBT treatment can be conducted under the guidance of a practitioner, however numerous online courses offer self-administered options.
What are your best ways to battle sleeplessness? Do you have a favorite podcast, nighttime tea, or CBT program that helps you get better sleep? We’d love to hear what works for you. Share your experiences in the comments below.