In some cases, getting a better night’s rest can be as simple as developing better sleep habits.
“Just like there is good nutrition and good exercise,” says Gerard Lombardo, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. “There is good sleep hygiene.” Not only does this mean avoiding obvious sleep saboteurs, such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine or large meals before bedtime, but it also means making sure your environment is conducive to sleep.
Does your mattress have a big dip in the middle? Is noise, from outside traffic, a barking dog, a snoring partner, interfering with your sleep? Is it too hot or too light? “The bedroom is a sanctuary for good sleep,” says Dr. Lombardo. “Treat it as such — respect the need for the body to be comfortable and peaceful and surrounded by conditions conducive to sleep.” You can reduce noise by wearing earplugs, or control it by investing in a fan or white noise machine. Create your own white noise, suggests Michael Breus, PhD, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health, by playing your radio between stations and letting the steady buzz of static lull you to sleep. If it’s too light, invest in blackout shades, or use a chip clip to hold curtains closed. Dr. Breus advises having no more than 45 watts coming from all light sources when you’re trying to sleep. Light signals the brain that it should be alert. Conversely, exposing yourself to bright light immediately after awakening, by taking a walk outside or lingering in a part of your house that gets a lot of sunlight, can actually improve your sleep. “It helps to synchronize the circadian pacemaker in the brain that governs the sleep-wake cycle,” says Clete Kushida, MD, director of the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research.
Probably the biggest mistake that people make in terms of sleep, says Dr. Kushida, is that they do not maintain a strict bed time and awakening time, which throws their sleep-wake cycle out of whack. “Typically, they won’t be getting enough sleep during weekdays, and on weekends they try to compensate or alter their sleep schedule by staying out later and sleeping in.” It’s important, too, to establish a regular bedtime routine that allows you to make a break between the activities of the day and the time for sleep, giving your body a chance to wind down.
Dr. Kushida also recommends following the 20-minute rule: “If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, go into another room and do something else to get you drowsy and then go back,” he explains. “You want to re-associate the bedroom with being a place for sleeping, not a place for being restless.” If anxiety is keeping you awake, write down your worries and tell yourself you’ll deal with them in the morning.