Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep

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.

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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.

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