Most of us go to bed tired and craving good sleep after a long day. You want to get your beauty sleep, but for some reason, when your head hits the pillow, you toss, turn, and never seem able to conk out right away. You’ve probably heard the basic sleep hygiene advice: sleep in a cool, dark room, avoid using your cell phone too close to bed (um, easier said than done), skip the nightcap. So HealthiNation asked doctors to share the tips and tricks they discuss with their patients to fight insomnia and ensure a better night’s rest.
“A secret to good sleep that is not often discussed is meditation,” says Kaushal M. Kulkarni, MD, a board-certified neuro-ophthalmologist who practices in San Diego. “Meditation helps to calm the mind and bring the restless, thinking mind into a state of peace so that you can fall asleep and rest easier.” You’ll focus on your breathing and then bring your mind’s attention to the present, without drifting into concerns about the past or future. “You may sleep better and wake up more refreshed, ready to start the next day,” says Dr. Kulkarni.
In a small study of middle-aged adults from the University of Southern California, adults who completed a mindfulness program that taught them meditation and other exercises reported less insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared with a control group who took a sleep education class.
Meditation just not your thing? A beside journal is another stress-relieving antidote to consider, especially if anxious thoughts are an insomnia trigger for you. “Writing things down helps to acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling,” says David Edelson, MD, medical director of HealthBridge in Great Neck, New York. “You don’t have to worry about forgetting if you jot it down and often many things are more easily and clearly addressed after a good night of sleep.”
Sleep experts often recommend keeping digital devices out of the boudoir altogether, but for some (um, let’s just say nearly all) people, that’s not realistic. If you’re going to dock your phone on your night table, take some precautions to minimize the glare of the blue light the device emits. “This is high-energy, short-wavelength blue and violet light that comes from digital screens like smartphones, tablets, LED monitors, and flat screen TVs,” explains Christopher Quinn, OD, president of the American Optometric Association. “Blue light specifically affects your ability to get good quality sleep because it reduces melatonin production and tricks your brain into thinking it is daytime. It disrupts your sleep-wake cycle.” Dr. Quinn recommends you turn off—or walk away from—your digital devices off at least one hour before bed. You can also help reduce the glare by adjusting device settings or using a glare filter to decrease the amount of blue light reflected from the screen.
You might crave a cozy bedroom, but science shows that you sleep better at a cooler temperature. “Your body core temperature [naturally] starts to fall as you become drowsy, and a cooler room promotes this drop in body temperature and helps bring on sleep,” says Marc I. Leavey, MD, a primary care physician with Mercy Physicians at Lutherville in Lutherville, Maryland. (Here's why wearing socks to bed can help you sleep better.)
The optimal temp for good sleep is 65 degrees, so you may be better off keeping your bedroom a bit cooler than you’re used to. If you have a programmable thermostat, set it to a cooler temperature at night. If you prefer warmth when you awake, the same programmable thermostat can do the job. Program it accordingly about an hour before your wake-up time.
Late-night noshers, this one’s for you. Two to three hours before bed, stop eating. “Avoid large meals, or consuming alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, and nicotine within a few hours of bed,” says Dr. Edelson. Large meals, especially with high-fat foods, could contribute to sleep-robbing indigestion. If you’re prone to issues like overactive bladder, caffeine-containing foods can irritate your bladder and make middle-of-the-night bathroom runs more likely.
We know: Naps are a luxury that are just not happening for many in the rise-and-grind set. But if your schedule can swing an early-afternoon nap, try it out. Napping can be helpful when you can’t get enough sleep at night or if you work irregular shifts, says Dr. Edelson. Limit naps to 20-30 minutes at most and avoid napping after too late in the day to ensure your nap doesn’t backfire and make you less sleepy at night.
You may sleep better if you’re in a good exercise groove. Many studies have linked regular physical activity with less insomnia and more daytime energy, but research suggests you have to be patient to see results. Data from Northwestern University researchers found that while sedentary adults who started an exercise regimen (three to four 30-minute cardio sessions a week) did see improvements across several aspects of sleep (duration, quality, daytime sleepiness), the effects were not immediate. It took a couple of months of being in an exercise routine to reap the sleep-boosting benefits. So if you’re new to a gym routine, give it time.
To get even more out your workout, take it outdoors in the morning. Getting sunlight when you wake up helps regulate your body’s internal clock, called a circadian rhythm, ensuring you stay awake and alert during the day and feel drowsy when it’s time for bed.
This one may sting a little. But instead of sleeping in on the weekends, set your alarm and wake up close to the same time you rise and shine during the week. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule “is tops for my list for better sleep,” says Dr. Leavey. Your body's internal clock works best when you have regular sleep habits—seven days a week. When things disrupt that schedule, whether it’s jet lag from a jaunt to Europe or sleeping past 10 AM on weekends, you throw off your circadian rhythm, which can make it harder to fall asleep at your usual bedtime, creating a vicious insomnia cycle. A good sign you’re sticking to your circadian rhythm and getting the right amount of sleep for you? You can wake up consistently without an alarm.
Think fast: Can you remember the last time you splurged on new pillows? It not, it might be time to go shopping. The right pillow for your sleeping style can make or break a good night’s sleep. “People who sleep on their back need a pillow with good neck support and those who sleep on the side need to support the head so that it stays in alignment with the spine,” says Dr. Leavey. For stomach sleepers, using no pillow at all may be your best option. If you are restless and move around a lot in your sleep, pick a pillow that can be molded to accommodate all your positions. (Here's the surprising thing your pillow can reveal about your heart health.)
Part of falling into a deep sleep is being comfortable. As you age, your body requires more support to maintain optimal spine health—and after thousands of hours of sleep, your who-knows-how-many-years-old mattress has endured plenty of wear and tear. Some sources suggest replacing your mattress as often as every 10 years.
“If you’re due for something new, a medium-firm mattress may provide the right density to ease or prevent low back pain,” says Michael Perry, MD, co-founder and chief medical director, Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Florida. According to research in the Journal of Canadian Chiropractic Association, patients with chronic low back pain experienced a good quality of sleep when they upgraded their mattress. The reasoning: a lumbar support mattress distributes the force of gravity more uniformly over the pelvic, lumbar, and thoracic areas. To save time before shopping, research mattress options online and make a list of brands that provide lumbar support.
Sleep disorders are fairly common. If lifestyle changes for better sleep aren’t doing the trick, consider the next steps. “If you gave it a good and consistent try to create positive sleep habits and are still feeling tired upon waking, restless, you are unable to fall or stay asleep or finding yourself dozing off during the day, these are things you should tell your healthcare provider about,” says Dr. Edelson. “Together you can explore whether your sleep hygiene and habits just need some adjusting or if a sleep disorder is perhaps an underlying issue,” Dr. Edelson says.
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