You demand a lot of your body and mind during the day, every day. From working out at the gym and spending hours at the office to planning meals, walking the dog and cleaning the house, there are countless tasks, goals and people clamoring for your energy and attention.
But did you know that some of your most important activities happen when you're asleep? After drifting off, you'll go through four stages of sleep in about 90 minutes, and then that cycle will repeat itself around five times during a typical night. This process helps ensure that you wake up feeling rested, healthy and energized. GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor, says a good night's sleep is critical for stress management, good mental health, productivity, relationship success and physical health and wellness.
And while a 5 a.m. boot camp class is a great way to fit in exercise, getting the recommended seven to nine hours of shuteye is just as important to weight-loss efforts as those early morning workouts. While you're snoozing, the body is busy producing more of the hormone that controls appetite (leptin) and suppressing the "hunger hormone" that stimulates cravings (ghrelin).
"Sleep deprivation can make unhealthy foods more desirable — so, if you are trying to lose weight, getting enough quality sleep is very important," says Martin Reed, certified clinical sleep health specialist and founder of Insomnia Coach. "Insufficient sleep makes it harder for the body to burn fat, makes us feel hungrier and makes it harder to recognize when we’re full."
According to the federal government's Healthy People Initiative, roughly 30 percent of American adults get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. There are plenty of distractions that can interrupt even the best of snoozing intentions, from hormone imbalances and hectic, overbooked schedules to stress, anxiety or depression. If you suffer from chronic insomnia or have just recently hit a dozing dry patch, try these expert strategies to make sweet dreams a reality.
Write your worries away.
To help ensure a restful night's sleep, Guarino recommends keeping a notepad nearby to record those racing thoughts that tend to keep sleep at bay. While you might not be able to physically do anything about whatever tasks or concerns are tumbling around in your mind, you can at least jot them down in the moments before drifting off, so you won't have to worry about forgetting anything important.
Esther Yunkin, RN, holistic health coach at The Whole You, LLC, says there tend to be two types of trains of thought that our minds hop on at night. One is the anxiety/fear train, which takes us through loops of what-ifs, worst-case scenarios and fears. The other train is one of overwhelm. When you accidentally climb aboard that one, you are whisked away in a myriad of different directions. You might replay conversations from the day, remember the things you didn’t get done, think about all that you need to accomplish or expectations you need to meet.
To get off the anxiety/fear train, Yunkin suggests starting a gratitude journal. "Each night before bed, take five to 10 minutes and write down three to five things you are grateful for," she recommends. "This practice has been shown to help people fall asleep faster, sleep better and improve their general health and happiness." If you're on the overwhelm train, Yunkin suggests doing a "brain dump" and start writing down the tasks and problems that are keeping you awake. Not only does this take away some of their power, but your creative brain and analytical brain unite to more effectively come up with good solutions.
Let there be dark.
Rebecca Park, a registered nurse and founder of RemediesForMe.com, points out that exposure to light at night can reset the body’s clock and delay sleep. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible. If ambient light is seeping through your curtains, invest in some blackout shades or blinds.
Also, Park suggests blocking any bright LED displays in your room before going to bed. Use dim nightlights in the hallway and bathroom so you don’t have to switch on overhead lights if nature calls during the night. You might also consider wearing a sleep mask for an even deeper sleep.
Kick the caffeine habit.
Relying on caffeine to break through a sleep deprivation fog can create a vicious cycle, as too much of the stimulant can make it difficult to doze at night. Studies have shown that people who were given caffeine prior to bedtime took longer to fall asleep and reduced their sleep time by at least an hour compared to those who didn't have caffeine.
"Our body clears about half of the caffeine in our system every four to seven hours, which means even morning caffeine can linger in your system when it’s time to sleep," warns Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert. Although most coffee from breakfast is out of the system by bedtime, traces of caffeine can still be present at night. Do your best to avoid or limit the main offenders: coffee, tea, dark sodas and dark chocolate.
Maintain a cool temperature.
If you've ever tried to fall asleep in an overly warm room, tossing and turning in sweaty sheets, you know how uncomfortable and difficult it is. According to Park, experts suggest snoozing in a cool room between 60-65 degrees (16-19 Celsius) to help the body achieve the optimal sleeping temperature. Choose bed covers that keep you comfortable, but not overly warm. A ceiling or window fan can also help keep the room cool while providing soothing white noise.
Keep it quiet.
As Park points out, the sleeping brain continues to register and process sound. "Noise can disturb your sleep, wake you up or cause you to switch from deep to light sleep," she says. "Nocturnal noise can also cause adverse physical reactions during sleep, such as raising your blood pressure and increasing levels of stress hormones."
If you live on a busy street or are kept up by other environmental sounds, Bill Fish, founder of Tuck.com, suggests buying a simple white noise machine. "Nobody wants to be woken from their much-needed deep sleep by the neighbor’s dog howling at the moon at midnight or the garbage truck lumbering up the street at 5 a.m.," he says. If all else fails, a pair of earplugs will provide the silence you need for a deep slumber.
Spend less time in bed.
This might seem counterintuitive, but Reed says one of the keys to getting a better night’s sleep is to avoid spending too much time in bed. "Many people who struggle with sleep allocate too much extra time for it," he says. "This sounds logical—after all, if you spend more time in bed, there is more opportunity for sleep. However, if you are already struggling with sleep, then spending more time in bed will simply lead to more time awake in bed."
According to Reed, the amount of time allotted for sleep should be similar to your average nightly sleep duration. So if you typically get about six hours of sleep each night, it’s best not to allot much more than around six-and-a-half hours. If you're in bed for much longer, that could lead to more tossing and turning. Over time, Reed says, this could create an association between the bed, worry and wakefulness, rather than sleep and relaxation.
On a related note, try to use your bed—or, ideally, your entire bedroom—primarily for sleep. "If you do work or watch television while lounging in your bed, your brain may not be ready to shut off when it’s bedtime," Kansagra says. "By making your room a haven for sleep, your brain subconsciously starts getting ready to catch some shuteye the minute you walk in the door."
Ditch the screens.
We’re all guilty of occasionally (or even nightly) using our phones, laptops, tablets and televisions close to bedtime, or maybe even in bed. Kansagra warns that these electronic devices emit a harmful blue light that can actually keep you awake.
"Watching TV or surfing the web until you feel sleepy can disrupt the secretion of a natural sleep hormone called melatonin, leaving you to a night of restless sleeping," he warns.
Relax with yoga.
If you have trouble relaxing before bed, Park recommends trying some gentle stretching or yoga to calm the mind and relieve muscle tension. A study of older adults with insomnia found that yoga improved their sleep quality and sleep efficiency, and also reduced feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. Another randomized controlled trial involving staff nurses in a busy hospital found that yoga improved their sleep quality and reduced work-related stress.
Try some gentle yoga poses before bedtime. For an even greater relaxation boost, try pairing them with soothing music.
Exercise during the day.
"Exercise can improve both the quality and quantity of sleep," says Park. "It helps to reset the body’s clock, increasing daytime alertness and sleepiness at night. It also promotes sleep by naturally reducing stress and anxiety."
Research has shown that exercise increases both total sleep time and the amount of deep, slow-wave sleep. A survey conducted by The National Sleep Foundation polled 1,000 American adults who were categorized as exercisers (vigorous, moderate and light) or non-exercisers. More than 75 percent of the exercisers reported having good sleep quality in the past two weeks, while only a little more than half of the non-exercisers said the same. Among the vigorous exercisers, more than two thirds rarely or never suffered from insomnia, while half of the people who didn't exercise had trouble falling or staying asleep almost every night.
To improve nightly sleep, try to complete at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise—such as walking, running, dancing or biking—four to five times per week. It's best to take your workouts outside for exposure to natural daylight, which can help the body achieve optimal circadian rhythms.
Along with diet and exercise, Tuck considers sleep to be the third pillar of wellness. "By neglecting proper sleep, you are directly neglecting your health," he says. "Everyone should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night to prepare the body to attack the next day, both mentally and physically."