Grab your pillow—March 13 is World Sleep Day, an annual international health event created to raise awareness about the vital importance of a good night’s rest.
Over a third of all adults are getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night, according to the American Sleep Association (ASA). That sleep deprivation contributes to all sorts of accidents, including those caused by drowsy driving. What’s keeping everyone awake?
“Sleep is often sacrificed based on lifestyle demands, including professional and social responsibilities,” says Brandon R. Peters, MD, FAASM, sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center, and author of Sleep Through Insomnia. “The advent of limitless entertainment may undermine sleep, as well. Plus, sleep disorders are common—and commonly overlooked.” In fact, between 50 and 70 million adults in the U.S. have a sleep disorder, according to the ASA.
If you’re wondering how to sleep better, the first step is identifying the cause of your restless nights.
Why can’t I sleep at night?
There are more than 80 sleep disorders, according to MedlinePlus, an online health resource run by the National Library of Medicine. A few of the major sleep conditions include:
- Insomnia: Defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, insomnia is the most common specific sleep disorder. Thirty percent of Americans report having short-term insomnia while 10% report having a chronic issue, according to the ASA. It leads to fatigue, lack of concentration, mood disturbances and low productivity, says the National Sleep Foundation.
- Sleep apnea: More than 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. It’s a potentially serious condition where you briefly stop breathing while sleeping, sometimes due to a blockage in the upper airway. Common signs include loud snoring and gasping for air during sleep, which usually leads to daytime fatigue.
- Restless leg syndrome: This nervous system disorder creates an uncontrollable urge to move your legs during sleep. Symptoms usually occur in the evening hours before bedtime and possibly during long periods of sedentary behavior (like a long car ride).
- Jet lag: Travelers are no stranger to this temporary sleep disorder that occurs when your internal clock (or circadian rhythm) is disrupted after arriving in a new time zone.
- Hypersomnia: Narcolepsy is the most popular form of hypersomnia, a class of sleep disorders that involves excessive daytime sleepiness. This disorder can make you fall asleep at inopportune times, such as on the job or while driving.
Other common issues include sleepwalking, sleep eating, night terrors, and more.
How to get better sleep in 23 steps
The good news is you can get quality sleep, by cultivating healthy bedtime habits, with these simple tips.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule.
“Out of all the sleep tips you could ever read or hear about, the most important one is to stick to one sleep schedule—every day,” says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., “The Sleep Doctor,” a clinical psychologist and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
In other words, go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day, including weekends. “When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync and all of your other bodily functions will go smoother, including your sleep,” says Breus.
2. Create a bedtime ritual.
Having a pre-bedtime routine will signal to your body that it’s almost time to snooze. Breus recommends habitually following healthy sleep habits, or sleep hygiene. Plan an hour of a low key, wind-down activities, such as dimming the lights, having a cup of chamomile tea, or applying nighttime creams.
3. Do something dull.
Dr. Peters recommends that you incorporate at least one relaxing activity into your evening ritual. “Choose something that is ‘boring,’ such as reading a book,” he suggests. Breus says that journaling or taking a warm bath before bed can relieve stress, which can set the stage for a good night’s sleep.
4. Turn off all devices.
Shut off your TV, computer, and smartphone (and yes, this includes unplugging from social media). Breus explains that the blue light that screens emit can inhibit production of melatonin, a hormone that aid’s your body’s circadian rhythm.
5. Pick the right pillow.
The “best” pillow depends on your preferred sleep position, says the National Sleep Foundation. For example, side sleepers should use a pillow that supports the head, neck, and shoulders. Stomach sleepers should opt for a thin pillow to keep the spine straight.
6. Lower the temperature.
Set the thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees. Sleep experts say this is the ideal bedroom temperature for catching z’s. “While that might sound a bit chilly, your body naturally cools down as it’s preparing to go to sleep,” explains Breus. “So lowering your body temperature makes it easier for you to fall asleep quicker.”
7. Avoid oversleeping.
Don’t spend too much time in bed, warns Dr. Peters. “The average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep in order to feel rested, but if you exceed your sleep need, you will spend the difference awake.” Sleeping excessively can be a sign of an issue, so talk to your healthcare provider if you have trouble getting up.
8. Let the sunshine in.
After your alarm clock goes off in the morning, do your best to expose yourself to direct sunlight for at least 15 minutes. “By reinforcing the circadian rhythm, this will make it easier to wake, as well as easier to fall asleep at the same time every day,” explains Dr. Peters.
9. Sweat it out.
“Regular exercise is great for your overall health and helping you get to sleep at night,” says Breus. Even though researchers don’t fully understand why, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that moderate aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the amount of slow wave sleep (otherwise known as deep sleep), along with aiding in mood stabilization and relaxation, which can encourage the body to naturally transition to sleep. Just don’t work out too close to bedtime, it can energize you and make it difficult to fall asleep.
10. Limit your caffeine intake.
Cut off all caffeinated beverages (including coffee, tea, and soda) by 2 p.m. each day, suggests Breus. “Caffeine has what’s called a ‘half-life’ of about eight hours, which means that its level is reduced—but still somewhat effective—in your system after this time,” he explains.
11. Limit your alcohol intake, too.
Put down the wine, beer, or cocktails at least three hours before hitting the sheets. Alcohol decreases your REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a sleep stage that occurs during the first 90 minutes after you fall asleep. “We don’t fully understand the underlying reason for REM sleep, but decades of study strongly suggest that it delivers important developmental and restorative functions for the brain,” says Breus. It’s believed that this sleep phase helps with memory consolidation and emotional processing.
12. Skip your nap.
People who have sleep issues should resist the urge to doze off during the daytime hours. Napping during the day could affect the amount of sleep you’re able to get at night. “Catching up on lost sleep perpetuates difficulty sleeping by affecting the next night,” explains Dr. Peters.
13. Snack on certain foods.
Snacking before going to bed at night is usually not recommended. However if someone has to snack, the National Sleep Foundation recommends snacking on complex carbohydrates and whole grains, like popcorn or oatmeal, over refined sugars. Healthy fats, such as almonds or walnuts, contain melatonin that may help you feel sleepy. Lean proteins like cottage cheese impact the brain transmitter serotonin, which helps regulate the body’s sleep wake cycle and internal body clock.
14. Just don’t eat too much before bed.
If you are having a late dinner, consider reducing your portion size. “When your body is busy digesting a large meal, falling asleep can take longer—and you’re more likely to sleep restlessly,” states Breus.
15. Try aromatherapy.
Three highly-concentrated essential oils—lavender, valerian, and bergamot—have properties that may induce sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The organization suggests adding a few drops of any of these oils into a diffuser or directly onto your pillow.
16. Stay in bed.
If you wake up during the night, remain lying down. Breus explains that when you’re asleep—and even when you first open your eyes—your heart rate is slow and relaxed, but sitting up in bed and getting out of bed will increase your heart rate, and rev up your nervous system. That can make it harder to fall back asleep.
17. Plug in night lights.
However, if getting out of bed (to visit the restroom, or for any other reason) is a necessity, install a night light on the path from your bedroom to the bathroom. Breus explains that turning on a bright light will halt melatonin production. People who have osteoporosis or are prone to fracture should have night lights to avoid a fall if they have to use the restroom at night.
18. Practice this breathing exercise.
If you find yourself stressed and wide awake in the middle of the night, you’ll need to calm your racing thoughts and your racing heart before you can fall back asleep. Breus recommends practicing the 4-7-8 breathing method: Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and slowly exhale for eight seconds. Repeat this relaxation technique as many times as necessary until you lower your heartbeat to the optimal sleep rate of 60 beats or less per minute.
19. Turn away from the alarm clock.
Avoid watching the minutes tick away, whether you’re having trouble falling asleep, or getting back to sleep at midnight. If you already saw the time—and you’re staring at the ceiling—try to put a positive spin on the situation. “Panicking about the sleep you’re missing is not going to help you sleep, so say to yourself, ‘Awesome, I get X number more hours to get some great sleep,” advises Breus. ”Focus on relaxation and stay positive.”
20. Make happiness a habit.
A February 2018 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that consisted of more than 3,500 adults between the ages of 32 and 51 concluded that optimistic people were likely to report good sleep quality on a regular basis. In fact, during the five-year study period, the volunteers with higher levels of optimism had a 74% chance of not suffering from insomnia.
21. Head to the pharmacy.
If getting a better night’s sleep is still a challenge, Dr. Peters suggests looking into taking an over-the-counter melatonin supplement. “Melatonin is a natural sleep-promoting hormone, but the body makes very little of it, so avoid higher doses,” he adds. A generally-safe recommended dose ranges from 0.5 mg to 3 mg. Other OTC sleep aids include valerian root, as well as the sedating antihistamines diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl and Aleve PM) and doxylamine (Unisom SleepTabs). Pair them with earplugs or a white noise machine to help you stay asleep.
22. Seek therapy.
Dr. Peters also advises treating your sleep condition using cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). “This program can teach a set of skills to improve sleep with long-lasting benefit,” he explains. “It may be done with the help of a behavioral psychologist, with an online course or with a book to guide you through the treatment.”
23. Consider prescription sleep aids.
For chronic sleep problems, speak with your primary care physician about the various available medications that treat different symptoms associated with sleep disorders, including Z sedative-hypnotics (such as Lunesta and Ambien), dual orexin receptor antagonists (Belsomra), melatonin receptor agonists (Rozerem), and antidepressants (Silenor). “Keep in mind that sleeping pills should have a limited role and should not be required beyond a few weeks,” advises Dr. Peters.
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When to see a doctor about sleep disorders
Consider being evaluated by a medical professional if you have trouble sleeping on a nightly basis, even though you’re doing your best to follow proven sleep tips. If your doctor recommends either an OTC sleep aid or a prescription medication, SingleCare works with more than 35,000 pharmacies nationwide (including CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart) to offer affordable prices for your prescriptions.