About 50-70 million men and women across the U.S. have sleep or wakefulness disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The stats are discouraging, but the remedies aren't—and they don't even include over-the-counter medications. You can address most shut-eye difficulties you have by tweaking your everyday behaviors.
"Your external world absolutely has an effect on your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and the depth of that sleep," says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, and fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Start implementing these behaviors today for sounder sleep tonight.
Caffeine is arguably the most abused substance on earth, but telling you to stop drinking coffee is a tall order you're not apt to make. For starters, wait 90 minutes from the time you wake up to drink a cup of coffee, Breus says. Your cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning, so if you introduce caffeine right away, your body will stop producing your wake-up-and-tackle-the-day hormone cortisol, which helps jolt your system awake. "I also recommend you stop drinking caffeine at 2 p.m. so you can get to sleep faster at night," Breus says. "Caffeine has a half life of 8-10 hours, so if you stop drinking coffee midday and go to bed at the nation's norm of 10:30 p.m., then you're allowing your body to fall asleep quicker and get in to a deeper sleep." So, yes, that after-dinner cappuccino is affecting you—even if you don't struggle to slip into sleep.
The whole idea of going "red before bed" with tart cherries and tart cherry juice is helpful as opposed to over-the-counter sleep aids because of the fruit's naturally high levels of melatonin," Breus says. Not only do tart cherries have more melatonin than any other fruit to help you log more shuteye, but they also help lower inflammation after exercise to speed up recovery. "Magnesium is a potent sleep aid, and bananas have a tremendous amount—but the peel has 3x the magnesium than the fruit itself," Breus says. Before you ask, no, you don't have to eat the peel. Breus does recommend clients make banana tea, though—his own specialty sleep cocktail. "Wash off the outside of a banana, cut off the tips, and cut it in half, leaving the fruit in and the peel on," Breus explains. "Place it in about 3-4 cups of boiling water, leave it for 5 minutes, and then steep the water." Add a little honey and cinnamon to top off your nightcap for an alternative to chamomile tea. Also make sure you stray from eating anything spicy or fatty. These foods are disruptive to your sleep because they turn into a reflux issue. You may not experience heartburn or acid reflux during the day but suffer something called silent reflux in the middle of the night, which can pull you out of the deeper stage of sleep.
"The single best way to improve the quality of your sleep is to be a regular exerciser," Breus says. There's a tremendous amount of data that shows regular cardio has a tendency to make people fall asleep quicker and fall in deeper stages of sleep.
"You can learn the perfect time of day to run a mile, eat a cheesebruger, have sex, sleep, and wake up—all based on your hormonal chrono rhythms," Breus says. Your circadian rhythm and internal body clock gives you an indication of when to exercise so you don't interfere with sleep. There are two "types" of exercisers: You either get energized after working out or you feel more relaxed after exercise. If you're the type to get energy from exercise, exercise in the morning to get that boost. If you have a type A personality and high anxiety levels, exercise closer to bedtime. "To make a generalized recommendation, you probably shouldn't exercise within 90 minutes of lights out, but some people would argue four hours before bed is even bad because you're increasing your core body temperature," Breus says.
Think of sleep as a performance activity, Breus suggests. "If you're a runner, you can run a 5K in your flip flops, a torn t-shirt, and a boom box on one shoulder, and still get from point A to point B—but your time won't be too good," Breus says. The same holds true with sleep. If you invest in the right "equipment"—a quality mattress, sheets, and pillow—you'll sleep better. The right equipment always helps you perform better.
"The sleep cycle mimics your core body temperature cycle," Breus says. "When your core body temperature begins to drop, which occurs right around 10:30-11:00p.m. for most American males, that's a signal for the brain to start releasing melatonin—the key that starts the engine for sleep." The ambient temperature in your bedroom should be between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. During REM sleep, your body is paralyzed, so you don't act out your dreams. "That paralysis doesn't let you create friction and move around to get warm, so you're pulled out of REM sleep if the temperature is too cold," Breus says.
"You breathe out one liter of water when you sleep, so you wake up dehydrated," Breus says. Keep a full glass of water on your bedside table before you go to bed, but more important is styaing hydrated during the day: "The best thing you can do is skip the cup of coffee and drink an eight-12oz glass of room temperature water instead to get your metabolism moving and increase alertness in the morning." This can help you from feeling zapped and napping at the wrong time of day, throwing off your sleep schedule at night.
"Melatonin only comes out in darkness, so by getting sunlight in the morning, you shut off the melatonin spigot very quickly," Breus says. A quick walk can lift your morning fog so you feel more alert and you're not inclined to nap and throw off your sleep schedule later in the day. Strive for a minimum of 15 minutes of sunlight every day.
Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is practically impossible when you factor in late nights at work and weekend benders with friends, but your wake time is the most important aspect of healthy, restorative sleep. Setting your alarm for the same time each morning, weekday and weekend, keeps your circadian rhythm regulated—even if you're sleep deprived. It's better to wake up at your normal time, rather than sleep in, because your circadian rhythm is on-going whether you're asleep or not so you can't technically "catch up" on sleep. (However, research from the University of Chicago found two consecutive nights of extended sleep can counteract the increased risk for diabetes associated with the short-term sleep restriction that plagues your work week.)
Breus explains: If you normally go to bed at 10p.m. and you wake up at 6a.m. (by the way, the 8-hour sleep recommendation is another myth; very few people actually need 8 hours), but end up going to bed at 12a.m., you can't sleep in to compensate for what you lost. "The last third of sleep is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, so your brain just gives you dream sleep, not stage 3-4 deep sleep you get in the beginning of the night, which is the most refreshing sleep there is," Breus says. The other mistake is trying to get in bed earlier the night following sleep deprivation. "Your sleep cycle hasn't started yet because your brain is stuck in the circadian rhythm so you won't be able to fall asleep," Breus says.
Also note that it takes just two days to shift your circadian rhythm. If you stay up late Friday, sleep in Saturday, then stay up late again Saturday and sleep in Sunday, you've now changed your cycle, setting yourself up for disaster come Sunday night.
"Yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises can be helpful before bed, in the dark, especially if you have issues falling asleep," Breus says. Stray from doing any inversions (turning upside down) because that increases your heart rate and causes blood to move toward your head. Breus recommends doing savasana (lie flat on your back, arms and legs straight out, palms facing up) or child's pose in bed.
Sex before bed is one of the more fun ways to fall asleep faster at night. "Men have a greater tendency to feel drowsy after they climax, whereas women tend to feel more alert," Breus says. Kind of unfair to her, but we think she'll understand.
"More people use alcohol to fall asleep, and while it may make you feel sleepy, it prevents you from sinking in to restorative sleep," Breus says. And if you're socially drinking, not just having a nightcap, Breus recommends having a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage. The water keeps you hydrated and fills up your stomach so you don't drink as much. "Stop drinking 3 hours before lights out," Breus also recommends. "It takes the average human body one hour to digest an alcoholic beverage. Assuming you're not drinking more than three drinks, this recommendation should help."
"Ocean sounds are one of the few sounds science-proven to help you fall asleep," Breus says. White noise is also helpful—especially if you sleep with someone who snores or you live in a city where the sound of traffic is non-stop. "People like to listen to the sound of a fan, too," Breus says. "It's not necessarily the air circulation, though that can be helpful; it has more to do with drowning out outside noise. Are you someone who can't sleep with too much noise or dead silence? "The more quiet it is in a room, the more acute your hearing becomes," he explains. You want to have some level of noise frequency to drown out your ear's ability to listen whether you play a track on your smartphone or sound machine, or turn a fan on before bed. You can set your device to a timer, say 90 minutes, or keep it on all-night long if you live near a hospital or a noisy area to reduce your chances of being disturbed during the night.
"Melatonin, which we call the vampire hormone because it only comes out in darkness, is dramatically affected by light," Breus says. The problem is most people spend a good chunk of time lying in bed reading emails, browsing the web, and trolling through social media at night. Because blue light emissions turn off the melatonin faucet in your brain, put sleep-friendly light bulbs in your bedroom, reduce your screen time (on smartphones, laptops, tablets), and try to make your bedroom an electronic-free zone.
"There are double-blind, placebo-controlled studies using aromatherapy, specifically with lavender essential oils, that shows a relaxation response," Breus says. Stray from candles and get a diffuser instead. Fire and sleep don't mix well...