With beeping smartphones, crying babies and the distractions of work and relationship issues, getting a “good night’s sleep” is a tall order these days. Although deep sleep—also known as slow-wave sleep and essential for physical restoration—and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—a lighter type of sleep that restores the mind—are both important, a helpful strategy would be to focus on “solid, unbroken sleep,” says J. Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.
Your goal should be three or more nights per week of unbroken sleep, he says. Anything less, consult your doctor. “There are safe and effective medication and non-medication treatments available to help,” Arnedt says.
Organize your sleep environment so it feels comfortable for you, but keep it quiet and dark with a “generally cooler” temperature, says Arnedt.
As for a particular fabric for the bed, or pillow style, it’s an individual choice rather than a scientific conclusion, he suggests. “In my experience, people have to figure out what works for them personally,” Arnedt says.
“Caffeine doesn’t allow you to get into deep sleep,” says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. “It keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep.”
To avoid the “sleep-dampening” effects of caffeine, which has a half-life of 8 to 10 hours, shut down caffeine intake after 2 p.m.
If you have your last cup of joe at 2 p.m., figure you can go to bed by 10 p.m., says Breus.
Exercise will take a couple of months to positively affect your sleep, but a regular routine will help, according to Breus. Vigorous exercise led to better sleep for twice as many respondents to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 "Sleep in America" poll. However, don’t exercise more than two hours before bedtime, says Breus.
Meanwhile, meditation may help treat insomnia, according to a 2009 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Practice effective stress-management strategies,” such as meditation or relaxation exercises, advises Arnedt.
Stressful topics less than an hour or two before bedtime can affect deep sleep, according to Breus.
“If you’re lying in bed with your partner or girlfriend, and just found out that little Johnnie just failed out of school, well you’re going to get crappy sleep that night,” says Breus. “Because quite frankly that’s all you’re going to be thinking about.”
Consider using a sleep shield on your mobile device to control the amount of light you’re exposed to before bed, advises Breus.
“It filters out that wavelength of light that affects your circadian rhythm,” he says. Circadian rhythms are changes to a person’s environment that affect sleep-wake patterns. Products on the market include the Sleep Shield, which places a transparent polyethylene terephthalate (PET) coating over your mobile device to reduce the amount of blue light that interferes with melatonin production.
“What most people don’t realize is that while alcohol makes you feel sleepy, it also keeps you out of the deeper stages of sleep,” says Breus. The human body needs an hour to metabolize one alcoholic beverage, he says.
“If you have two drinks, then you shouldn’t go to bed for 2 hours; if you have 3 drinks, then you shouldn’t go to bed for 3 hours,” advises Breus. As for falling asleep after a drink, that’s just called “passing out,” Breus adds.
“If you’re a smoker, you should quit but if you’re not going to quit, you shouldn’t smoke for probably an hour and a half before bed,” Breus says. “Smoking before bed can affect the ability to reach deeper stages of sleep.”
Nicotine can prolong the amount of time it takes you to fall sleep (called a longer sleep onset latency) and result in lighter stages of sleep, reveals the 2006 study “Cigarette Smoking and Nocturnal Sleep Architecture” from the American Journal of Epidemiology.
When you have sleep disorder like sleep apnea, it can cause breathing problems that wake you during the night and prevent you from remaining in deep sleep.
If you suffer from snoring or choking during the night, get it treated, Breus advises. Treatment methods include sleep machines to help you breathe at night, or a mouth guard that moves your jaw forward, he says.
“And then there’s surgery, which I don’t recommend,” says Breus.
Several mobile apps help track your sleep to provide insight on what may wake you up at night. The best apps have a hardware component like the Jawbone Up wristband, Nike FuelBand or Beddit’s ultrathin film sensor that goes under your sheet.
An app that just tracks movement may not be completely accurate, Breus notes.
“All it’s doing is monitoring movement,” he says. “If you stop moving, it might claim that you’re awake.”