Tossing and turning at night? Consider your sleep habits.
If you’re not getting as much rest as your body needs, the best place to start is with your sleep habits. You may already know some of the basic good habits—cutting off your caffeine supply in the afternoon, avoiding alcohol in the evening, going to bed at the same time each night—but most of us hate to use them. Unfortunately, they work!
Why are good sleep habits so difficult? Probably because so much of contemporary life emphasizes nighttime stimulation and makes the master bedroom the hub of home activity. (We’re waiting for beds that come equipped with coffee cup holders. Why not? Cars, strollers, and bicycles already have them.) Going against such strong cultural tendencies is doable, but it’s an uphill battle. So instead of asking you to make a bunch of behavioral changes all at once, we suggest taking baby steps toward better sleep behaviors. Start with little, easy changes, like these:
- Keep your bedroom cooler. Open a window or, if it’s noisy outside, turn down the thermostat.
- Wear light clothes to bed and use light bedcovers.
- Watch television, work, and read somewhere other than your bed.
- Don’t eat a big meal just before bedtime.
If, after a few days, your sleep still needs improvement, progress to these steps, adding them one at a time:
- Expose yourself to thirty minutes of bright sunlight every day, whether outside or near a window.
- Make four o’clock in the afternoon your cutoff time for caffeine (the average person needs four to six hours to fully metabolize the drug).
- Limit yourself to one glass of alcohol in the evening. (Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts your sleep later on.)
- Exercise during the day to promote better sleep. (But don’t exercise just before bed, because your body temperature will be too high to induce sleep.)
- Avoid disturbing books or television shows before bed, including the news.
Then, if you need to, move on to the hard stuff:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Get out of bed when you can’t sleep.
The last item—getting out of bed when insomnia strikes—is tough for most of us. If the sleep fairy arrives, we want to be there! But this advice is based on terrific evidence. In a controlled study performed at Duke University Medical Center, this approach (which included other good sleep habits, such as standardized wake and bed times), reduced sleep fragmentation by 50 percent. This means that the time it took the subject to get back to sleep after waking up at night was cut in half, and so were the number of night wakings. That’s a better response than many sleep medications can claim, and there are no side effects. The idea is that you want to condition your body to associate your bed with sleeping, not with wakefulness. This conditioning takes time, so the technique might not work on the very first night.
You may experience a few frustrating nights before you have a breakthrough, and that’s what makes it so hard for people. Don’t be too angry with yourself if it takes a while to change your habits. As a species, we’re much better at small changes than big ones. But the experience of a small success tends to inspire us toward even greater improvement.
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