Nearly a third of Americans get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and as many as 70 million suffer from chronic sleep disorders. This is a common issue for so many people, and it goes so much deeper than feeling groggy at work. How much we sleep is right up there with what we eat, our stress levels, and how much we exercise on the list of things that have been shown to impact our health, our wellness and, yes, how we look. If you’re tired, it shows.We don’t usually think about sleep until we’re in bed with the lights off—and that’s part of the problem. There’s a lot that goes into a good night’s sleep that happens before your head hits the pillow. Good nightly habits can make all the difference. We doctors call it “sleep hygiene,” and it’s way more effective than counting sheep.The following are simple rules that I’ve prescribed to patients, and that I try to follow myself:
- Go to bed at the same time every night. OK, realistically this is not always possible, but if you can try to go to bed at approximately the same time every night, within a half hour, you’ll start to train your mind and body that this is bedtime, time to go to sleep.
- Get up at the same time every day. Yes, this one is tough, too. No sleeping in on Saturdays. If you can get up approximately the same time everyday, then again, you can train your mind and body when to be awake, and when to sleep.
- The bed is just for sex and sleeping. Forget reading, forget watching TV, forget checking your phone. Your bed has only two functions: sex and sleep. You want to break any other behavioral associations and reinforce this simple rule. Also, the light from your devices’ screens blocks the production of melatonin, a brain chemical that’s crucial for falling asleep.
- Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. If you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes, or if you find yourself running through tomorrow’s to-do list instead of nodding off, then get up. Go into another room, read a book or fold laundry. Just do something in a different space. When you get sleepy (and you will!), then go back to your bed and try to go back to sleep.
- Plan ahead. You can start earlier in the day or evening to tee up optimal conditions for falling asleep. Avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon, as well as alcohol near bedtime. Try to exercise earlier in the day, so your body has ample time to wind down. Try to give yourself a couple hours between dinner time and bed time. A large meal right before bed can be very disruptive. But a calming cup of warm milk might help—or a nice warm bath or shower before bed. After the initial heat up, your body will cool down, which is a physiological sign of sleepy time.