1. Early wakeup? Go to bed as usual anyway.
When you’re used to going to bed at about the same time every night, the stress of trying to force yourself to pass out earlier could make you take even longer than normal to fall asleep. Plus, the more hours you log in bed not sleeping, the more your body will associate your bed with being awake (holy vicious cycle!), says Kenneth P. Wright Jr., Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado. So even if your alarm is set to an early hour, climb under the covers when you feel tired and not a minute before. And if you happen to have a burst of energy once in a while at bedtime, it’s cool you can turn in a little later.
2. Unwind with wine at dinner, not bedtime.
Yes, booze makes you sleepy, but drinking too much too close to bed is a bad idea. It leaves you more likely to wake up frequently throughout the night and awaken the next day earlier than you planned to, Wright says. Science hasn’t figured out exactly why these sleep disruptions happen, but they seem to occur after your body has metabolized all the alcohol in your system; it takes about an hour to break down each drink. That means if you’ve had two cocktails, about two hours later, you could have trouble sleeping, so plan accordingly.
3. Naps are good! Take them in this window.
If you’re on a normal, 9-to-5-ish schedule, your best bet for a quick snooze (if your job allows it) is between 1 and 3 p.m.; late enough that you’ll actually be plenty tired but early enough that it won’t interfere with your nighttime rest, says Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., a sleep expert from shift-work consulting company Circadian in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Next, length: Fifteen to 30 minutes is perfect. That’s enough to feel refreshed, not groggy. If you sleep longer, you’ll end up waking from deep sleep all fuzzy. But if you’re seriously tired and can afford to, it’s OK to sleep for 90 minutes, the ideal amount of time to complete all the phases of the sleep cycle, Pitman-Leung says. Assuming you take 10 minutes to nod off, set your alarm for about 30 minutes or 100 minutes and you’ll get your full share of nappy goodness.
4. Go to the gym, but don’t kill yourself.
At least not close to shutdown time anyway. You may feel pooped after a workout, but your brain is buzzing. That rush, along with your body’s high core temperature, will prevent you from calming down, says Stephanie A. Silberman, Ph.D., of Cooper City, Florida, a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Try to work out four hours or more pre-bed. If your schedule allows only a 10 p.m. run, take a cool shower afterward to speed up your temperature decline. Which brings us to…
5. Keep your bedroom cool, not toasty.
You’ll go down faster and deeper in a cool room, when your body’s core temperature is declining, Silberman says. It seems our bodies are designed to start warm, and then we literally chill out while we drift off, instead of maintaining a steady warmth or coolness. So take a warm bath or shower before bed, then enter your chilly bedroom (about 3 degrees lower than your preferred daytime temperature, Silberman suggests). Or get ready for bed in cozy pj’s and socks, then strip down before climbing under the covers, which will also help you avoid that gross waking-up-sweaty feeling.
6. You might need five hours a night. Or nine.
Eight hours a night is not set in stone. Many people need more than that, and others need less, Pitman-Leung says. Figure out how much you really need the next time you’re well slept and on vacation. Don’t set an alarm, and average the number of hours you sleep each night. Or shoot for seven to eight and see how you feel because, OK, it is what the average person needs.
7. Never read yourself back to sleep.
You can’t read without light, and light suppresses production of sleep-promoting melatonin, says Russel J. Reiter, Ph.D., professor of neuroendocrinology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Forget the iPad, too: Light from electronics can also prevent melatonin release. So if you truly can’t sleep, do whatever relaxes you; listen to quiet music; take 10 slow, calm inhalations; or even go old-school and count sheep. And seriously, lights out. Scads of studies suggest that exposure to light at night could increase your risk for cancer.
8. Therapy might work better than pills.
A disturbing new study in BMJ finds that popular sleeping medications, including drugs like Ambien and Lunesta, may increase your risk of dying. Over-the-counter meds, like Tylenol PM, don’t cause as much dependency and addiction as prescription pills, but there’s no good evidence that they’re safer, says study author Daniel F. Kripke, M.D. If you’re really struggling, ask your doctor about taking 1 to 3 milligrams of melatonin. It’s safe, and it may help regulate your circadian rhythm so you feel sleepy at night (which, we hope, means you’ll be perkier during the day), Reiter says. If you still need help, ask your doctor about cognitive-behavioral therapy, which could help you zap bad sleep habits and snooze sans drugs. Your DARE officer would be so proud.