Catching More ZZZs

by | Feb. 01, 2010

Self Improvement

Just as there are few things more invigorating than waking up after a good night's sleep, there are few things more frustrating than lying in bed after a long day and being denied the rest you so need and desire. The good news is that many people's sleep troubles can be fixed with just a few simple lifestyle changes.

1. Get Religious about Bedtime and Wake-up Time Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. It's true -- we all look forward to our lazy Saturday mornings, but before you completely dismiss this suggestion, consider why this works.

If you think about it, most people get hungry around 8 A.M., noon, and 6 P.M. Why? Our body becomes accustomed to the patterns we establish, whether it be the times we normally eat or the times we usually get up or go to bed. (This pattern is our circadian rhythm -- our body's clock of when to do what.)

When you give yourself a bedtime and stick to it, you can make your sleep as regular as your hunger. Training yourself to go to bed and get up at a certain time will help your body get into a rhythm and make it easier to get consistent sleep.

"Our bodies are designed for consistency," says Dr. Dixie Harris, medical director of the American Fork Hospital’s sleep center. "If you stray from your schedule even once, everything gets messed up." If you have trouble getting up in the morning, use light to help turn your internal clock to its daytime phase. "Sunlight will actually suppress sleep and help wake you," says Dr. Harris. When you wake up, go outside and get some sunlight or turn on all the lights in your room. Then walk around for a few minutes to get your blood circulating.

2. Develop an Exercise Routine It may seem like exercise is the answer to everything nowadays, but exercising for at least thirty minutes every day can help you fall asleep at night -- especially after a bad night's sleep.

Strenuous exercises -- like brisk walking, swimming, or jogging -- in the morning or late afternoon, and stretching a couple hours before bedtime, can contribute to restful slumber. But make sure you hit the gym two to three hours before your head hits the pillow -- Harris explains that exercising right before your bedtime will actually stimulate you enough to delay sleep.

An exercise routine can also help you lose weight, which will also make for better sleep. Being overweight can increase the risk of sleep apnea, characterized by disordered breathing. If you exhibit any telltale signs of apnea, such as, loud snoring, cessation of breathing during the night (your spouse can notice this), or excessive sleepiness during the day, you should talk to your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist.

3. Turn off the TV Although many people use television as a sleep aid or as a way to relax at the end of the day, you shouldn't.

Television programming is more often stimulating than it is calming. And no matter the nature of a program's content, the commercials, which are often louder and more jarring that the actual show, are designed to stimulate you and get your attention 100 percent of the time, Harris explains.

In addition to being bombarded by advertising or getting riled up as you wait to find out who is going to be the next American Idol, the light coming from the TV (or a computer screen) can interfere with your body's clock, which is sensitive to any light. So in addition to having commercial jingles stuck in your head, you will be up later and have more time to fret over the judge’s criticisms of your favorite contestant.

Televisions should be removed from bedrooms, and all related activities, like video games or web surfing, should also be eliminated before bedtime. "Do what you would do for your elementary age child -- no TV, no computer, no phone, and no electronic toys in the bedroom," says Harris.

5. Create an Environment Conducive to Sleep In most cases, temperatures above 70 degrees and below 54 degrees will disrupt sleep, but it is always better to keep your room a little colder. Why? Your body's internal temperature drops during the night to its lowest level, so a cooler room contributes to better sleep because it mimics what is happening inside your body.

A darker room also means better sleep. Try using light-blocking curtains, drapes, or even an eye mask if turning off the lights is not enough. If you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, leave the lights off. Minimize light exposure by using a low illumination night light.

6. Have a Bedtime Snack When you delayed going to bed as a child by complaining of hunger, and your mother calmed you with a glass of warm milk, you may have thought that she was playing into your childish games. But Mom just might have had something else up her sleeve.

Milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid most famous for lulling you to sleep after a turkey bonanza at Thanksgiving dinner. This natural sleep aid stimulates the brain chemicals serotonin and melatonin -- key players when it comes to inducing sleep.

If you pair your warm glass of milk with a piece of whole wheat bread, or another carbohydrate, the effect will be that much greater. Other suggestions for a late-night snack include:

  • A small bowl of oatmeal or low-sugar cereal with low-fat milk
  • Yogurt with granola or a banana
  • Half a bagel or crackers with peanut butter or an ounce of cheese
Just as there are foods that induce sleep, there are also those that prevent it. Try not to eat a large meal within two hours of bed and avoid heavy, rich, spicy, or acidic foods as bedtime snacks. "When you sleep, the sphincter between your esophagus and your stomach relaxes, allowing some stomach acid to escape," says Harris. "So everyone has some acid reflux when they sleep, and if you eat a large meal before you go to bed, it's even worse." Harris also recommends that you refrain from consuming caffeine -- yes, that also means chocolate -- a few hours before you are planning to call it a night.

You should also avoid drinking too many liquids before bed, because more liquids make it more likely that you will have to use the restroom during the night.

And finally, if you suspect that something you are eating or drinking is keeping you up, simply eliminate it for a few days, and see if your sleep improves.

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