Don’t drink alcohol to help you sleep—it’s a false friend. It helps you fall asleep quickly and deepens sleep initially, but later disrupts sleep and causes middle-of-the-night wake-ups. Overall, alcohol produces unsettled sleep and alters sleep phases, notably inhibiting REM sleep. High doses of alcohol worsen sleep more in women, according to a 2011 study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, since women metabolize alcohol differently than men. In addition, alcohol’s effects on sleep tend to be worse in older people and in those with sleep problems.
High-carbohydrate foods are often suggested for sleep, because they are supposed to allow more tryptophan (an amino acid) to get into the brain; tryptophan is converted into the brain chemical serotonin, which helps promote sleep. In contrast, a high-protein diet supposedly has the opposite effect. Despite common beliefs about various foods—turkey or warm milk as sleep promoters, for example—research has come up with confusing and contradictory results. Foods (and meals) are complex mixes of nutrients that may have opposite effects on sleep, and the effects may vary from person to person, possibly for genetic reasons.
Put up darker shades and consider wearing a sleep mask to block light. Your bed, linens and pillows should feel comfortable. Most people sleep better in a cool (but not cold) room. Have an extra blanket within reach for those 3 a.m. awakenings. Turn your clock to the wall if you can’t help looking at the time and worrying.
Limit your use of devices with an LED backlit screen close to bedtime—that includes tablet computers, smartphones and many flat screen TVs. Such screens emit blue light, which can interfere with sleep by reducing melatonin production, thus increasing alertness. Use the device earlier, or at least dim it as much as possible.
Be aware of how your bed partner’s problems affect your sleep. For instance, a bed mate who snores or thrashes around can disrupt your sleep. Menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes can ruin a night’s sleep for both partners. Until your partner can deal with his/her problems, you might want to try separate beds or separate rooms.
If you’re losing sleep because of worry, stress or grief, try to find ways to mitigate this effect. This may be easier said than done, of course. If self-help measures don’t suffice, consider seeing a mental health professional. Sometimes even a single consultation can make a big difference.