Are you having trouble falling—or staying—asleep? Could stress be to blame? That heavy late-night snack? Or a snoring bed partner? Try some simple solutions to the everyday problems that may be interfering with your nighttime rest.
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.
Avoid or cut down on caffeine, especially in the late afternoon and evening. The stimulant effects of caffeine can vary from person to person, depending on how rapidly they metabolize it, whether they consume it regularly or not and other factors.
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.
Nicotine, like caffeine, is a stimulant and can disrupt sleep. What’s more, if you are a smoker, you may be awakened by nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
Try wearing earplugs or using a white noise machine to create a quiet and calm environment for sleep. Keep pets out of the bedroom so they don't disturb your slumbers.
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.
Set a regular time to go to bed and get up, and stick to it. Stay with your schedule even on weekends and when you are sleep-deprived.
Avoid eating large meals two to three hours before bedtime. A full stomach can be uncomfortable and can promote heartburn or reflux disease. If spicy or fatty foods seem to cause nighttime heartburn, don’t eat them in the evening.
Drink less liquid after dinner, so the need to urinate does not wake you. Note that if you're older, you may have to get up anyway.
If you nap, keep it to 30 minutes maximum, and try to nap before 3:00 p.m. Short naps can enhance brain function, energy, mood and productivity. But for some people with insomnia, it’s best to avoid napping altogether.
Exercise regularly—it can improve sleep, especially if you are older. But don’t work out strenuously close to bedtime.That can stimulate you and may intefere with sleep.
Relax and try to retreat from your problems before going to bed. Read, listen to music, knit, meditate, work a puzzle— anything you find soothing.
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.
You should associate your bed with sleep. The sight and feel of it should signal your brain that sleep is coming. So, use your bed only for sleep and sex—not for catching up on work.
If you can’t sleep, don't just lie there for hours. After 20 minutes or so, get up and do something relaxing until you start to feel sleepy.
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.