Do you toss and turn at night, wishing for sleep but unable to get a decent night's rest? If so, you are not alone. About half of all Americans occasionally have trouble falling or remaining asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Many different factors can disrupt rest. While the source of sleep problems often differs from person to person, there are five steps that can benefit just about anyone hoping to add a few extra Zs to their nightly routine.
Avoid the 'Big Three'
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are three substances that can rob anyone of precious shut-eye. Avoiding all three can aid your attempts to sleep.
Some people who are very sensitive to caffeine find that consuming this stimulant disrupts their sleep for the next six to 12 hours. Try to cut back on caffeine, which is found in chocolate and some teas as well as coffee and sodas.
Nicotine is another stimulant that disrupts sleep. Studies have shown that it both delays sleep and keeps you from waking up promptly.
Most people think of alcohol as a sedative, and they are right. However, that same glass of wine or spirits that causes you to feel more relaxed initially may actually interfere with getting a good night's sleep. Alcohol can help you fall asleep more quickly, but it also makes frequent awakening more likely in the last half of your nightly sleep cycle.
Tweak Your Sleep Space
Your sleep environment has a major impact on the quality of rest that you get. Keeping the bedroom cool, dark and quiet can help you sleep more soundly. You can purchase special curtains that will make your room darker. Or, try a mask that covers your eyes. Some people find that running a humidifier (in dry climates) or dehumidifier (in humid climates) is conducive to better sleep.
A comfortable mattress also is vital to good sleep. Some people prefer a firm mattress while others like a softer bed. Choose the right mattress for you. If you sleep with a bed partner, make sure your mattress is large enough to comfortably accommodate two people.
Little touches -- such as playing soft music or decorating your room in warmer tones -- can make a big difference. Experiment with different adjustments until you create the perfect sleep environment for you.
A midday nap is a wonderful indulgence for many people, but for others it can wreak havoc on the nighttime sleep routine. If naps interfere with your nighttime sleep, try to nap for less than an hour, and preferably no longer than 30 minutes. Never nap after 3 p.m.
Depending on how you have reacted in the past, it may be better not to nap at all if you can help it. However, sometimes a nap is worth the risk of potential insomnia later at night. This is especially true if you become tired while driving.
Exercise can make your sleep more restful, but only if you plan your workout correctly. Studies show that people who exercise regularly tend to fall asleep more quickly and remain at rest throughout the night. Aerobic exercise that increases your heart rate over an extended period of time is especially conducive to improved sleep.
However, for some people, exercising within two hours of bedtime can actually make it more difficult to fall asleep. If you're one of them, then late afternoon may be the optimal time to exercise if better sleep is your goal. Exercise raises your body temperature, but some studies indicate that this rise is followed by a fall in body temperature around five hours later in the day. This fall in temperature may make sleep easier.
Get Up, Stand Up
No matter how many steps you take to improve sleep, you may experience insomnia from time to time. If you find that you are lying in bed and staring at the ceiling for 15 minutes or more, throw off the covers and get out of bed.
After you are out of bed, go to another room and engage in a quiet activity, such as reading, watching TV or knitting. If you start to feel drowsy, return to bed. Do not try to go back to sleep until you feel tired.
If this type of insomnia becomes persistent, try to develop a consistent routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (this is actually good advice for anyone, whether or not insomnia is present). Do not break this pattern (even on weekends) unless absolutely necessary.
Reviewed by Steven A. King, M.D.
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