Each person varies in their exact sleep requirements, but for most people, getting at least seven hours a night is needed for both a healthy body and a healthy mind. When we don’t sleep enough—or our quality of sleep is not optimal—our health can suffer. In fact, research has shown that regular bouts of poor sleep can shorten your expectancy and increase the risk of serious health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Getting a good night’s sleep may seem like an impossible goal when you’re wide awake at 3 a.m., but you have much more control over the quality of your sleep than you probably realize. Just as the way you feel during your waking hours often hinges on how well you sleep at night, so the cure for sleep difficulties can often be found in your daily routine.
Sleep issues can often be traced back to an underlying issue. When we asked Dr. Breus for his first choice in treating sleep issues, he told us, “It’s never a pill. I would want to know the root cause. There could be an anxiety component where cognitive behavioral therapy could be helpful.” If you face sleeplessness regularly, it’s well worth speaking to your doctor about underlying causes.
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“Sleep is not an on-and-off switch,” says the sleep expert and clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, the author of The Power of When. “Your body needs time to unwind and ready itself for shut-eye.” That’s why Dr. Breus recommends practicing a three-part routine called the “Power-Down Hour.” During the first 20 minutes, complete any tasks that absolutely must get done before bedtime. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and get dressed for bed during the next 20 minutes. For the last 20 minutes, lie in bed quietly and meditate. Focus on the rhythm of your breathing and shoo away any negative thoughts during this time.
For years sleep researchers have known that alcohol is the number one sleep aid in the world. If you look back at the results of the 2005 Sleep in America poll, you will find that 11 percent of those polled used alcohol as a sleep aid at least a few nights a week. Another study conducted in the Detroit area showed that 13 percent of those polled had used alcohol as a sleep aid in the past year. However, the reality is alcohol is not the answer to getting better sleep. While alcohol can make you sleepy, it also does the following to detract from sound sleep:
Melatonin has been used successfully for sleep enhancement in healthy individuals, as well as to reduce feelings of jet lag during global travels. This natural hormone is also being tested as a sleep aid with the elderly and other populations. In addition, studies are focusing on whether or not melatonin can help improve sleep patterns in individuals with depression.
However, if you’re increasing your sleep debt over a longer period of time- say, if you’ve just had a child and aren’t able to get a full eight hours every night- you can’t easily make it up over just a few nights. In cases like these, it may take a few weeks to really fill your sleep debt. Your best bet is to plan a vacation or stay-cation with a light schedule and no obligations, and then turn off your alarm clock and go to bed and wake up when it feels natural. This will “reset” your sleep system so that while you may be sleeping 12 hours a night at the beginning, you’ll eventually settle back in to the amount that is your basal sleep need.
Contrary to all our wishes, you can’t really compensate for weekday sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's because you need to sleep one hour for every hour missed, which means that if you miss four hours during the week you'd need to sleep extra hours on Saturday and Sunday. Instead, pick a more reasonable weekday bedtime to stick to. Nudge your bedtime back 15 minutes at a time to help you adjust, says the NSF. If you normally hit the hay at 11:30 p.m., for example, go to bed at 11:15 for a few nights, then 11, then 10:45 — until you reach your ideal bedtime, which for most people is about 7 to 9 hours before you need to wake up.
Set a Routine. If you get up early one morning and then sleep in the next, it can be hard to fall into a rhythm. For the 17 percent of Americans who do shift work, an erratic schedule may be part of the job. But if that doesn't apply to you, going to bed and waking up at roughly the same times every day can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.