Eighteen leading scientists and researchers came together to form the National Sleep Foundation’s expert panel tasked with updating the official recommendations. The panelists included six sleep specialists and representatives from leading organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association of Anatomists, American College of Chest Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Geriatrics Society, American Neurological Association, American Physiological Society, American Psychiatric Association, American Thoracic Society, Gerontological Society of America, Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, and Society for Research in Human Development. The panelists participated in a rigorous scientific process that included reviewing over 300 current scientific publications and voting on how much sleep is appropriate throughout the lifespan.
Use sleeping aids and devices: Experiment with white noise machines, adjustable beds, sleep masks, and indoor air purifiers if you need help sleeping. White noise machines or noise reducers create ambient or white noise, which makes it more difficult for a sleeper to hear any potentially disruptive noises. Adjustable beds can alleviate pain that can disturb sleep, especially for those suffering from hip and knee pain or acid reflux disease. A sleep mask tricks the brain into falling asleep more quickly for people who need to sleep or nap during daylight, and indoor air purifiers lessen symptoms suffered by those with allergies or nasal congestion.
Worry Earlier in the Day. When your mind is racing with concerns while you’re trying to fall asleep, that can make it nearly impossible to drift off. Instead, dedicate 15 minutes during the day to process these thoughts. Writing a to-do list or thinking about solutions can be a healthy way to deal with stress and prevent it from interfering with sleep later.
Circadian rhythms direct a wide variety of functions from daily fluctuations in wakefulness to body temperature, metabolism, and the release of hormones. They control your timing of sleep and cause you to be sleepy at night and your tendency to wake in the morning without an alarm. Your body’s biological clock, which is based on a roughly 24-hour day, controls most circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms synchronize with environmental cues (light, temperature) about the actual time of day, but they continue even in the absence of cues.
If any of this resonates with you, you might be interested in a new book by Henry Nicholls called Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest. Nicholls, a science journalist in England, chose the topic of sleep in part because of his personal experience with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. So he decided to write a book about how to sleep better.
The artificial (or “blue”) light emitted by screens can disrupt our bodies’ preparations for sleep by stimulating daytime hormones. Dubious bargain: trading sleep for Leno and Letterman. Basner M, Dinges DF. Sleep, 2009, Jul.;32(6):0161-8105. Reduce exposure by turning off TVs, phones, and computers at least one hour before bedtime. Can’t give up the Daily Show? At least dim a screen’s brightness, either manually or with the help of automated programs.
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:
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
Wear socks to bed. While a cooler core body temperature helps you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep, cold extremities (hands and feet) can have the opposite effect. If you tend to have cold feet at bedtime, put on a pair of cozy socks, rest your feet on a heating pad, or pile an extra blanket on the foot of your bed. If none of those appeal to you, try wearing a pair of warm slippers in the evening so that your feet will be toasty when you climb in bed for the night.