Getting in sync with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is one of the most important strategies for sleeping better. If you keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, you’ll feel much more refreshed and energized than if you sleep the same number of hours at different times, even if you only alter your sleep schedule by an hour or two.
Now that you know how much sleep you need—and if you've allowed your body to pay back your sleep debt and "find" its natural sleep patterns and duration—you are probably also feeling a lot better, sharper, happier, and healthier. This is how it feels to be well rested. The next step is to make sure that you continue to make sleep a priority and find ways to protect your sleep time.
“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.
Innovative fibers like Celliant may help you drift off sooner. Used in Amerisleep mattress covers, Celliant is a fabric infused with minerals that absorbs body heat and converts it to infrared waves. It’s been shown to help regulate body temperature (to avoid overheating) and to boost circulation. In one study, people fell asleep 15 minutes faster on a mattress with a Celliant cover.
Reconditioning. A few simple steps can help people with insomnia to associate the bedroom with sleep instead of sleeplessness and frustration. For example, use the bed only for sleeping or sex and go to bed only when you're sleepy. If you're unable to sleep, move to another room and do something relaxing. Stay up until you are sleepy, and then return to bed. If sleep does not follow quickly, repeat.
So if you're unable to sleep for about a 15- or 20-minute stretch, slip into your bunny slippers and out of the room. Try something relaxing and non-stimulating. Listen to music. Read a book. Even consider cleaning the house or doing the dishes, Olson suggests. A bath might do the trick, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, because sleepiness can brew from the post-bath drop in body temperature. Whatever activity you choose, do it away from bed, and return when you're feeling drowsy.
When figuring out how much sleep you need, it’s important to know your sleep debt as well as your basal sleep need. Many people assume that if they lose an hour of sleep, they just need to get an extra hour of sleep the next night; however, you also have to make up for the extra hour that you were awake and your increased activity during this time. Using your basal sleep need as a foundation, you can determine your sleep debt and adjust it based on how tired you feel or how much extra sleep you think you need.
Slowed responses and dulled concentration from lack of sleep don't just affect school or sports performance, though. More than half of teens surveyed reported that they have driven a car while drowsy over the past year and 15% said they drove drowsy at least once a week. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that more than 100,000 accidents, 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 people are killed in the U.S. every year in crashes caused by drivers who are simply tired. Young people under the age of 25 are far more likely to be involved in drowsy driving crashes.
SOURCES: Sleep Medicine, Kryger, Meir, et al., Third Edition, 2000. Sleep: "Excessive Daytime Sleepiness and risk of Occupational Injuries in Non-shift Daytime Workers," Vol. no. 3. Sleep: "Dose-response Relationship Between Sleep Duration and Human Psychomotor Vigilance and Subjective Awareness," Vol. 22, No. 2. Sleep: "We Are Chronically Sleep Deprived," Vol. 18 No. 10.
Valerian is thought to affect levels of one of the calming neurotransmitters in the body, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also relieves muscle spasms and is thought to help alleviate menstrual period pain. Valerian is typically taken an hour before bed. A standard dose is 450 mg. If taken during the day, valerian may result in drowsiness—it is often taken in two to three 300 mg doses with meals.
Watch something boring. Just about everything you read about improving sleep advises you to avoid screen time before bed. But the truth is, a lot of people do it anyway. If you’re going to watch TV or your laptop in bed, watch something unexciting. Think a Ken Burns documentary, or an episode of House Hunters. No scary movies, thrillers, or the 11 o’clock news. If it’s likely to get your pulse racing, turn it off. There’s even a website for it — Napflix, which serves up the most snooze-worthy videos on YouTube (think Bonsai tree pruning or tropical fish swimming in an aquarium).