According to sleep experts, I’m doing everything wrong. I don’t have a regular bedtime and often stay up way too late. There’s always one more TV show to watch, one more e-mail to send. By the time I finally crawl under the covers, it’s after midnight, and even then sleep sometimes eludes me. All too soon the alarm clock jolts me out of a pleasant dream. In a fog of fatigue, I hit the snooze button, desperate to catch a few more zzzs.
That’s my version of our national exhaustion epidemic. A 2005 poll by the National Sleep Foundation revealed that fewer than half of respondents (49 percent) reported having “a good night’s sleep” every night or every other night. 2009 results show that two out of every 10 Americans sleep less than six hours a night, and that people sleeping too few hours report being too tired to work efficiently, exercise, or eat healthily.
A 2007 NSF poll on women and sleep reveals the toll insufficient shut-eye can take. Sleep-deprived women are likelier to be stressed-out (79 percent), late for work more than once in the past month (20 percent), and too tired for socializing (39 percent) or sex (33 percent). They fight daytime drowsiness with caffeine and do nothing special to wind down at night. In fact, frazzled moms typically spend the last hour of the evening multitasking — finishing chores, squeezing in some time with their spouse and kids, catching up on work — often while also watching TV.
A hectic lifestyle can sabotage sleep, but it isn’t the sole reason for restless nights, says Carol Ash, D.O., director of Sleep for Life, in Hillsboro, New Jersey. Misunderstanding what helps — or hinders — slumber also plays a key role. The following surprisingly simple natural solutions to sleep problems work by enhancing your body’s own mechanisms for lulling you into soothing, satisfying sleep.
Soak up morning sunshine
Light, especially sunlight, has such a potent effect on your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, that you can use it to reset your sleep cycle, says Phyllis C. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University. “If you tend to be a night owl who can’t get to sleep until 1 a.m., you may have delayed circadian rhythms. To shift to an earlier schedule — and make it easier to get to bed and get up on time — soak up as much sunlight as possible between 6 and 8 a.m.” Force yourself to wake up early and sit in a sunny room or take a post-sunrise walk. When it’s warm, try eating breakfast outdoors. Basking in early-morning rays prompts your body to suppress production of melatonin — the sleep hormone — during the day and release it earlier in the evening, so falling asleep isn’t such a struggle. A light box of the type used for people with seasonal affective disorder can help. “Look for one with broad-spectrum light and with a UV filter,” recommends Dr. Zee.
Exercise early in the evening
Though exercising within three hours of bedtime can leave you too wired to slumber soundly, a recent study by Dr. Zee finds a place for evening workouts. Exercising at least three times a week around 5 to 7 p.m. helped people improve their sleep. It may be that working out then creates a pleasant tiredness or helps people feel less stressed when they curl up under the covers.
Dim the lights at night
“Your body is primed to sleep when it’s dark,” says Marcel Hungs, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. “I encourage patients to dine by candlelight and turn down the lights in their home starting around 7 or 8 p.m.” Avoid surfing the Web or checking e-mail close to bedtime, because the glare from the computer screen can stimulate your brain instead of letting it slow down for slumber. And turn off the tube at least half an hour before you go to bed, adds Dr. Hungs. “Many people doze off with the TV on, only to find themselves wide awake later in the night,” he says. “That’s because the bright, flashing images and noises are mentally stimulating on a subconscious level.” The better bedtime wind-down choice: reading (something printed on paper, not an e-book).
Cover your clock
One common mistake is keeping the alarm clock next to the bed, says Dr. Ash. “Then you wake up at night and check the time. Seeing that it’s 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. only heightens your anxiety about not sleeping.” She also cautions about the glow from the dial. “Even that little bit of light can signal your brain that it’s time to get up.” Instead, turn the clock to the wall, drape a towel over it, hide it under the bed, or find one without a lighted dial or glow-in-the-dark numbers.
Perfume your pillow
Some fragrances can waft you into slumber, says Cherie Perez, R.N. who teaches aromatherapy at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Place of Wellness. “Lavender is helpful for insomnia, stress, and migraines, while myrrh calms the mind and prepares you for sleep.” Put a couple of drops of either oil on a handkerchief, then tuck it inside your pillowcase.
Relax in the tub
Soaking in warm water can ease the transition into sound sleep — and not just because it relaxes tired muscles. It also triggers a shift in body temperature, a natural cue it’s time for shut-eye, explains Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., the Tucson-based author of Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening. “When the sun goes down, the outside temperature falls, and the same thing happens inside our bodies to prepare us for sleep. After you climb out of a hot bath, you feel a pleasant chill. With the right timing, you can catch that wave and ride it into deep, blissful sleep.” CD
Originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, March 2008. © Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Bring on the bananas
Sometimes called a sleeping pill in a peel, the banana is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid linked to healthy slumber, says Elisabetta Politi, M.PH., R.D., nutrition director at Duke Diet & Fitness in Durham, North Carolina. “Tryptophan increases serotonin in your brain and blood, which can improve relaxation.” Other good sources include dairy products, turkey, peanut butter, and tofu.
Sleep more, weigh less
Believe it or not, sleeping less may actually cause you to gain weight. Research shows that insufficient sleep can increase levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and boost blood glucose and pre-diabetes risk. Women who slept five or fewer hours a night, for example, were 32 percent more prone to major weight gain (33 or more pounds) and 15 percent likelier to become obese over 16 years than those who got seven hours a night — even though the seven-hour sleepers actually ate more, reported the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study tracking 68,183 women.
“Because the psychological manifestations of fatigue, sleep, and hunger are similar, as adults, we sometimes confuse them — we tend to eat when we’re actually sleepy, because we think fatigue is a sign of hunger,” says Richard Simon, M.D., a sleep specialist in Walla Walla, Washington.