How to Get Great Sleep

What’s more important than a good night’s rest? Plus, night owls, ending insomnia, booze, and more.

5 Strategies to Ensure a Great Night's Sleep

Great sleep is all about developing great sleep habits.

Restful sleep improves our concentration, our mood, and our mental and physical performance. Without it, we become more easily confused and are less productive. Sleep loss has also been linked to driving accidents as well as medical problems such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction. In addition, recent research has revealed that not only is sleep healthy and restorative, it also plays a role in learning, memory, and creative problem solving. (For more information on these studies, see Do We Learn While We're Asleep?)

The challenge for many, however, is getting restful sleep. Troubled sleep affects millions, and although some cases of insomnia require medical intervention, many times sleep trouble is a simple matter of changing bad habits or making minor adjustment to our sleep environment. The key is knowing what to do and when.

Fortunately, just like there are strategies you can use to be more productive during your waking hours, there are strategies you can employ to get the most out of the time you devote to sleep.

1. Make your bedroom a sleep-only zone. 

  • Avoid work, phone calls, television viewing, and computer use in your bedroom.
  • If you keep your computer or smart phone in your bedroom (which you should avoid), turn them off at bedtime. Not only will the light from the screens make it harder to fall asleep, the visual cues of work or other popular computer-generated activities, such as social media sites, texts, and emails, may keep you intrigued and therefore awake.

2. Make your bedroom a sleep-friendly zone.

  • Darkness enhances sleep. Light interferes with it. If you can't darken the room, use eye shades to block out as much light as possible.
  • Turn off everything that makes noise. If noise can't be avoided, use ear plugs or turn on white noise.
  • A cool room temperature helps induce sleep.
  • Invest in good sleep gear. If you're tossing and turning, can't get comfortable, or wake up stiff and sore, a new pillow, mattress, or mattress pad may be just what you need to get a better night's sleep.
  • If you sleep with a snorer, try earplugs, white noise, or ask your partner to try breathing strips.
  • Pets often bring about the same problems that partners or children bring: noises, squirming, etc. Try sleeping without pet(s) for a few nights and see if you feel better rested. 

3. Use simple relaxation techniques to calm your mind and body.

  • Breathe slowly and deeply as you try to fall asleep.
  • Concentrate on relaxing one muscle at a time.
  • Mentally take yourself to a quiet, restful, relaxing place in your mind, or repeat a short, peaceful mantra until you fall asleep. 
  • Don't obsess about falling asleep. If you think too much about it, your brain may become too engaged in the process, which will make it harder for you to fall asleep.
  • If you don't doze off after 15 or 20 minutes, the best thing to do is get out of bed and find something unstimulating to do, like reading or muscle relaxation. Avoid watching TV, working, or bright lights as these tend to keep you engaged and awake.

4. Stick to a routine. 

  • Pick a time to wake up every morning and a time to go to bed every night, and stick to this routine as closely as possible.
  • Waking up and going to sleep at different times on different days throws off your natural sleep rhythms.

5. Steer clear of food, drinks, and activities that are known to interfere with sleep.

  • Although alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it interferes with sleep later in the night. To help you sleep better, avoid alcohol before bedtime.
  • Because caffeine stays in your system a long time after its intake, stop consuming caffeinated products by early afternoon so that it can be out of your system by bedtime.
  • Because spicy and highly acidic food are common causes of heartburn, which can interfere in your sleep, consider milder meals before bedtime.
  • Similar to caffeine, researchers have discovered that nicotine can interfere with sleep, so if you're a smoker, cut it off at night time.
  • While physical activity can help you get a better night's sleep, it has the opposite effect if you exercise right before bedtime. Because exercise stimulates your body, it should be avoided several hours before bedtime.

Great sleep is all about developing great sleep habits. The best habits for the best sleep involve consistent routines right before bedtime that relax you and start the pattern for a good night's sleep.

For tips on good napping, you may also want to check out A No-Nonsense Guide to Great Napping.

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

How to Get Great Sleep