By Brian Andrew, published on July 16, 2008 - last reviewed on September 15, 2008
Do you lie in bed asking yourself when you're going to fall asleep? Few positions are more frustrating. But if you're one of the 20 million Americans who suffer from insomnia, your problems might begin well before you lay your head on the pillow. Forget counting sheep. According to Philip Tucker and colleagues at the University of Wales, the key to a good night's sleep is relaxing before bed. Certain enjoyable pre-bedtime practices can prep the body for sleep by easing the stress accumulated throughout the day and restoring depleted resources.
According to a study by Christoph Randler at the University of Heidelberg, early rising is correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness, while a tendency to stay up late can be a sign of neuroticism. Cultivate cheerfulness, and maybe you'll be inclined to tuck in earlier.
You've likely spent all day thinking. So let your mind rest before bed. Evening activities that involve lower mental effort, such as yoga, cooking or listening to calm music, are associated with better-rated sleep, as well as less fatigue the next day.
For most people in the University of Wales study, working in the evening preceded their lowest-rated sleep. Working until bedtime doesn't leave time for your strained mind to recover. And it sparks an accumulation of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn makes falling asleep difficult. (This rule doesn't apply to those rare souls who experience extra work as pleasurable instead of taxing.)
Maximum sleepiness is experienced when your core body temperature is at its lowest. The redistribution of heat from your core to your arms and legs induces relaxation and rapidly lowers the heart rate, prepping the body for sleep. In fact, many types of insomnia are associated with abnormally elevated body temperatures, according to a study from Flinders University in Australia.
It's best to keep televisions, computers, and exercise equipment out of your bedroom. Otherwise, your mind and body subconsciously associate the bedroom with non-sleep related activities.
Caffeinated drinks taken too close to bedtime block the chemical adenosine from binding to nerve cells, which induces sleepiness. Nicotine, too, can inhibit sleeping by raising the blood pressure and speeding up both your heart rate and your brain waves. In contrast, researchers at the University of Sydney showed that eating carbohydrate-based meals that break down rapidly during digestion—such as baked potatoes, white rice, and white bread—help bring on sleep, especially if you eat them four hours before bedtime.
A stressful or disruptive late-night activity can have dramatic effects on the restorative processes that deep sleep enables. These processes include the activation of your immune system and the synaptic downscaling in your brain that promotes memory and learning. So plan your evenings carefully.