April 9, 2013 at 11:09 AM ET
By Diana Roth Port, Prevention
Any bleary-eyed new mom or dad will tell you that the expression "sleep like a baby" is grossly misleading. Many babies sleep through the night only when they're put on a schedule. And you know what? If you can't remember the last time you got a good—and full—night's sleep, the same thing will work for you.
"Our bodies have an internal rhythm that takes cues from daytime behaviors, so the more strictly a person adheres to a schedule, the more his or her body will know when it's time to sleep," says Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of several books on sleep, including The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan: Lose Weight through Better Sleep.
In today's world, where smartphones keep us tethered to work 24/7 and we all have more balls in the air than a Ringling Brothers clown, that might seem easier said than done. But there are plenty of good reasons to try, and not just because lack of sleep makes you crankier than a carb addict on Atkins. Research has linked sleep deprivation to some surprising conditions, including weight gain, reduced immunity, diabetes, and heart disease (not to mention that groggy "just give me another cup of coffee now" feeling that marks the days of the approximately one in four women who has trouble sleeping).
Find it hard to get yourself on any kind of schedule? We can help. We put together an hour-by-hour action plan that will help you fall asleep—and stay asleep—by 11 p.m. tonight. If your bedtime is earlier or later, adjust the times to compensate. Either way, you can look forward to finally getting the sleep you need.
7 a.m.: Wake up at the same time every day
It can be so tempting to sleep until noon on weekends, but one day of sleeping in can sabotage you for the rest of the week. "Your internal biological clock craves consistency—the more you stick with one schedule, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep and wake up," says Dr. Breus. Ideally, you will go to bed around the same time every night so that you wake up at the same time in the morning. In fact, if you're getting enough sleep, experts say, you'll wake on your own a few minutes before your alarm goes off.
8 a.m.: Seek some light
When it's dark out, your body produces the hormone melatonin, which tells your brain it's time for sleep. Then daylight signals the body to suppress melatonin production so you can remain alert and awake. For a morning dose of alertness, get some direct sun exposure for 30 minutes within one hour of waking up. This is the time for taking your daily walk, sipping coffee on the back deck, or spending some quality time weeding the garden.
Here's why: Being in the light helps reset your body's internal clock so it keeps you awake when you need to be and puts you to sleep at the right time. "Light is the major cue that synchronizes our circadian rhythm, and getting enough exposure to it can solve many sleep problems," says Arthur Spielman, PhD, co-director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. If you can't get out in the morning or it's still dark when you wake up, ask your doctor if a commercially available light-therapy box that simulates natural sunlight might be right for you and, if so, which one she'd recommend. Dr. Breus suggests finding one that emits blue light with a wavelength around 450 nanometers that works faster than traditional light-therapy boxes.
2 p.m.: Drink your last latte
Caffeine can stay in your system for eight or more hours, so try to avoid consuming any regular coffee, soda, or other highly caffeinated beverages too late in the day, says Judy Caplan, MS, RD, the author of "GoBeFull: Eight Keys to a Healthy Life" and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you're really sensitive to caffeine, you might also want to avoid or cut back on chocolate and tea, which contain smaller amounts of the stimulant. If you're ultrasensitive, even the smidge of caffeine in decaf could keep you up.
5:30 p.m.: Get in a workout
Good news for you gym rats: Working out is one of the best ways to ensure a good night's sleep. "Exercise reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and helps you sleep more soundly for longer periods," says Peter Walters, PhD, professor of applied health science at Wheaton College and the author of multiple studies about the link between sleep and exercise.
That doesn't mean you need to train for a triathlon—exercising just 30 minutes five days a week can help you get some shut-eye.
Schedule your workout for whenever you're most likely to stick with it, but if you find that late-night sweat sessions keep you awake, try to end it at least four hours before bedtime. "During exercise, your body releases endorphins and your heart rate increases," says Dr. Walters. "After you're finished, your heart and metabolism continue to function at an accelerated rate."
So if you're exercising close to bedtime, calm down by meditating or doing a few gentle yoga poses before you hit the sack, like these 13 sleep-inducing poses.
6 PM: Limit fluids
If you're prone to waking in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, avoid drinking too much late in the day. "Drink if you're thirsty, but otherwise don't guzzle fluids at night," says Prevention advisor Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. "When you drink a beverage, it takes about five hours before your body filters it through the kidneys and into the bladder so you can urinate it out." Get most of your eight daily glasses of water in before dinnertime.
6:30 p.m.: Eat a light meal
You've heard it before: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. Well, that old saying isn't just a prescription for maintaining a healthy weight—it can also help you sleep better.
"Big, heavy meals take longer to digest, so if you lie down too quickly afterward, you're more likely to have acid reflux, which can interfere with your sleep," says Caplan. Also, avoid spicy, acidic, and fried foods, which can cause indigestion and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) in some people. If you're still hungry a few hours after dinnertime, experts say it's OK to have a small bedtime snack, but choose wisely: Stick with 200 calories or less, and opt for snacks that contain complex carbs and a bit of protein, such as a small bowl of cereal with milk.
7 p.m.: Have your nightcap early
Sure, that glass of wine might make you drowsy and help you conk out, but it can also prevent you from falling into a deep sleep. In fact, a study by University of Michigan researchers found that women slept around 20 minutes less and woke more often throughout the night after consuming alcohol. And no surprise here: They also felt less rested.
"People fall asleep more easily with alcohol because it acts as a sedative, but once it wears off, it causes more arousals and sleep disruption later in the night," says Matt Bianchi, MD, PhD, director of the sleep division at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Bottom line: Stick with one or two alcoholic beverages—at most—around dinnertime, and cork the bottle 3 hours before bedtime.
8 p.m.: Prepare your room
"The bedroom is often the least carefully arranged room in people's houses," says William Dement, MD, PhD, past chief of the division of sleep at Stanford University and founder of the first sleep disorders clinic in the country. To create a peaceful environment for sleeping, make sure there's no stress-inducing clutter, and keep the room cool (around 65°F is optimal for most people). Close room-darkening drapes or shades so no light peeks in to cut off melatonin production. If you're menopausal and prone to night sweats, keep an ice pack close by and dress lightly (no more flannels for you). "These changes are simple, but many people don't make them," says Dr. Dement.
9 p.m.: Jot down your worries
Avoid that flood of predreamland jitters just as your head hits the pillow by designating a time earlier in the day to journal, write your to-do list, or work through any issues you've been mulling over.
"So many of my patients tell me they can't turn their brains off when they get in bed because it's their only time to be quiet and reflective all day long," says Mary Susan Esther, MD, past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. With your worries and to-dos on paper, she says, "if your mind starts wandering when you're in bed, remind yourself that you've closed the book on the day and there's nothing else you can do about the particular issue until tomorrow."
10 p.m.: Wind down
All that late-night Internet surfing you're doing before bed might be preventing you from falling asleep. A 2012 study from the Lighting Research Center found that a 2-hour exposure to light from self-luminous backlit devices such as tablets, e-readers, smartphones, and computers suppressed sleep-promoting melatonin by about 22 percent. Plus, texting or playing solitaire or Words with Friends can stimulate your brain so that you're too alert to fall asleep.
The solution? Power down early. "I give my patients an electronic curfew—an hour before bed, all devices must be turned off," says Dr. Breus. (One exception: If you find watching TV relaxing, some experts say that's OK, since it's not interactive.) After turning off your tech toys, keep the lights dim while you lay out your clothes for the next day and wash up for bed. Then do something soothing that clears your mind and relaxes your body, such as meditation (which some studies have suggested can increase melatonin production), reading, or doing these gentle full-body yoga stretches.
11 PM: Lights out!
Snuggle into bed and literally rest assured that you've planned the perfect day to help you get a good night's sleep.
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