According to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, fewer than half of all U.S. sleepers report getting a good night’s sleep, especially on the nights when they have to get up for work the next day. Stress is, unsurprisingly, a chief factor, but there are three other key elements that tend to be easier to control.
“Having a consistent schedule of meals, light exposure and exercise helps the body understand and anticipate when we’re getting ready to sleep,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, a sleep specialist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Charlottesville, Va. According to Winter, sleep is based on the brain’s understanding of where the individual is on her circadian rhythm, or body clock, so uniformity is crucial.
Rather than feel pressure to sleep, which may increase stress levels, Winter says, “When you become disciplined and consistent with your schedule, sleep will start to come more easily.”
Plan your meals
Eating meals at regular intervals (and at the same times each day) helps to keep your body on track for sleeping and waking at appropriate times. There is some evidence suggesting that what you eat matters, too — and it’s not just eating healthy, which is important, but there may also be a connection between specific nutrients and wakefulness.
More research is needed, but eating lean protein at breakfast may promote wakefulness, while carbohydrates at dinner or for a bedtime snack may make you feel sleepier.
Be mindful of light exposure
One of the most important steps you can take to fall asleep easier at night is to make sure you expose yourself to enough light first thing in the morning. Open the drapes, or go outside.
“That bright light is the signal to the brain to stop making melatonin and wake up,” says Winter. In fact, a recent study found that workers in offices with windows and daylight exposure slept an average of 46 minutes more per night than those who worked in windowless offices.
During the evening, take the opposite approach. By 5 or 6 p.m., start dimming the lights and avoid bright, fluorescent bulbs, such as the ones often found in bathrooms.
Get more exercise
Last but not least, numerous studies have confirmed the importance of exercise for improving sleep. Even a little can go a long way. “Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System,” a health study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that people who reported exercising at all in the previous month were one-third less likely to report sleep problems compared with those who didn’t exercise.
Exercising first thing in the morning is ideal, and anyone who routinely has trouble sleeping should skip the post-work workout. “After you leave work, that should be the beginning of your wind-down time,” suggests Winter.
Other healthy sleep habits, known as good “sleep hygiene,” can also help you get more restful sleep each night:
- Have a relaxing nightly ritual — take a bath, read a book, drink a cup of decaf tea — to give your body a cue that it’s time to wind down.
- Keep electronic distractions out of the bedroom, meaning no TV, computer, smartphone or tablets in bed with you.
- Reevaluate your pillows and mattress. If they’re not comfortable and supportive, you’ll find yourself tossing and turning all night.
Help for Sleepy Caregivers
If your problems falling asleep persist, or if you find yourself routinely waking up during the night, you may want to see a sleep specialist. In some cases, there may be other health issues at play that are interfering with your rest.
- Try using white noise or earplugs if noise from your partner’s restlessness is consistently keeping you awake.