Is a good night’s sleep the first thing you sacrifice when life gets busy? If so, consider this your wake-up call because you’re not only sabotaging your next day’s performance, you’re also harming your health.
“Sleep deprivation is a serious medical risk, but few people are aware of that,” says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine. “You have to pay as much attention to your sleep as you do to eating a nutritious diet.”
There have been clear links made between inadequate sleep and obesity (as well as several other related conditions: heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes). But the good news is that these conditions may be reversible with a healthy dose of ‘shut eye’. Pulling from studies about what robs us of quality sleep, experts have devised strategies that can help you get the rest you need.
1. You think too much
The reason you sometimes obsess over a tricky work project or an argument with your best friend when you’re trying to fall asleep: “You can’t refocus your thinking at the edge of slumber the same way you can when you’re alert,” says Colleen E. Carney, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Insomnia and Sleep Research Program at Duke University Medical Center. “People have little control over their thoughts, because they may be going in and out of a light stage of sleep, even though they think they’re awake,” she says.
Fix It: When fretful, get up and go to another part of the house (but leave the lights off). “Your anxious thoughts will usually stop right away. Then you can go back to bed and fall asleep,” Carney says. This well-studied strategy, called stimulus control, also prevents you from associating your bed with anxiety. Another tip: Set aside time early in the evening to problem solve. Write down your pressing concerns, along with a possible solution for each, a few hours before retiring.
2. You sleep in
Late nights followed by extra sack time the next morning throw off your internal clock, which is controlled by a cluster of nerve cells in the brain that also regulate appetite and body temperature, says Lawrence Epstein, MD, medical director of Sleep Health Centers in Brighton, MA, and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. When Sunday rolls around, you’re reprogrammed to stay up past your bedtime, and you feel like a zombie on Monday morning.
Fix It: Even if you’ve been up late, don’t sleep in more than an hour longer than usual, Epstein says. To make up for lost slumber, take an afternoon catnap (no more than 30 minutes, though, because an extended daytime snooze can keep you awake at night).
3. Your stomach growls
Going to bed hungry interferes with sleep—hunger pangs simply wake you up—and some evidence suggests that people trying to lose weight may wake up frequently, says Peter Hauri, PhD, a professor emeritus at the Mayo Clinic and author of No More Sleepless Nights.
Fix It: Hauri suggests saving some of your calories for a high-protein bedtime snack, such as a small serving of cheese or a hard-boiled egg. Protein produces greater satiety than carbohydrates and fat.
4. Your bedroom is a mess
You keep a messy pile of papers on your nightstand…and your desk…and the floor. A cluttered sleep environment makes for a cluttered mind—the kind that churns well into the night. Stress is the number one cause of short-term sleep problems such as frequent middle-of-the-night waking and insomnia, according to the American Psychological Association.
Fix It: Grab a basket, toss in any unfinished work—bills, spreadsheets, that half-done scrapbook—and promptly remove it. “When you eliminate the stuff in your bedroom that isn’t related to sleep, your brain starts to associate the room only with sleep and intimacy,” says Lawrence Epstein, MD, medical director of Sleep Health Centers in Boston and coauthor of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. Also keep your computer in another room, or at least place it in a cabinet that can be closed. You’ll be shutting the door on stress and late-night screen gazing, which has been proven to hinder sleep, according to a Japanese study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The monitor’s bright display may inhibit your production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for telling the body it’s time for bed.
5. Too much light!
Believe it or not, ambient light from street lamps, alarm clocks, and DVD players could be keeping you awake. “Even a small amount of brightness can be strong enough to enter your retina when your eyes are closed,” says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Woman’s Book of Sleep: A Complete Resource Guide. “At night, it sends a signal to your brain that upsets your internal clock and makes you feel awake.”
Fix It: If there is light in the hallway, shut the bedroom door. Also, turn your alarm clock toward the wall (or opt for the non-digital variety), and eliminate night-lights. Wearing an old-fashioned eye mask ($4 to $7; drugstores) helps signal your brain that, yes, it really is nighttime, as well. To block outside brightness, hang blackout shades and curtains, such as Euro Premium Blackout Drapery Liners (starting at $37.99 a pair; Target.com). You can either attach them to the backs of your existing window treatments or hang them on their own.
6. You can hear a pin drop
For some people, any sound (the television, rowdy neighbors, traffic) keeps them up at night. Other folks—namely, city dwellers—are creeped out in super quiet places.
Fix It: Surprisingly, it’s not the sound or lack thereof that’s keeping you awake, “it’s the inconsistency of sound or silence that’s disruptive,” says Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Turn on a nearby ceiling or exhaust fan. “This will act as white noise, both blocking out disruptive sounds and providing just enough noise for those who can’t stand total silence,” Roth says. A white-noise machine will do the trick, too—the devices help patients sleep in the busy, active intensive care units of hospitals, according to a report in Critical Care Nursing Clinics of North America.
You could be sharing your bed with anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million dust mites, says Alan Goldsobel, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in San Jose, CA, and the residue they leave behind can trigger mild to very severe allergies.
Fix It: To reduce allergens, vacuum and dust regularly; use linens that block mites, such as American Lung Association-approved AllerRest bedding (starting at $19.99; JCPenny.com); and replace mattresses that are more than 10 years old. Finally, crack the windows and doors. Increasing a room’s airflow is one of the most effective ways to cut down on dust mites, finds a recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
8. You let Mr. Chubbs in
We know—you love your pet, but more than half of dog and cat owners admitted that their animal disrupted their sleep every night, according to a small survey done by the Mayo Clinic.
Fix It: “Put a crate next to your bed and have your pup sleep there,” says Daisy Okas, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club. Dogs like to sleep in a safe, protected space. Do you have a cat? Lock her out but keep her entertained with special nighttime-only toys that get put away in the morning. (Deter door scratching by putting double-sided tape on the bottom edge; cats hate the stickiness.) Rise and shine!