Sleeping isn't as easy as Mother Nature would have us believe. Even though we've been snoozing since Day 1, half of all Americans have experienced insomnia in recent months, according to a 2011 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
That doesn't even include the 10 percent of us who suffer from chronic insomnia.
One key problem, according to experts, is that we approach sleep as a nighttime challenge when, in fact, it's a daylong process.
So stop counting sheep, and start counting down to better slumber with our simple rest-easy plan.
First thing: Wake up on schedule
Yep, even if it's Sunday. When you hop out of bed, you're essentially pressing "go" on your circadian clock, the internal timer that cycles your body between periods of alertness and sleepiness, says Adam Fisch, a neurologist and sleep disorder specialist in Indianapolis. This timer functions best when you wake up within the same 60-minute window every day, he says. Veer too far off track and you run the risk of becoming wired at night. One easy way to ensure you get out of bed: Place your alarm clock across the room.
9 am: Let the light in
When daylight saving time ends November 6, mornings will get a whole lot brighter— and more energizing. Exposing the eyes to strong natural light early in the day wakes up the brain and prepares the body for a day of activity, says University of Oxford neuroscience professor Russell Foster, Ph.D. This helps keep tiredness at bay until night, when you want to feel sleepy. Aim for 30–60 minutes of sunlight, outdoors or through a large window, every morning. During dreary stretches of weather, Foster says a lighttherapy box that mimics solar illumination might help. Ask your doctor for details.
1 pm: Adjust your expectations
You might have started the day with an ambitious to-do list, but can you really accomplish it all in the next few hours? If not, review your tasks and decide which can wait another day or two. Being proactive in this way prevents you from feeling overwhelmed by unfinished business, a stressinducing state that can leave your thoughts racing at bedtime, says clinical psychologist Stephanie Silberman, Ph.D., author of The Insomnia Workbook (New Harbinger). Try prioritizing timesensitive tasks for which others depend on you, such as submitting a budget report to your boss. You can generally bump small personal chores—like picking up the dry cleaning—without losing any sleep.
2 pm: Cut the caffeine
A hot cup of joe is a godsend on sleepy mornings, but you'd be wise to switch to decaf after lunch. The stimulating effects of caffeine can linger up to 8 hours, says Ann Romaker, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Luckily, you have plenty of other options when an afternoon energy slump strikes:
- A set of squats: This gets blood pumping and gives the brain a revitalizing boost of oxygen, trainer Kim Truman says. To do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms at your sides, then inhale deeply. Keeping your back straight, lower yourself to a sitting position and exhale. Return to the starting position, inhaling as you rise. Repeat for a total of 10 squats.
- A good laugh: In a study this year, volunteers who watched a short funny video performed better on creative mental challenges than those who skipped the comedy break.
- A DIY food rub: Foot massage in general has been shown to fight fatigue. Go one better by pressing firmly in the central depression of each foot (below the ball) for 15 minutes, advises Jin H. Ngan, an acupuncturist in Chicago. This spot is said to be a source of energy.
5 pm: Hit the gym
True, workouts at almost any time can help you sleep better. A study at Northwestern University found that people who got at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week improved their sleep quality significantly. The body needs high-quality shut-eye for speedy tissue recovery, explains study author Phyllis Zee, M.D.
For best results, she recommends exercising in late afternoon or early evening—cooling down after a workout can help prime the brain for sleep. Ideal activities include brisk walking, aerobics, yoga, and tennis. According to the 2010 American Time Use Survey, female participants averaged at least 30 minutes in every session.
8:45 pm: Keep it cool
It's tempting to crank the heat on chilly nights, but you'll be better rested if you don't. A French study found that people sleep most soundly in rooms with a temperature of 61°F–66°F. Turn down the thermostat and layer your bed with a cozy blanket.
9 pm: Switch off gadgets
Your brilliant smart phone Scrabble move? Save it for tomorrow. Gazing at the intense light of electronic screens can delay the body's nighttime release of melatonin by up to 90 minutes. In addition to unplugging from gadgets before bedtime, turn off nonessential lights throughout your home, suggests Lisa Shives, M.D., of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Illinois.
9:30 pm: Settle in for a soak
The body's core temperature is supposed to dip at bedtime to sync the brain into sleep mode. Give the process a nudge by showering or taking a bath shortly before you go to bed. Your internal temperature will drop after you emerge from the water, Fisch says. Then, consider smoothing on a lotion scented with lavender, jasmine, or rose—three fragrances proven to enhance slumber.
10 pm: Better your bedroom
You've laid the groundwork for a great night's sleep. Seal the deal by rooting out these last-minute snags:
- A lumpy pillow: This can sap slumber by causing you to change positions frequently. Fluff it for a minute to even the stuffing. If the pillow remains lumpy, replace it ASAP.
- Leaky light: People tend to sleep best in total darkness. Draw the bedroom curtains and shut the door. If you see any bright cracks, cover them with a towel or wear a sleep mask.
- Stray noises: Isolated sounds such as dog barks can easily jolt you awake. Consider running a fan or white-noise machine to mask them.
- Missing necessities: Getting out of bed and rummaging for tissues or lip balm lowers the odds you'll fall back to sleep quickly. Avoid this by stocking your nightstand with frequently needed supplies.
Some sleep issues require medical attention. See your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Waking up short of breath. This may be a sign of sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly pauses overnight. Sleep apnea raises the risk of heart disease. Depending on the cause, it can be treated with weight loss, breathing devices, or surgery.
- Perspiring through your pj's. If you routinely wake up drenched in sweat and you aren't experiencing menopause, you might have an underlying problem such as hyperthyroidism or an infection, says Donnica Moore, M.D., editor of Women's Health for Life (DK Publishing).
- A powerful urge to kick. The cause might be restless legs syndrome, a condition marked by intense discomfort when legs are motionless, says Jonathan Charney, a neurologist at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Medications and lifestyle measures (such as self-massage) usually can help.
- Sleep trouble that doesn't stop. If you're regularly taking longer than 30 minutes to drift off, or if you frequently toss and turn overnight, you might benefit from a prescription sleep aid or cognitive behavioral therapy, neurologist Adam Fisch says.
Anxiety and racing thoughts are top insomnia triggers. Not to worry: Experts say it's possible to break the cycle.
During the day: Set aside 15 minutes to write down whatever is bothering you, advises sleep specialist Ann Romaker, M.D. Better yet, note solutions when possible. For example, if you're concerned about your finances, jot down a reminder to ask your friend for the name of her accountant. This acknowledges the stressor while placing the fix within reach.
At bedtime: If you're still feeling tense, try this meditation exercise developed by Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D.: Breathing through your nose, inhale slowly and deeply, allowing your belly to expand. Focus on a word that calms you, such as sky. Slowly exhale, focusing on another calming word, such as peace. Continue for 15 minutes or until you feel drowsy.
In the wee hours: One of the most stressful aspects of waking in the middle of the night is knowing exactly how many hours you have left to sleep, says Andrew Mouton, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep specialist in Chicago. His suggestion: Turn your alarm clock from view so you can't count down your snooze time.
6 pm: Do dinner right
A person's evening meal can have a powerful influence on how she sleeps, says Chin Moi Chow, Ph.D., a senior sleep lecturer at The University of Sydney in Australia. Serve up these strategies tonight:
- Try a mild menu: When eaten late in the day, acidic and heavily spiced dishes can cause sleep-disrupting acid reflux. Save the bold flavors for lunch.
- Keep it light: The work of digesting an extra-large meal can make sleep less restorative, says registered dietitian Ashley Koff, author of Mom Energy (Hay House). Several hours before bedtime, enjoy a balanced moderate combo that includes one serving each of carbs, lean protein, and healthy fat, plus a few servings of nonstarchy vegetables.
- Nibble a roll: In a study led by Chow, people whose dinners included quick-digesting carbohydrates, such as white bread, fell asleep more quickly than people in a control group. Such foods raise blood levels of tryptophan, a precursor of sleep-promoting melatonin.
- Limit wine to one glass: Despite a reputation for making people groggy, alcohol can cause overnight wakefulness as its sedative effects wear off. Try to avoid getting a buzz.