Your date with your pillow every night is an important one—but too often, it’s put off for a rerun of your favorite show instead. According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 62 percent of Americans experience trouble sleeping a few nights a week or more. Dr. William Kohler, assistant medical director of the Sleep Center at the University Community Hospital in Tampa, Fla., says maintaining healthy sleep hygiene is important to keeping your sleep schedule on track and should be the first approach to help any sleep issues.
“The bedroom should be used for sleep and sex only not for reading, watching TV, and computers, although some people do benefit from reading or listening to music before bed. But for most, it needs to be used just for sleep,” says Kohler.
Believe it or not, though, a good night’s sleep starts even before you get to the bedroom. Many of the things you do on a daily basis can help prime you for proper sleep. Here are just a few.
You should know to avoid caffeine in the latter half of the day, but it’s also smart to schedule your dinner earlier in the evening and make it a smaller meal than most, Kohler says. If you hate going to bed hungry, try a light snack just before bedtime, but make it something containing tryptophan, like cheese, milk, bananas, turkey or nuts. And keep it small.
“Get out of the house for a walk in the morning and at night—that will help reset your internal clock,” says Michael Sandler, co-author of Barefoot Walking: Free Your Feet to Minimize Impact, Maximize Efficiency, and Discover the Pleasure of Getting in Touch with the Earth. Our bodies associate light with being awake and darkness with sleep, so you can give it a nudge at the right times by spending a few moments outside—and the light activity will help calm and relax your mind.
Anxiety, which keeps many people awake at night, can be battled with simple breathing techniques. Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath, suggests “coherent breathing” in particular for sleep troubles. That technique involves reducing your breath rate to about five breaths per minute to help calm and relax your mind. Check out detailed instructions for this technique in an exclusive excerpt from her book and guided audio meditation. Practicing the exercise once or twice a day can help your body feel more relaxed and less anxious, which can improve your overall sleep quality.
A just-released NSF poll suggests that one of your most powerful weapons against sleep troubles may be exercise. The 2013 Sleep in America study compared the overall sleep quality of vigorous, moderate and light exercisers compared to non-exercisers or no activity. The poll showed the participants who considered themselves vigorous (83 percent), moderate (77 percent) and light (76 percent) exercisers reported “very good or fairly good” overall sleep quality, while the group that categorized themselves as non-exercisers or no activity reported only 56 percent of “very good or fairly good” overall sleep quality. “Vigorous exercise is better than mild—although studies show any level of exercise will improve sleep quality as opposed to none,” says Kohler. He recommends exercising during the day and no later than four hours before bedtime to help maintain a good sleep schedule.
The Sleep in America poll also found a link between sitting and sleeping. The proportion of those who spent less than 6 hours sitting a day and 6 to 8 hours sitting a day (22 percent and 25 percent) and reported very good sleep quality, was noticeably higher than those who spent 8 to less than 10 hours and less than 10 hours sitting a day (15 percent and 12 percent). Check out Best Office Fitness Solutions for tips on improving your fitness at your desk.
Once you’re back in bed, there’s one more thing you can do to ensure better sleep—don’t try to reinvent the wheel. “You’re naturally going to gravitate toward a position that you feel best sleeping in,” so don’t try to force yourself into a different one, Dr. Steven Park, author of Sleep, Interrupted and clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. told WebMD. The majority of Americans sleep on their side—a position experts tend to recommend—but if you’re one of the few stomach-sleepers, own it proudly.