Insomnia — a condition that causes problems both with falling asleep and staying asleep — affects millions of people. Since sleep researchers have found inadequate sleep to have many health consequences, it’s obvious that it’s not just important but vital to sleep well. Fortunately, those same sleep researchers have also discovered the conditions that affect quality of sleep. Simple lifestyle changes can have you sleeping like a baby in no time. Here are 12 things to do before you even think about asking your doctor for a sleeping aid or buying one over the counter.
1. Invest in good bedding. Getting a good night’s sleep may be as simple as getting a new mattress. Many people report that memory foam mattresses allow them to completely relax and sleep deeply for the first time in their lives. Indulge in the very best bedding you can afford, too. Sheets with the highest thread count are soft and luxurious, and your blankets and comforters should also give you a feeling of being pampered.
2. Be consistent. Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning (yes, even on weekends) helps your body get used to your sleeping pattern. After a while, it will “expect” to go to sleep at a certain time, and you may not even need an alarm clock to get up for work. (You’ll find that your day starts out much better when you wake naturally rather than being jarred awake by an alarm.)
3. Create a comfortable sleeping environment. Your bedroom should be quiet and dark. Even the slightest bit of noise or light—such as the ticking of a clock or a light left on outside—can disturb sleep, even though the sleeper may not be aware of it. Do what you have to: a sleep mask and room-darkening blinds will screen out the light; earplugs and “white noise” like a fan can help with intrusive noises. The best temperature for sleeping is 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you don’t go above 75 or below 54.
4. Relax. Stress wreaks havoc on sleep. Find a way to distress before bedtime. Read something that is not too heavy, meditate, do some gentle stretches, or take a warm bath.
5. Watch caffeine intake. Caffeine stays in your system longer than you might imagine—up to eight hours. For better sleep, you should stop caffeine intake at least six hours prior to bedtime. Remember that cola drinks, tea, and chocolate all contain caffeine.
6. Food for sleep. While you shouldn’t go to bed with a growling stomach, a full stomach can also keep you up. If you need a bedtime snack, choose one that can actually help you sleep, and make it just a snack, not a meal. Milk is an old standby, and it doesn’t have to be warm. Other good choices: a handful of almonds or walnuts, a piece of fruit (especially a banana, peach or apricot), or half a cup of oat cereal with milk.
7. Nix the nicotine. Like caffeine, it is a stimulant and can keep you from falling asleep and cause wakefulness during the night. Of course, the best thing to do is stop smoking altogether, but if you haven’t been able to do that, at least stop a few hours before you go to bed.
8. Ban stimulants from the bedroom. Don’t watch TV, play video games, or eat in bed. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex. You don’t want your body associating it with thoughts of how you’re going to get to the next level of a game, and if you fall asleep in front of the television, your dreams are likely to be populated with unpleasant images.
9. Don’t rely on alcohol as a sleep aid. Even though alcohol can have relaxing effects that may help you fall asleep, your sleep is likely to be less restful. Alcohol intake is also associated with waking up during the night or waking up too early in the morning and being unable to go back to sleep.
10. Time exercise correctly. Exercise has many benefits, including better sleep, but most people feel energized after they work out, so don’t do it just before you want to go to sleep. You may need to experiment with exercise times to determine how it affects your sleep and adjust workouts accordingly.
11. Get pets their own beds. Cats and dogs tend to sleep in a more alert state than humans, so they move around frequently during the night. This can disturb your sleep. Some pet owners even report sleeping in positions that won’t disturb their pets! They’ll still know you love them if you have them sleep in their own bed or crate, and you’ll have more energy to play with them the next day!
12. Nap less, sleep more. A brief nap (10-15 minutes) early in the day can be refreshing, but napping on the sofa after dinner will only interfere with your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. If you’re tired enough to nap in the evenings, consider adjusting your bedtime.
Most people who have used these suggestions vastly improved their sleep quality and therefore their quality of life. Give them a month’s trial and see how much better you can feel.