The New Secrets of Perfect Sleep

The New Secrets of Perfect Sleep

The key to a healthy, happy and productive life is what happens between the sheets—meaning sleep, of course. But in our 24/7 wired culture, consistently getting seven or eight solid hours of Zs is, for many of us, an elusive dream.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleep deprivation a public health epidemic in 2014, noting that “about 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems.” Sleeplessness, according to the CDC, is linked to everything from car crashes and industrial accidents to “chronic diseases and conditions—such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and depression.”

“We need to prioritize sleep as a health imperative,” says Mark Brown, M.D., author of Smarter Sleep.

The key to restorative slumber is making small modifications to your habits throughout the day, investing in your nightly shut-eye for the long run and knowing when your sleep troubles may be something more serious.

Get in tune with your circadian rhythm

Everyone knows the fundamentals of achieving quality sleep: keeping the bedroom dark, quiet and cool. But a stack of research shows there are daily tweaks you can make to optimize sleep. Look beyond the basics to what neuroscientist Christopher Colwell, professor-in-residence of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls “good circadian hygiene.” That means aligning your behavior with your body’s circadian clock, or built-in timer.

Restrict eating to a 12-hour cycle.

“Our bodies are designed to take in calories over 12 hours and fast for 12,” Colwell says. Research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, showed that disrupting this natural order by, say, snacking at 2 a.m., leads to poor sleep, weight gain and the kind of metabolic disorders seen in people with diabetes. Research completed at Colwell’s lab suggests mistimed eating can also impair memory and learning.

Catch rays early.

“Morning sun is the cheapest and most widely available sleep aid,” says Robert S. Rosenberg, D.O., medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, Arizona, and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day. “Exposure to sunlight within two hours of awakening is a strong signal to your circadian clock to reset itself for a new day.”

Don’t stay in the dark about lighting.

“Light is the biggest anchor for sleep,” says Colleen Ehrnstrom, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with ImpACT Psychology Colorado and co-author of the book End the Insomnia Struggle. Just as the light of dawn awakens us, the dimming of light cues our bodies to produce melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. The blue light emitted by our electronics is especially disruptive, suppressing melatonin twice as much as other wavelengths of light.

If you’re unwilling to banish technology at bedtime, you can mitigate its damage. For example, Apple’s operating system has the feature Night Shift, which will automatically shift your display to warmer hues at sunset. Or, you can install an app that filters blue light, such as f.lux or Twilight. Covering your screens with a color filter can also reduce your exposure to blue light.

Skip the 9 p.m. workout.

A post-dinner stroll with Rover is fine, but don’t schedule a strenuous gym session within three hours of your bedtime. “Our core body temperature falls when we’re ready to go to sleep, and since an intense workout raises your body temperature, that can upset your circadian clock,” Colwell says.

Keep the same schedule.

It may be difficult to give up sleeping in on weekends, but inconsistent sleep patterns can make it harder to reach deep slumber. Studies show you’re also likely to put on a few extra pounds.

Have a bedtime ritual.

Unfortunately, our brains don’t come with a power-off switch. “Our mind requires a little time to quiet itself,” says Alex Korb, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral. Try to do something restful a few minutes before you hit the hay; jot down three things you’re grateful for, do a few yoga poses or sip a cup of chamomile tea.

Nap smarter.

A 20- to 30-minute daytime siesta can be an effective way to recharge and boost alertness. But keep it short and schedule it for early afternoon—between 1 and 2 p.m., says Colwell. Later or longer than that and you’re likely to wake up groggy and ruin your nighttime sleep.

Know when you need a sleep study

Sleep apnea is a stealthy thief that robs people of healthy slumber and puts them at risk for everything from depression and sexual dysfunction to heart attack and stroke. In sleep apnea, the tissues in the back of the throat collapse, blocking airflow and causing pauses in breathing. Some people may experience these apneas hundreds of times a night.

A meta-review of past research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine looked at the connection between obstructive sleep apnea and cognitive decline in adults. 

The vast majority of the roughly 22 million Americans who suffer from sleep apnea don’t know it because they’re not fully awakened by the episodes, Rosenberg says. Often it’s a spouse, disturbed by a partner’s loud snoring or gasping, who notices the symptoms of sleep apnea. Alternatively, if you feel fatigued during the day and can’t focus—even though you believe you’re sleeping seven or eight hours a night—you’ll want to make an appointment with a sleep specialist. 

For mild sleep apnea, losing weight, drinking less and using special pillows may be treatment enough. Mouthpieces or masks that keep the airwaves open are often prescribed for moderate or severe apnea.

Test before buying

Shopping for a new mattress—a necessity every six to 10 years—can be stressful. Michael Breus, Ph.D., a sleep specialist in Manhattan Beach, California, and co-author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, has two words of advice: lie down.

“Bring your own pillow and go mattress-shopping at the end of the day wearing comfortable, loose clothes,” he says. “Remove your shoes, climb onto the mattress you’re considering and lie there for six or seven minutes, with your pillow, in your starting sleep position. Rotate to another position for six or seven minutes and then a third position for six or seven minutes. Only after about 20 minutes will your heart rate and your blood flow have become regulated to being in a recumbent position. That’s when you can assess the support of the bed.”

Remember: mattress price isn’t necessarily a guide to good sleep. “I’ve had patients buy fantastic beds for $1,000 and crappy beds for $20,000,” Breus says. “I’m becoming less impressed with super high-end beds, but you should plan on spending at least $800 to $1,000 for a mattress that will offer lasting support.”

You’ll also want to swap out your pillows every 18 months to make sure they have the support you need, Breus says. The purpose of a pillow is to align your spine so there’s no bend or tension in your neck. Side sleepers will want a firm pillow thick enough to fill the space between the ear and shoulder; back and stomach sleepers will want a thinner pillow that cradles the neck at a natural angle. Suffer from back or neck pain? Try a contoured pillow.

Lights out and sweet dreams!

This article was published in April 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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