Chances are, you've spent some time wondering how to get more sleep. Even though women are more tuned into their sleep needs than men, we still sleep less — and suffer more for it — than they do.
In fact, 60 percent of American women say they only get a good night's sleep a few nights a week or less, with 67 percent reporting frequent sleep problems, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
"Poor sleep is among the most common health issues physicians are asked to address, but most simply aren't trained to help," says W. Chris Winter, MD, medical director of Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia and author of The Sleep Solution. "The irony is that poor sleep literally affects every system and organ of the body and plays a crucial role in many health issues, such as obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and more."
How to Get Better Sleep
The good news: Even if you've been struggling with sleep for years, it is possible to take control — and reverse the damage done. And it's actually pretty easy. Here, Dr. Winter offers his best fall-asleep-quick, stay-asleep, and wake-up-refreshed advice.
1. Create a sleep cave.
Complete darkness is crucial to good sleep. "Melatonin, our sleep hormone, can only make you sleepy if your eyes aren't seeing any light," notes Winter. "But our bedrooms often have many sources of light, like the alarm clock, phone, TV." To figure out how much stealth light is infiltrating your sleep, try this: Close your blinds, shut the door, turn out the lights, and put your hands in front of your face. "If you can see them, your room still isn't dark enough, and you should wear a soft, comfortable contoured eye mask," says Winter.
2. Warm up before bed.
Heating your body has been shown to improve sleep, says Winter, who advises taking a hot bath or shower an hour before bed. "It's all about the cooling afterward," he says. When our body temperature falls, we feel drowsy due to a natural decrease in metabolic activity. The cooler we are, the less our body wants to do. "Raising your body temperature allows for a steeper drop at bedtime, which naturally puts you in a state of relaxation." Don't have the time (or energy) for a pre-snooze bath? A heating pad can work, too. "I love the bean bag sacks that you can heat in the microwave and wear round your neck," says Winter. Take it a step further and get one that's stuffed with lavender, which has been shown to help promote sleep as well.
3. Carb up at bedtime.
Carbohydrates make you tired, so use it to your advantage, says Winter. If the evening munchies strike, he recommends reaching for a carb-heavy snack that?s high on the glycemic index, like a small bowl of (low-sugar, whole-grain) cereal, a banana, or some dried cherries. "These foods create insulin spikes and positive changes in our tryptophan levels. Tryptophan, an amino acid, is essential for making serotonin, a sleep-promoting chemical in our brain," says Winter. Bonus: Dried tart cherries are also high in sleep-inducing melatonin and bananas are rich in magnesium and potassium, which act as muscle and nerve relaxants. Just be sure to time your snack to be about 2 hours before bedtime. "This will help avoid any indigestion or reflux you may feel if you go to bed too soon after eating," says Winter.
4. Bookend zzzs with this.
A great bedtime routine starts in the morning, with about 15 to 20 minutes of exercise. "You don't need to set the world on fire with your exercise routine, just focus on getting up on time, having a little something to eat, then taking a brisk walk or jog outside," says Winter. Working out in the morning light suppresses melatonin and produces a surge of serotonin that enhances wakefulness and mood. Exercise shouldn't stop in the AM, however. Dr. Winter recommends engaging in about 15 minutes of relaxing exercise, like yoga or meditation about an hour before bed, too. "These activities prime our brains for relaxation and sleep," he says. And if all else fails, simply pretend you're exercising when you're snuggled in bed. "I personally like to imagine myself running a race or hitting baseballs when I'm in bed," says Winter. "By visualizing these tasks, I'm suddenly no longer 'trying' to fall asleep."
5. Tune in to your body.
Loosen your get-to-sleep timetable."Telling yourself that if you're not asleep in 20 minutes that you should get out of bed and do a quiet activity puts too much pressure on yourself," says Winter. Instead of giving yourself a sleep deadline, only get up if trying to fall asleep is stressing you out. "You're not wasting your time if you're lying bed and not sleeping. Resting, even without sleeping is good for you, too," says Dr. Winter.
6. Pick the right position.
One of the best positions for sleep is on your side, says Dr. Winter. "It opens up your airway so you can breathe better at night, which helps prevent snoring and apnea." The on-your-side position can also ease sleep-sapping back pain. Simply, bend your legs slightly toward your chest and tuck a pillow between your knees to keep your hips, pelvis, and spine aligned and your back tension-free. As side-sleeping bonus, this position helps remove brain waste, which can help reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurological diseases, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Neuroscience.
7. Consider a "sleepcation."
Give yourself permission to ignore your partner. "I spend a lot of time telling couples that it's OK to sleep apart sometimes," says Winter. "Many spouses snore or sleep restlessly and that prevents your sleep from happening." So he recommends scheduling certain days of the week to sleep somewhere else. "This falls under the category of 'two days of good sleep are better than none,'" he jokes. Doing this can eliminate the guilt that you're not sleeping together, it allows you to get needed sleep, and it gives you the opportunity to figure out if your spouse is really your sleep saboteur. Ideally, you'd want to sleep in a spare bedroom, but if that's not feasible, simply make the sofa mimic your bed as much as possible. "Use your own pillow from your bed and even wear your partner's t-shirt," says Winter. "The familiar smells will help the sofa seem more like bed. Our brains tie smells most tightly to memory, so trick your brain into thinking you are in your own bed with you partner."