Think back on the last time you got a good night’s sleep. If last night comes to mind, lucky you! But can you remember when you got some great shut-eye every night for a week? It may be a little more challenging to recall. And you’re in the majority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep or wakefulness disorder, and calls insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.
To help you get your best night’s sleep, there are some things you can do throughout the day so that you fall asleep quickly — and stay asleep. And while some of these tips may help you get better rest tonight, know that getting quality sleep every night may take a few months of putting these habits into place, says Dr. Gerald Suh, ENT, board certified in Sleep Medicine.
“One of the most important things you can do for your sleep is to have a routine to keep your circadian rhythm normal,” says Suh. Your circadian rhythm is the part of your brain that controls your body’s natural sleep cycle. He and other sleep experts recommend going to sleep and waking up around the same times each day and figuring out the amount of hours of shut-eye your body needs to function optimally. We know that shutting down at the same hour and rising on a steady schedule are often easier said then done, so here are more ways to get quality zzz’s.
Open your blinds and curtains. Exposing yourself to early morning sunlight helps your body wake up by regulating your biological clock and keeping it on track, says Suh.
Pair carbs with protein at breakfast. Start your day with something to get your energy going so your body knows you’re nourishing it, says Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, author of Younger Next Week: Your Ultimate Rx to Reverse the Clock, Boost Energy and Look and Feel Younger in 7 Days. Begin with a small bowl of whole grain cereal, oatmeal, whole wheat toast, or a whole wheat English muffin as the base of the meal, then round it out with protein, such as an egg, nuts and seeds, yogurt or milk. This protein and carb combo will help with keep you satisfied, full, and give you lasting energy, says Zied.
Drink your caffeinated beverages before lunch. “Think of yourself as an early bird when it comes to caffeine consumption,” says Zied. For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine — 200 to 300 mg, or about two to four cups of brewed coffee — aren’t harmful, according to MayoClinic.org. But our experts agree that eliminating caffeine in the afternoon might be one of the best ways to improve your sleep. Try to avoid caffeinated beverages after 2 p.m. (or at the very least six hours before you plan to sleep).
Add protein to lunch. It’s important to eat a lot of high-quality protein-packed foods throughout the day in small amounts to give you energy. Include foods like soybeans, low-fat dairy, fish, meat and poultry, suggests Zied.
Take a cat nap. If you’re able to take a nap, keep it to less than 30 minutes and ideally do it between 2 and 3 p.m., suggests Suh. “It can help you function, especially if you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep at night.” If you’re already well rested from a great night’s sleep you can skip this step.
Work out before dinner. While studies vary on the best time to work out, in general, finishing your workout by late afternoon or early evening is ideal to make sure it’s not interfering with your sleep, says Suh. Since exercise gets your body temperature up, you want to give your body enough time to cool down since a declining body temperature helps you fall asleep. While everyone is different and evening workouts might work best for you and your schedule, if you suspect it’s interfering with your sleep, experiment with an earlier exercise routine.
Fit in fitness. Even if you’re having a busy day, try to do some activity — a regular exercise routine is good for your sleep schedule. According to the National Sleep Foundation, exercise of any type can help improve daytime sleepiness, and self-described exercisers report experiencing better sleep than non-exercisers, even if they’re getting the same amount of hours each night. Other research suggests that aerobic physical activity over a few months can help improve sleep quality, mood and overall quality of life.
Cut off alcohol four hours before bed. Even though drinking alcohol can make you feel relaxed, and possibly even sleepy, it can affect sleep quality and lead to you waking up throughout the night, says Dr. Suh. Ideally, sensitive sleepers should avoid alcohol between four and six hours before bedtime. If you’re going to have alcohol, sip it with your dinner, suggests Zied.
Have a light, but complete dinner. Having a serving of whole-wheat pasta or brown rice at dinner will give your body nutrients from those carbohydrates to create serotonin that will relax you. Round out your meal with healthy options like veggies and a small amount of lean protein to help you feel satisfied without a heavy bloating. Having a stuffed stomach or indigestion can interfere with sleep. If you eat dinner early and want a small snack before bedtime, noshing a small carb-concentrated snack an hour or two before bedtime can help with sleep. Have a small bowl of cereal with milk, nuts, pretzels, oatmeal, fresh fruit, whole grain crackers or air-popped popcorn.
Mellow out. If you have trouble winding down at night and your mind is racing, consider practicing meditation, deep breathing techniques, or even just journaling your thoughts. Any activity that helps you to relax lowers your metabolic rate to help promote sleep, says Dr. Suh. You could also try aromatherapy, drinking hot herbal tea, or taking a hot bath 90 minutes before sleep. The thought is that it raises your core body temperature for a period of time and as heat is released, it creates the dip in body temperature at the right time that is conducive to sleep.
Set up your environment. Ideally you should sleep in a dark room (and dimming lights before bed can help, too), with temperatures a little bit on the cooler side around 60 to 68 degrees, and make sure it’s quiet. There are a bunch of smartphone apps and wearable devices that can track your sleep patterns so you can see what temperature range resulted in the best quality shut-eye for you.
Power down an hour before sleep. It’s best to turn off all of your electronic devices before you go to bed for an uninterrupted night’s sleep. And even more so with those that emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin production and shifts the circadian rhythm to a later time period, says Dr. Suh. Shut off the TV, put the tablet away, stop texting and browsing on your cell phone, and consider putting your e-reader to bed as well, suggests Dr. Suh. Not only will electronics’ blue light emissions possibly prevent sleep, but also some research says they may even fight fatigue. Some e-readers have adopted features that are supposed to help with reading at night, but it may be a good idea to switch to paperback books for a few nights to see if that produces better sleep. You need about an hour after turning off these electronics as it takes some time for decreased light exposure to increase the body’s production of melatonin, which plays a major role in inducing sleep.
If you’re still thinking about health resolutions you can actually stick to, making sleep your top priority might be the best resolution you come up with, says Zied.
Better quality sleep and more rest will help you have more energy so you can maintain those 2014 workout goals. And when you’re well-rested, you’ll be more likely to make healthier eating decisions, as studies have shown that sleep deprivation leads to an increased desire for high-calorie junk foods That high-energy, healthy-eating combo might just translate to effortless weight loss this year — so why not hit the hay a little earlier tonight?