12 Paths to Perfect Sleep
The healing power of real rest.
Published: August 30, 2012
New findings in sleep medicine are currently revolutionizing how we think about the value sleep brings to our lives. Cutting-edge science now shows how critical sleep is to our ability to stay focused, to learn new things and remember old things, lose fat and keep excess weight off, and generally lower the risks for a slew of health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and cerebrovascular disease.
Seemingly magical events happen when you’re sleeping that just cannot happen during wakeful hours, and which help keep you energized and quick-witted. Sleep keeps you sharp, creative, and able to process information in an instant. Losing as few as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about a third.
It’s a myth that there’s a magic number of hours the body requires to sleep. Everyone has a different sleep need. Most people need seven to nine hours, and chances are you know what your number is. Think of the last time you went on vacation and slept like a baby for more hours a night than usual. That is probably your perfect number. Poor sleep catches up to most of us, and it’s practically impossible to make up a sleep loss because life keeps moving forward and demanding more of us.
Not surprisingly, stress and staying up too late are the two big culprits to poor sleep, which is why it’s important to establish what’s called a healthy “sleep hygiene”—the habits that make for a restful night’s sleep regardless of factors such as age and underlying medical conditions. The goal is to minimize those factors’ effects on us so we can welcome peaceful sleep.
Here are the 12 paths to a perfect night’s sleep:
- Get on a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time seven days a week, weekends included. Try not to fall into a cycle of burning the midnight oil on Sunday night in preparation for Monday, letting your sleep debt pile up for the week and then attempt to catch up on sleep over the weekend. It won’t work. Stick to the same schedule seven days a week.
- Unplug to recharge. Set aside at least 30 minutes before bedtime to unwind and prepare for sleep. Avoid stimulating activities (e.g., work, cleaning, being on the computer, watching TV dramas that get your adrenaline running). Try soaking in a warm bath or engaging in some light stretching. Once you’re in bed, do some light reading and push any anxieties aside.
- Don’t let your To Do list or worries take control. Early in the evening write out tasks you have yet to complete that week and prioritize them realistically. Add any particular worries you might have. If these notes begin to talk to you when you’re trying to go to sleep, tell yourself everything will be okay and you will have a productive day tomorrow.
- Create a restful refuge. Reserve the bedroom for sleep (and sex) only. Remove distracting electronics and gadgets and keep it clean, cool, and dark.
- Nix the fix and cut the caffeine. Stop drinking caffeinated beverages about eight hours before bedtime. If you cannot go cold turkey on the caffeine in the afternoon, then switch to drinks with less caffeine, such as teas.
- Don’t sweat it. Watch out if you exercise within three hours of bedtime. For some people, exercise can be stimulating to the point that it affects getting to bed on time and falling asleep easily. If your body’s reaction to exercise is stealing your sleep, then shift your exercise to earlier in the day.
- Limit your libations. Be cautious about alcohol intake in the evening hours. If you use a glass of wine as a way to unwind, be mindful of how that glass (or two) could be influencing the quality of your sleep. You might want to test out avoiding this routine and see if it changes how refreshed you feel the next day.
- Ditch digestive distractions. Keep in mind that heavy foods too close to bedtime can upset your sleep as much as they upset your stomach. The best bedtime snack is nothing. If you need to take a medication, then maybe a liquid such as plain coconut water will satisfy you. This requires no extra digestive work. To balance it out, you could have 10 to 15 nuts with it.
- Focus on relaxing. Try valerian herbal tea or a chamomile blend before bedtime. Take your magnesium supplement in the evening hours to help relax muscles for better sleep and regularity.
- Practice aromatherapy. Keep a sachet of lavender by your bed and take a whiff before hitting the pillow. Lavender has known sleep-inducing effects. Other aromas widely considered to be relaxing are rose, vanilla, and lemongrass.
- Take a d-e-e-p breath…and release. On your back with your eyes closed and your body stretched out, hands by your side, palms facing up, begin to squeeze and release your muscles, starting with your head and face and working down to your toes. Breathe in deeply and slowly, telling yourself I will fall asleep. I am going to sleep.
- Get out of the bedroom. If you can’t get to sleep within 20 minutes, slip out of bed and go to a safe haven—a place that’s comfy, has dim lighting, and no distractions. Just sit comfortably. Or do your breathing exercises. Or read. After 20 minutes or so, go back to bed and see what happens when you’re more relaxed.
You’d be amazed by the power of sleep when it comes naturally just by regulating your sleep habits. You body will respond and adapt to the sleep cycle you put it on. If your body clock is truly off, try getting some natural morning sunlight, do some exercise during the day, don’t stay up until the wee hours of the morning cleaning house, and set aside time to wind down before bedtime. Yes, it’s as simple as that!
Ashley Koff, R.D., appears regularly on The Dr. Oz Show, GMA Health, The Doctors, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN, AOL, and E!, and was the lead expert for The Huffington Post’s “Total Energy Makeover.” She is a contributing editor for Natural Health magazine, a member of the Fitness magazine advisory board, a dietitian for espnW, and the on-air dietitian for CW’s Shedding for the Wedding and Lifetime’s Love Handles.
Fitness expert Kathy Kaehler has trained numerous A-list celebrities including Julia Roberts, Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Lopez. Kaehler is the leading health-and-fitness spokesperson for USANA and creator of Sunday Set-Up™. In 2008, Kathy was inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame.