Even if you’ve never grappled with Tyler Durden-level insomnia, you know how much life sucks when you don’t get enough sleep. You feel dumber, hungrier, more irritable, and (of course) more lethargic. And those are just the short-term drawbacks.
The long-term effects of poor sleep are even more worrying. Studies have linked a chronic lack of ZZZs to diseases like diabetes and cancer.
Different people have different sleep needs, says Michael Grandner, Ph.D., a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Some require eight or nine hours a night, others six or seven. Your ideal bedtime is also flexible, and tends to creep earlier and earlier as you grow older, research shows.
But in general, there are two ways to determine if you have a sleep issue, Grandner says. If you still feel groggy or sluggish 20 minutes after you get out of bed in the morning, something is wrong. Also, falling asleep the minute your head hits the pillow is a red flag. “For many people, it’s a sign they’re sleep deprived,” Grandner says.
Here, he and other sleep experts suggest ways to improve your sleep tonight—and every night.
SET YOUR CLOCKS
If location, location, location is every realtor’s motto, the sleep expert’s equivalent is routine, routine, routine. “When your sleep schedule is unpredictable, everything gets harder,” Grandner says. Above all else, he says it’s important to go to bed and get up at the same time every day—weekends included. “Your brain doesn’t know what a weekend is,” he says. Trying to adopt a different sleep schedule just two days a week is “like flying to a different time zone every weekend,” he adds.
If you can’t help staying up late once in a while, some research suggests you’re still better off getting up at your normal hour—even though that means you’ll miss out on sleep. Why? You won’t create as much havoc with your body’s internal sleep clocks—or circadian rhythms.
ADJUST THE BRIGHTNESS
Light plays a big role in setting those circadian sleep clocks, which dictate when you feel tired or wired, Grandner says. That means it’s important to expose yourself to bright light early in the day, and to tone down the lights during the hour or two before bed. If you can get outside or close to a window during the morning hours, that’s ideal. And as your bedtime approaches, Grandner says it’s best to turn down or turn off bright indoor lights, and to limit your exposure to electronics—especially devices like tablets or smart phones that you tend to hold close to your face. “By two or three a.m., even very dim light can throw off your rhythm,” Grandner says. “So if you get up in the middle of the night, don’t turn on the bathroom light.”
TURN DOWN THE THERMOSTAT
Your body temperature is also tied into your circadian sleep clock. “Before bedtime, it starts dropping, which is a signal to our bodies to prepare for sleep,” says Scott Kutscher, MD, a neurologist and sleep researcher at Vanderbilt University. Turning down the thermostat before bed can help, Kutscher says. He also recommends avoiding exercise very late in the evening. On the other hand, a quick pre-bed shower can be helpful. When shower water evaporates from your skin, this cools you in the same way sweating would, he explains.
Downing several drinks can make you drowsy, and so alcohol can seem like a great sleep aid. But the way your body metabolizes alcohol disrupts slumber, and can lead to shallow sleep or a night of tossing and turning, Grandner says. While one or two drinks aren’t an issue for most men, Grandner says more than that will harm your sleep quality—especially in the middle of the night.
GET OUT OF BED
On nights when sleep is slow to come, don’t lie in bed waiting for it to arrive. If you spend enough time thinking and worrying in bed, eventually your brain believes that’s what a bed is for, Grandner says. (For this same reason, Grandner says you shouldn’t spend time watching TV or looking at your devices in bed.) “If you’re not falling asleep within 20 or 30 minutes, you need to get out of bed and do something else for half an hour,” he says. Just make sure that activity is unexciting. He says a lot of people read, but watching a short TV episode can also be helpful.
GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREATHER
The incessant daily onslaught of work and social (and social networking) obligations doesn’t give your weary noodle much time to unwind. But your brain requires a little zone-out time to process and store all the information you’ve dumped on it during the day, Grandner says. “It’s going to take that time whenever it gets the opportunity, which for a lot of people doesn’t come until they get into bed,” he says. Whether you take a slow stroll around your neighborhood or sip a glass of wine in your favorite chair, giving your brain a few minutes to wander without distraction just before bedtime can help you nod off when the time comes, Grandner says.