Think the solution to your fatigue is an earlier bedtime? Getting enough sleep is important, but it’s also the quality that counts—and there’s more to it than just a comfy bed. Also complicating things: As you get older, your sleep patterns change, making it harder to fall (and stay) asleep. But that doesn’t mean you’re destined to be sleep-deprived. You can improve your slumber without tacking on hours in bed—and it’s not hard to do.
Every little habit—from what you eat and drink to when you exercise and watch TV—can impact your sleep. Here’s a sample day that shows you what you can do to get the best zzz’s possible. (Adjust it for your wake and sleep times.)
6:30 A.M. – Skip the snooze button. It’s tempting to turn over and squeeze in an extra 10 to 15 minutes of shut-eye when your alarm goes off, but doing that can actually make you more tired. “You spend so much energy going back to sleep and waking up again that you don’t get any additional deep sleep,” says Kathryn Lee, RN, PhD, professor and associate dean for research at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing. And you’re more likely to wake up groggy. “So you’re using more energy but not sleeping more to make up for it.”
7:30 A.M. – Exercise. Not only does it give you a shot of energy that’ll help you power through the day, but exercising in the morning may also decrease levels of stress hormones, making it easier for your body to wind down and fall asleep faster, says Scott Collier, PhD, director of the Vascular Biology and Autonomic Studies Laboratory at Appalachian State University. In a recent study led by Dr. Collier, people who got 30 minutes of moderate exercise at 7 a.m. (compared with 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.) significantly improved the quality of their sleep that night, spending 75% more time in deep sleep.
11:00 A.M. – Take a breathing break. “If you don’t take time to stop during the day, falling asleep is harder. Why? When you finally try, you lie awake thinking about all of the things you haven’t had a moment to ponder,” says Diane Renz, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado. It’s kind of like slamming on the brakes of a fast-moving car and all of the junk in the back flying forward. So once or twice a day, close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths.
1-2 P.M. – Cut out caffeine. “Caffeine is a stimulant that lasts in your system for 4 to 7 hours,” says Lawrence Epstein, MD, chief medical officer of the Sleep HealthCenters, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Make sure that by the time you’re going to bed, the stimulating effects have worn off. Coffee isn’t the only culprit: Tea, chocolate and soft drinks also contain levels that can affect your sleep. (Check out exactly how much in “Caffeine Count,” below.)
You know that coffee’s got a lot (95 mg in 1 cup), but the amount in other items may surprise you.
Coffee ice cream, 1 cup = 48 mg
Diet Coke, 1 can = 47 mg
Tea, 1 cup = 40 mg
Dark chocolate bar, 1.45 oz = 25 mg
3 P.M. – Go outside. Getting out in natural afternoon light (30 minutes is ideal—even if it’s cloudy) helps reset your circadian rhythm so that you’ll wind down easier when bedtime rolls around, says Donna Arand, PhD, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center in Dayton, Ohio. (It’s also energizing.) If you can’t exercise in the a.m., use this time to squeeze in a brisk walk.
7 P.M. – Eat dinner. Your body needsat least 2 hours (3 for a heavy
meal) to fully digest food. Eat too close to bedtime, and it’ll be hard for your body to wind down since you’ll still be working on digesting. Try to eat dinner on the earlier side, and the same goes for drinking alcohol. “Alcohol makes you sleepy at first, but causes you to wake up as it wears off,” says Nancy Collop, MD, director of the Emory Sleep Center and President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
10 P.M. – An hour before bedtime, have a proteincarb combo snack. Your brain needs the protein to produce melatonin and serotonin, chemicals important for sleep, and the carbs help your body absorb the protein, says Dr. Lee. A few good healthy snack options: peanut butter and whole-wheat bread or peanut butter and crackers, or 1 Tbsp hummus in a mini wholewheat pita.
10:30 P.M. – Thirty minutes before bedtime, start your wind-down routine. “A lot of sleep disturbance happens because we don’t give our bodies a chance to transition from a fast-paced day,” says Dr. Renz. This can be as simple as taking off your makeup and washing your face under dim lights or doing something relaxing like reading or meditating. “This signals to your brain that the day’s over and it’s time for sleep,” says Dr. Epstein. Shut down your computer, too, since surfing the Internet and sending emails stimulates your nervous system, making it harder
11 P.M. – Get into bed, breathe and stretch. Taking a few deep breaths and doing a light 30-second stretch (try sitting up and reaching toward your toes) will help you relax once you’re under the sheets, says Dr. Collop. It’s OK if it takes a little while to fall asleep (up to 20 minutes is normal). “If you’re out like a light the second you hit the pillow, it means that you’re sleep-deprived,” says Dr. Renz.