While sleep needs vary, most adults require 7 to 9 hours per night. The best way to determine how much sleep you need is to do a little experiment: First, try to catch up on sleep for several nights on a weeklong vacation during which you can turn in when you're tired and wake up without an alarm clock. Once your sleep debt has been replenished, keep track of the amount of sleep you need each night after that (the fifth through the seventh night, for example) to feel alert and energized for the bulk of the next day. You can use this number as a gauge of how much sleep you really require on a regular basis.
When you return home from vacation, make it a priority to carve out enough time for that restorative shut-eye nightly. To reach that optimal quota, adjust your sleep schedule gradually in 15-minute (or no more than 30-minute) increments over a few days. You might shift your bedtime 15 to 30 minutes earlier on a Monday, spend three or four nights adjusting to the change, then make another shift on Thursday or Friday, and so on—until you're back to getting the amount of shut-eye that's optimal for you.
To improve the quality and quantity of your sleep every night, use the following strategies:
#1. Stick with a consistent sleep schedule. That means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. On weekends, you can vary your sleep schedule slightly, but try to keep the difference to one hour or less. Otherwise, staying up late and sleeping in on weekends can disrupt your body's circadian (sleep-wake) rhythms, giving you the equivalent of jet lag without ever leaving home.
#2. Make your bedroom a sleep-inducing sanctuary. It should be dark, quiet, and cool, with a comfortable, supportive mattress and bed pillows. To keep out unwanted light, consider installing blackout shades or heavy curtains. Block outside noise by installing double- or triple-pane windows, wearing earplugs, or using a "white noise" machine or one that generates soothing sounds that supposedly entrain your brain waves so you more easily reach delta (stage 3 or 4) sleep.
Keep the bedroom cool (many people prefer a temperature between 60 and 72 degrees) and well ventilated, using a fan if need be.
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#3. Expose yourself to natural light. Spending time outside, even on a cloudy day, will help keep your body's internal clock ticking properly and help you maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. It's best if you can expose yourself to natural light for at least 20 minutes first thing in the morning—by throwing open the curtains, sitting in a sunny window, or using a dawn simulator light or alarm clock.
#4. Steer clear of heavy meals in the evening. Having a large, spicy, rich, or fatty meal too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep and give you a whopping case of indigestion that keeps you up when you'd like to be snoozing.
It's best to finish dinner a few hours before bedtime; if you get hungry later in the evening, have a light snack with sleep-inducing foods that contain tryptophan (an amino acid the brain uses to make calming serotonin). Good choices include whole grain crackers and cheese, cereal and a glass of milk, or a handful of almonds and a banana. Having a cup of caffeine-free chamomile tea can also put you in the mood to snooze. (Avoid chamomile if you are allergic to ragweed; it could trigger a severe reaction. If you are, try another calming herb tea as a natural stress reliever.)
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#5. Avoid sneaky stimulants that interfere with sleep. As you probably know, caffeine can keep you up at night, which is why it's best to avoid having coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda four to six hours before bedtime. Similarly, the nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes can rev you up, so avoid smoking in the evenings if you do smoke.
While having a glass of wine or a cocktail (or two or three) can certainly make you sleepy, after a few hours of sleep, alcohol acts as a stimulant, leaving you susceptive to micro- (or full) arousals or awakenings and poorer overall quality sleep as the night goes on; this is another reason why it's best to limit alcohol consumption to no more than one or two drinks per day and to avoid it close to bedtime.
One of my patients is a 28-year-old fashion executive who sleeps 7 to 8 hours a night, which should be enough for many people her age, but she always feels exhausted. When we began discussing her lifestyle in detail, I discovered that she goes out to dinner then meets friends at bars or lounges almost every night; she typically has three or four cocktails each night, which she says doesn't make her feel intoxicated because she consumes them slowly over the course of several hours. She loves her lifestyle—and describes it as very Sex and the City—so it took some persuasion to convince her to try going two weeks without alcohol.
My suspicion was that the alcohol was disturbing her sleep as her body metabolized it, resulting in less restorative sleep or more micro-arousals and causing her to awaken in a state of mild dehydration in the morning. For two weeks, she became a teetotaler and reported that she slept more soundly than ever and her energy level doubled. Because she didn't want to give up her lifestyle, she decided to cut back on the frequency, rather than on the quantity, of her drinking so she could have several nights of "good sleep" per week—a change that improved her energy level overall.
#6. Exercise during the day. Playing sports or working out can set you up for a good night's sleep—but the timing matters for some people. It's best to finish vigorous workouts by late afternoon to give your body temperature, heart rate, and other functions enough time to drop, postexercise, to set the stage for sound slumber. In fact, the 2013 National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll, which included 1,000 adults between the ages of 23 and 60, found that people who exercise vigorously in the morning have the best sleep patterns, including better quality sleep and a lower likelihood of awakening feeling unrefreshed. It's fine to do relaxing exercises like yoga or simple stretches in the evening.
#7. Banish technology from your bedroom. Don't bring your laptop, your smartphone, or other high-tech gadgets to bed with you. The light alone from these devices can reset your body's internal clock; plus, using these devices tends to be stimulating, which isn't what you want before you turn in for the night. So unplug, shut it down, or turn it off. (Your bed partner will thank you.)
#8. Give yourself a chill-out period before bed. Avoid strenuous or stimulating activities or emotionally upsetting conversations in the hours before climbing into bed. Physically and psychologically stressful activities trigger the release of cortisol in your body, which increases alertness and arousal. Instead, establish a relaxing bedtime routine—taking a warm bath, doing some gentle stretches, listening to calming music, and the like—before going to bed. Also, be sure to dim the lights: Spending time in bright artificial light—from a TV or computer screen, for instance—tells your brain to stay alert rather than get sleepy.
#9. Be smart about napping. The truth is, napping can be a double-edged sword. Yes, a nap during the day may serve as a welcome pick-me-up, boosting energy, alertness, and productivity. But if you struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep at night, daytime napping will likely disturb your nighttime sleep patterns even more. If you do decide to nap, it's best to do it by mid-afternoon and limit it to no more than 30 minutes.
#10. Kick your pets out of bed. Research suggests that the number of people who let their pets sleep in their beds yet find their animals disturb their sleep is on the rise. As much as you love your dog or cat, it's not worth sacrificing precious sleep to be near your animal. Train your pet to sleep on his or her own bed on the floor—or outside your room.
Similarly, if your partner tosses and turns, kicks, snores, or otherwise disturbs your sleep on a regular basis, you may want to consider having separate beds. You can still have a strong, loving relationship without sleeping together; in fact, your relationship may even improve if you're both well rested.
#11. Get out of bed if you can't sleep. Don't lie awake counting sheep or worries or staring at the clock; get up, go to another room and read, or do something relaxing or monotonous until the mood to snooze returns. Otherwise, you could come to associate your bed with not sleeping—exactly what you don't want to happen!
Adapted from The Exhaustion Breakthrough