12 Ways To Beat Insomnia and Sleep Better–No Matter What’s Keeping You Awake

by | March 5, 2012 at 1:22 PM | Health

(iStockphoto)

By Deborah L. Jacobs, Forbes Staff

It’s no secret that we work better, feel better and make smarter financial decisions when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. But this being National Sleep Awareness Week, we can expect a rude awakening between now and Friday to a bunch of other sleep-related facts like these:

- Most of us get less than the 8 hours of sleep per night that research shows we need to function at our peak.
- As a result, we are at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes, Type II diabetes, cancer, and shortened lifespan.
- After 17 to 19 hours without sleep, our brain activity is similar to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 (0.08 is the legal limit for intoxication in most states).
- Sleep debt, like credit-card debt, is cumulative. You can’t correct the problem by banking sleep on the weekend.
And now for some really depressing news: 65% of us will have trouble sleeping tonight and be exhausted tomorrow.

My source for this information is Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep But Are Too Tired to Ask, a book by James Maas and Rebecca Robbins that delivers on its promise.

A variety of factors cause us to lose sleep. Work-related stress, financial worries and troubles at home all keep us awake at night. Perhaps I’ve even done my part to foster insomnia, with articles like: “The ‘No Unemployed Need Apply’ Problem,” “Insurance Agents Charged In $100 Million Fraud Scheme,” “Costa Shipwreck Survivors Can Sue For Being Scared To Death,” “American Airlines Layoffs Don’t Bode Well For Frequent Flyers,” “What The Mortgage Relief Plan Would Do For Homeowners,” and “Why Rich Kids Cheat On The SAT.”

As for the last item on this list, parents know that losing sleep over our kids is part of the job description. I was surprised to hear from Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants, that she wrote the novel while her baby napped (see my interview with her here).

When my son was an infant, my motto was “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Now that my son is a teenager, there is even less overlap in our waking hours: growth hormones being what they all are, his most alert time of the day is at midnight, when I prefer to be deep in slumber.

Spouses with body clocks set to different rhythms disturb each other with nocturnal and early diurnal comings and goings. In response to a recent post I wrote about how to harness your most productive times at work, Wendy S. Goffe, a trusts and estates lawyer with Graham & Dunn in Seattle, sent an email noting the effect on her personal life of being a morning person.

“For the most part we miss out on the big events. The Northern Lights, meteor showers and Pearl Jam showing up at the bar around the corner from my house never happens in the morning–ever,” she wrote. “The one advantage we have over night owls is that secretly, we are thrilled when the only reservation at the newest ‘it’ restaurant is at 5 p.m., and we enjoy our meal while our friends are afraid to be seen out such an hour. The humiliation is that the babysitter usually has a whole night of plans ahead of her when we get home.”

Goffe also raised an issue that I bet keeps many couples awake at night: “What do you do when you are married to a night owl and want to go to bed at 8 p.m.?”

“That’s a wonderful question,” says Maas, a psychologist who has spent most of his 40-year career encouraging people to get more sleep. The lark married to an owl must do whatever’s necessary to block out the light and the noise, he says. That might include using earplugs or running a fan or white noise machine in the bedroom. (There are iPhone and iPad apps designed for this purpose.) You also may have to lay down some rules—for example by saying, “If you’re going to be up at this hour, I don’t want to hear the TV. I need my sleep. Don’t bother me.”

No matter what keeps you awake at night, in their book Maas and his co-author offer these other suggestions for how to get a better night’s sleep.

1. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. That includes weekends. By sticking to a schedule you’ll be significantly more alert than if you slept for the same total amount of time at varying hours during the week.

2. Sleep in one continuous block. So-called “fragmented sleep” causes daytime drowsiness, compromises learning, memory, productivity, and creativity. “In fact, six hours of continuous sleep are often more restorative than eight hours of fragmented sleep.”

3. Make up for lost sleep as soon as possible. Catch up by going to bed earlier rather than sleeping later. If you sleep later, it will make it harder to get to sleep the following night at the usual hour.

You can also repay your sleep debt by napping—just don’t nap for too long or too late in the day, or you’ll further disturb your sleep cycle. And don’t try to make up for large sleep losses during the week by sleeping in on the weekend. “This is like trying to get fit or lose weight by doing all your exercising or dieting on Saturdays and Sundays.”

4. Avoid caffeine after 2:00 p.m. Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which means that six hours after your last sip, half the caffeine is still in your body. This liquid stimulant can lead to a vicious cycle: “After a poor night’s sleep, you have no choice but to rely on more caffeine to get you through the next day. Then, when it’s time to go to bed, your heart is racing, you can’t sleep, you wake up exhausted in the morning, and you reach for more caffeine.”

5. Avoid alcohol three hours before bed. Alcohol may help you doze off, but it also causes you to wake up every 90 minutes, so throughout the night you’ll be continually shaken and stirred.

6. Exercise between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. Avoid strenuous exercise within three hours of going to bed; exercise elevates core body temperature for five to six hours. In order to feel drowsy, body temperature needs to be dropping.

7. Keep your bedroom cool. The ideal sleeping temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. A bedroom that’s too warm can induce nightmares. One that’s too cool keeps your body from fully relaxing because it’s trying to protect its core temperature.

8. Dim the lights. Bright light wakes you up. So avoid it before you go to sleep and if you wake up during the night.

9. Eject electronics. “This means no computers, TVs, iPads, iPods, or Blackberrys in the bedroom. They create distractions by reminding you of everything else you should be doing and act as secret stressors.”

10. Read for pleasure (nothing work related). Reading for 30 minutes cuts the time it takes to fall asleep in half.

11. Protect your privacy. Banish children and pets from spending the entire night in bed with you.

12. Wind down. Your body “needs a buffer between the day’s stress and the night’s rest.” A light snack, a warm bath or light exercise (for example, yoga poses) can all help you erase the day’s stress. If you toss and turn or wake up during the night and can’t fall back to sleep, get out of bed. “Do anything that is relaxing, moderately boring, or doesn’t require concentration. Usually it will take 15 to 20 minutes for your body to feel sleepy again, at which point you can return to the bedroom.”

To be fully awake and energized all day, you’ll probably have to add an hour to your current sleep schedule, Maas says. Next week, there’s one more thing that will set you back in that goal: Sunday, March 11, 2012, is the beginning of Daylight Saving Time. At 2:00 a.m. on that day, we will set our clocks ahead by an hour. And that means we will lose yet another hour of sleep.

Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist and a lark, is the author of Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. You can follow her articles on Forbes by clicking the red plus sign or the blue Facebook “subscribe” button to the right of her picture above any post. She is also on Twitter.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

Forbes