If you can not remember the last time you woke up feeling rested and refreshed, you are not alone. Many of us have trouble falling asleep or awaken during the night and can not go back to sleep. Women are more likely than men to have such insomnia.
Poor sleep takes a toll no matter what time of year it is. Sleep disruption produces fatigue, reduced functioning, impaired memory and lowered mood, among other problems. It is also associated with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, anxiety and depression.
Yet you can get more, and better, sleep without drugs by understanding your own sleep profile, adjusting some of your daily behavior patterns and making sleep-friendly nutritional choices.
"Behavioral treatments are usually more effective in treating insomnia long-term than medications," says Matthew R. Ebben, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in neurology, the Center for Sleep Medicine, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
"Managing what you do is the most important factor to help you sleep at night."
Know what you need
How often do you steal time from sleeping in order to catch up on work, house chores, family activities or just watch something entertaining on TV?
To make sure you are sleeping enough, you have to know your sleep need. That might not be the proverbial eight hours a night we always hear about. Individuals differ in the sleep duration that is right for them, as well as in how little sleep it takes to make them drowsy in the daytime.
"If you happen to be a 10-hour sleeper, the fact that there are some people who get along on five hours of sleep and feel fully rested does not help you. You are still going to need your 10 hours," Dr. Ebben says.
To find your sleep need, allow yourself to sleep and see how many hours it takes for you to feel refreshed. You might be so sleep-deprived that it will take some time to figure out your actual need. Use that number of hours to schedule a standard bedtime and wake time.
Keep to those times as consistently as possible, even on weekends. Staying up late and then sleeping to noon messes with your natural sleep-wake cycle as controlled by your circadian clock, which are set by sunlight. When your circadian rhythms shift, it is harder to fall asleep and wake up on schedule. If that pattern continues, you can develop a delayed sleep phase and become very sleep deprived.
Allowing more time than you need for sleep is not the answer. An eight-hour sleeper who stays in bed for 10 hours will get eight hours of fragmented sleep stretched over those 10 hours, Dr. Ebben explains. "They will not sleep longer than their sleep need."
Food timing matters, too
What you eat and drink influences how well your body gets ready for bed. If your habit is to have a late dinner and then go to sleep within an hour or two, the activity of digestion will keep your brain and body awake longer, says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, sports nutritionist and adjunct professor at the University of Miami.
"For your evening meal, you do not want to exceed 500 to 700 calories at least two hours before bedtime," Ms. Dorfman says. Avoid eating a lot of protein in that meal because protein contributes to alertness, she says. Carbohydrates, which tend to have a calming effect, are a better choice.
You might want to re-think that brownie after dinner or late afternoon cup of tea as well. People with sleep problems who drink caffeinated coffee, tea or soda, or eat chocolate (which contains caffeine) ought to eliminate, or reduce, their caffeine intake. Caffeine stays in your system for up to seven hours and may keep you alert for 20 hours.
It also stimulates restless leg syndrome, a condition that can cause insomnia and makes it hard to fall asleep, Dr. Ebben says. If you do not want to give up caffeine entirely, Ms. Dorfman recommends timing your consumption to end by midday.
Does a full bladder regularly wake you up at night? It helps to time your last beverage for about three hours before bedtime. Even if you do not have that problem, forget the night cap. Alcohol may make you drowsy at first, but it causes fragmented or light sleep once your body starts metabolizing it.