No one knows precisely why we sleep. But we do need sleep. Without it we will die. Yet many aspects of American life get in the way of a nice, restful sleep. Modern electronics seduce us into staying up late. The stress of daily life can cause us to toss and turn as we try to go to sleep, or after we wake up in the night. The expanding obesity rate means more Americans suffer from sleep apnea and other nighttime disturbances.
In a 2011 survey more than half of Americans complained that they experience sleep problems on a regular basis. The results can be dangerous. One out of 20 adults admitted they had dozed off while driving a car during the previous month.
Professor Till Roenneberg, in his book Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag and Why You're So Tired, blames the workplace for many of our sleep problems. Some people, called "larks," naturally go to bed early and get up early, while "owls" go to bed late and like to sleep in. But whether we're larks or owls, most of us are forced to sleep around our daily work schedule or school day. Teenagers are notorious owls, but most high schools begin classes early in the day, which contributes to poor school performance.
With all these impediments, how is a person supposed to get enough sleep? Here are a few tips from the experts:
Get some exercise. If you feel tired during the day, do not sit around and do nothing. Go work up a sweat. It will wake you up for a few hours, then make you sleepy later on when it's time for bed.
Do not nap. True, some lucky people can catnap during the day without affecting their sleep schedule. But if you are having trouble getting to sleep at night, stay awake during the day. Don't close your eyes while watching TV or reading the newspaper.
Make dinner your main meal. Eating a light breakfast and lunch will help you stay alert during the day. A big meal at night will help you get to sleep. But don't eat right before bedtime. Give yourself a couple of hours so your digestive system is ready for sleep as well.
Don't do anything too stimulating. Wind down and relax for at least an hour before bedtime. Taking a warm bath can help ease tension and soothe muscles. A shower tends to wake you up.
Set the environment. Most people sleep best in a cool room where the air is not too dry. Opening a window at night can help on both counts. You may want to use a humidifier, which also produces a white noise that some people find helpful.
Go to bed at the same time every night. You want to develop a routine. Walk the dog, brush your teeth, read a chapter of a book, and then turn out the light. You have a ritual for dinnertime that helps trigger your appetite. You should develop a ritual for bedtime to help you feel sleepy.
Make a list. If you're fretting over some issue, or constantly reviewing things you have to do the next day, write down your concerns on a piece of paper or computer file. Once you've recorded your to-do list, give yourself permission to stop worrying about it.
Warm milk. Milk has an essential amino acid, tryptophan, which stimulates the brain chemical serotonin, believed to play a key role in inducing sleep. But avoid alcohol. It might help you get to sleep, but will likely result in a shallow and disturbed sleep cycle—not to mention a headache in the morning.
Do not oversleep. Try to get up at the same time every morning, even if you couldn't get to sleep the night before. Sleeping late resets your body clock and makes it more difficult to get to sleep the next night. So don't try to catch up on sleep over the weekend. And if you wake up early, consider that maybe you've slept enough. Get up and start your day. Do not take a nap. Then that evening start your regular bedtime ritual. Chances are, you'll sleep just fine.
Still can't sleep? Don't lie in bed and get mad. Haul yourself out of bed, go into another room, and engage in some quiet activity. No, not the TV, which is more likely to wake you up than put you to sleep. Take up your knitting, start drawing, or play your guitar. Or try that old faithful: read a book.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.