Last updated: May 04, 2008

If your sleep problem is primarily falling asleep or staying asleep at night, improving sleep hygiene could make a big difference. Before you consider prescription sleep aids or even over-the-counter medications, examine your lifestyle and see if any of these adjustments can be made.



Limit bedroom activities
If you have insomnia, your bedroom should be used for two things only: sleep and sex. "People should be conditioned to know that this is a place for sleeping, not for other non-sleeping activities," says Kenneth Lichstein, PhD, director of the Sleep Research Project at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

That means moving the TV, computer, knitting, unopened mail, exercise equipment, and anything else distracting out of the room. (If sex leaves you revved up instead of relaxed, you'll have to move that too.)

Set a sleep schedule
When you sleep irregular hours, your internal clock, known as circadian rhythm, gets knocked out of whack—and your body doesn't know when it's supposed to sleep. (This can be a big problem for shift workers and frequent long-distance fliers.) With a regular bedtime and wake-up time, your body's more likely to stay on track. Waking up to bright lights or sunlight also helps set your internal clock.

Don't go to bed until you're ready though. "Lying in bed when you're not sleepy is setting yourself up for failure," says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine. If you stay up later and restrict your sleep, you'll train your body to sleep when it's in bed. Then you can gradually start moving your bedtime earlier.

Eat a light snack
That old joke about Thanksgiving dinner putting you to sleep has some truth to it. Certain foods, such as turkey and dairy products, contain tryptophan, an amino acid that your body turns into sleep-promoting melatonin and serotonin.

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A nice light snack can sometimes induce sleepiness.
(123RF)
While eating a big meal before bedtime can make it harder to sleep, a light snack of cheese and crackers or yogurt may actually help.

Quit caffeine by noon
Cutting back on caffeine means more than just skipping your after-dinner espresso. Because caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours, you should really stop drinking soda, tea, and coffee—including decaf—before lunch, according to Jed Black, MD, director of the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic. (Labels can be deceiving, found a 2006 University of Florida study: Depending on the brand, five to 10 cups of decaf coffee can contain as much caffeine as a cup of regular.)

A caffeine buzz not only affects the amount of sleep you get, but also the quality. "If coffee is still in your system when you go to bed, your sleep is going to be lighter, more fragmented, and less restorative," says Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.