34 Sleep Hacks for Your Most Restful Night Ever
How to fall asleep
It's pretty much impossible to slip into slumber on command. "Sleep is not an on-off switch," says Michael Breus, PhD, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor's 4-week program to Better Sleep and Better Health ($15; amazon.com)."It's like slowly taking the foot off the gas and putting on the break—there's a process that has to occur." One hour before bed, begin to gradually power down. Spend 20 minutes preparing for the next day—making lunches, laying out clothes. Spend the next 20 minutes washing up and getting into PJs, and then use the last 20 minutes for some type of soothing activity that brings on the z's.
No matter how tempting it may be to sleep in on weekends, it's better to wake up at your normal time. "This is so important," says Cathy Goldstein, MD, neurologist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Michigan. "If we shift our sleep and wake times later—for example, sleeping 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., during the week and 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. during the weekends—we push our internal clock later, then come Monday morning it's like we've flown from California to New York over the weekend—we have social jet lag." As a bonus, if you get up at the same time every single day you may stop needing an alarm clock. (Or at least you'll grope for the snooze button less.)
Go to the dark side
Reinforce this sleep pattern using darkness and light, advises Lawrence Epstein, MD, author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep: starting at dinnertime to mimic the sunset outside, which will promote the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Then sleep in total darkness. In the morning, expose yourself to bright light to shut down melatonin production and rev your body for daytime. In a 2015 study from University of Washington that compared two modern hunter-gatherer cultures—one with access to electricity and one without—the culture without electricity slept an extra hour each night on average because they got sleepy when the sun went down and didn't use artificial light to delay sleep.
Create a sleep sanctuary
Make your bedroom a haven for sleep: Feather your nest with soft sheets, warm blankets and a pillow that provides adequate support for your regular sleep position. Block out as much light as possible using blackout shades or other heavy curtains because light can be detected even through closed eyelids—and the brain won't produce melatonin if it's confused between day and night. And seriously, banish the TV. "Too many of our patients are doing everything in bed except sleeping," says Samuel L. Krachman, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. "They're watching TV in bed, which is bad because you start associating the bedroom with things other than sleep and romance." You should also remove all devices that could beep, ping, or buzz in the night, disturbing your slumber.
Keep it cool
During sleep, our core body temperature dips, allowing us to slip into restorative REM and slow-wave sleep. A 2012 study confirms that when we crank up the heat, we wake up more often and sleep less deeply. "Heat can delay sleep and lead to sleep fragmentation," says Ana Krieger, MD, medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Keep the thermostat a couple degrees cooler than during the day, about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ban stress in the bedroom
If your nightstand is piled high with professional journals to read or student papers to grade, we're talking to you. Physical reminders of work pressures will not do you any favors in the sleep department. "I keep anything that is activating or potentially stressful out of the bedroom," says Dr. Goldstein, noting that any kind of clutter can be stressful. "I find a neat sleep space is key to allowing me to turn off my thoughts and wind down at night. No computer, desk or paperwork can be found in my bedroom." That also means relocating any items that remind you of unfinished projects, like the tool kit for fixing the bathroom lock that's been broken for 8 months and the shopping bags awaiting return.
Impose a kitchen curfew
It's a good idea to close the kitchen well before lights out. "If dinner is your largest meal of the day, make sure it's at least two the three hours before bedtime," says Dr. Krieger, or you could force your digestive system to work overtime in a way that keeps you up. This is especially true with meals that are large, spicy, rich, or fatty, which can exacerbate acid reflux, another sleep-buster.
If your stomach is growling late at night, that could interfere with sleep, too, so snacks are okay as long as you choose wisely. Bypass the leftover pizza and Chinese food and opt for foods with the dynamic duo of tryptophan, an amino acid the brain uses to make sleep-inducing serotonin, and carbohydrates, which will make the tryptophan more available to your brain. Try whole grain crackers and peanut butter, cereal with almond milk or yogurt, or a handful of almonds and a banana.
"Stress and anxiety can play a big role in insomnia," Dr. Bae says. To quiet the mental noise, consider meditation. Research from the British Psychological Society has found that mindfulness meditation, which helps you become aware of your thoughts and emotions in a positive way, can reduce the kind of ruminating that keeps us up at night. A 2011 study found mindfulness-based stress reduction, a similar type of meditation, to be as effective as a prescription drug in a small group of people with insomnia. Check out the great collection of sleep apps on iTunes, including Mindfulness Meditation by Stephan Bodian, author of Meditation for Dummies, or try this sleep meditation with Deepak Chopra, M.D..
Strike a pose
If meditation isn't shushing your monkey mind, don't worry: It's really your body—your breathing and heart rate specifically—that have to slow. "You can't enter into a state of unconsciousness if your heart is racing," Breus says. Certain yoga moves can put your mind at ease, steady your breath, and reduce muscle tension without revving up the heart. Lauren Imparato, author of the February 2016 book RETOX: Yoga*Food*Attitude Healthy Solutions for Real Life ($12; amazon.com) recommends the gentle, restorative "Legs Up the Wall" pose: Lie on the bed, bringing your butt to the wall. Lift your legs up onto the wall, with feet touching or flopped out to the sides. Open your arms wide, palms up, keeping your shoulders back and your chest open. Close your eyes and inhale through your nose while slowly counting to four, then exhale while counting back down to one. Continue for 10 minutes or until you feel fully relaxed.
Watch those beverages
No one takes a shot of espresso before bed and then expects to doze off. But drinking caffeinated beverages in the afternoon can also sabotage sleep. According to new UK findings, caffeine not only gives us a jolt of energy but actually delays the circadian clock that tells us when to get ready for sleep and when to prepare to wake up. Beware of caffeine hiding in some of your favorite non-java drinks, including some "herbal teas" that actually contain black, green, or white tea, bottled Kombucha tea, Snapple iced teas, flavored waters, and even orange soda, root beer, and cream sodas. Check the labels and plan to stop sipping any drinks with caffeine for four to six hours before lights out, so the effects have plenty of time to wear off.
Skip the nightcap
Yes, red wine is chock-full of healthful antioxidants, may protect your heart, and can mellow you out after a tough day. But if you toast too close to bedtime, you could ruin the second half of your sleep cycle. That's because alcohol's sedative effects wear off after a few hours, increasing the chance you'll wake up and decreasing the amount of time you spend in a deep sleep, says John E. Brown, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. If you like an adult beverage in the evening, have it with dinner, and drink in moderation, so it'll be out of your system by the time you're ready to turn in.
Step away from the screen
Yes, we're giving your electronics a curfew. About an hour before lights out, say goodnight to all your devices—TV, computer, smartphone, and tablet. "Our body's internal clock is highly sensitive to the blue spectrum light emitted by the screens," says Dr. Goldstein, because it sends a signal to the brain that it's daytime. A recent Harvard University study showed that screen time before bed suppresses melatonin secretion, makes falling asleep take longer, and leaves you feeling less alert the next morning. If you must email, Facetime, or catch up on Homeland before bed, Dr. Krieger suggests wearing goggles that filter out the blue light to reduce its stimulating effect.
Studies show that people sleep better and feel more alert during the day if they work out regularly—but timing matters. If you try to hop into a bed still sticky from a long or super-intense workout, you'll probably be too jacked up to sleep, thanks to the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that also makes you feel alert. Dr. Krieger recommends ending exercise sessions three hours before bedtime. If you must work out in the p.m., consider lower-impact exercises like yoga, Pilates, or tai chi.
Upgrade from warm milk
Remember the storybook bedtime beverage? Don't drink it, as grandma advised, because its high sugar content will spike your cortisol. For a grown-up version, Breus recommends his own recipe for banana tea. "Bananas have a large amount magnesium, which is incredibly calming," he says. The secret is in the peel, where there's three times the amount of magnesium as in the fruit, plus antioxidants that increase absorption. Take a banana with the peel on and cut off the tips. Boil it in four cups of for five to six minutes, then steep for another five minutes. Add honey and cinnamon to taste. Hate bananas? Brew some decaffeinated green tea, which contains the relaxing agent L-theanine, or try passionfruit tea, which contains chemicals called harman alkaloids that work on the nervous system to make you feel sleepy, according to an Australian study.
Cue up some tranquilizing tunes—whether it's jazz, classical, new age, world, or the latest from Adele. Soft, calming music has been shown to not only help you fall asleep, but also improve the length and depth of your sleep, likely by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure. In a 2013 review of previously published studies, music improved sleep quality among people with chronic sleep disorders, and the benefits increased over time. Choose a soothing music app that matches your taste or try Pandora's classical music station, as that genre—specifically, works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Bach, has been shown to slow brainwaves and put listeners in a meditative mood.
A hot soak in the bathtub is incredibly relaxing—but beyond that, baths can manipulate our body temperature in a way that prepares us for sleep. "A hot bath may promote sleep because our core body temperature rises and then falls when we step out, mimicking what happens naturally when we get drowsy," Dr. Bae says.
Grab a page-turner
Good old-fashioned reading can help you relax, in part because getting engrossed in a story frees your mind from the clutches of day-to-day stresses. But sorry, your Kindle doesn't count. In a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paperback readers were found to fall asleep 10 minutes earlier than people who got their lit fix from a digital download. So whether you choose a somber biography or rollicking pulp fiction, just make sure it's a page-turner, literally.
Use common scents
You may have a signature scent for daytime, but come evening, try spritzing lavender. In one small study at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, people who sniffed the essential oil before bed slumbered more deeply and reported feeling more energetic the following morning. And in other small studies from England and Korea, the herb has helped people with mild insomnia. More research is needed to determine whether lavender really does help with drifting into dreamland, but in the meantime, it's easy enough to try sprinkling a drop or two of essential oil on a tissue and placing it under your pillow.
Block out noise
Background sounds at night—buses, train whistles, cars driving by, clanging radiators, doors closing, or your neighbor's TV—may not be loud enough to wake you up, but they can rouse you out of deep, restorative sleep. Nighttime noise has also been shown to raise your blood pressure, even during sleep, triggering the release of stress hormones, according to a European study. While the researchers tested participants living near airports, other sounds, such as traffic and snoring, can have a similar effect. Consider drowning them out with a fan or white noise—or better, pink noise, which is less harsh. In a 2013 study, 75% of people who listened to pink noise slept more restfully compared to people who slept with no noise. The researchers say it slows and regulates brain waves for deeper sleep.
Kick out the dog
As much as you love to snuggle with Spot (or Mittens), animals in the bed can deprive you of shut-eye. A 2015 Mayo Clinic poll found that 20% of pet owners believe their animal disturbs their slumber—mostly by snoring, wandering, and whimpering. On the other hand, the same study found that some pet owners sleep better with a pet—because it makes them feel more safe and secure. Bottom line: Evaluate your pet's effect on your sleep by comparing how you feel after a few nights with Fido versus a few nights without. "Everyone has a different tolerance level for pets in the bedroom, so both bed partners must agree on who gets to sleep where," says Dr. Breus. "If pets don't disturb anyone's sleep, then there's usually no harm."
A 2014 poll found that some one in six people nod off more quickly after sex—for so many reasons. Not only can the physical and emotional intimacy help quell feelings of anxiety and depression that could otherwise keep you up, but having an orgasm triggers the release of snooze-friendly hormones: Prolactin promotes relaxation and drowsiness, oxytocin lowers output of the stress hormone cortisol, and according to a research review in the Journal of Women's Health, kicked-up estrogen enhances the REM cycle for deeper sleep. As a bonus, sleep also enhances sex, per a 2015 study: After getting just one extra hour of sleep for two weeks, female participants had a higher libido and a 14% greater chance of having sex the next day.
If cold feet keep you up at night, don a pair of warm, soft socks. (We like wool, cashmere, or fleece.) According to the National Sleep Foundation, heating cold feet causes dilation of the blood vessels, which may signal to the brain that it's bedtime. The more dilation you have in your hands and feet, the faster you can drift off.
Leave your troubles behind
Most days, we don't give ourselves permission to stop, think, and process what's happened during the day. "So guess when most people end up doing that? At night, when it's quiet and the lights are turned out," says Deirdre Conroy, PhD, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Michigan Health System. Conroy recommends allotting time during the day—it can be just 15 minutes, at least two hours before bed, to make a "worry" list and come up with possible solutions to your concerns. "This way, you have at least begun to acknowledge all of those racing thoughts before bedtime," she says.
You've probably heard the advice, "Never go to bed angry," and it's good for more than just a happy marriage. A 2015 study in the journal PLOS One showed that emotions, specifically negative ones, reduce REM sleep, the phase of sleep during which memories are consolidated and there's a mental reset. Take some time before your Power Down Hour to make peace—or at least agree to table the conflict that could otherwise zap your Z's.
Play a game
If your brain is still really fired up right before bed, distract it with a task: Challenge yourself to think of as many sleep-related words—like cozy, resting, and relaxed—as possible. In a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, people who came up with restful words slept some 62% longer than their counterparts who didn't. If you're more of a math person, Breus suggests counting backward from 300 by threes. "It's so doggone boring that you fall asleep," he says.
Hypnosis (or hypnotherapy) has amazing powers when it comes to sleep. In a 2014 study in the journal Sleep, women who listened to a sleep-promoting audio tape containing hypnotic suggestions cut back their awake time by two-thirds, and spent about 80% more time in deep sleep compared to women who didn't get hypnotic suggestion. To sample hypnotherapy at home, try an app like Sleep Deeply, which was designed by hypnotherapists.
Check your medicine cabinet
Certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs can sabotage your sleep. "Some medications act like stimulants for the brain, so be careful when taking them too late in the afternoon," Dr. Krieger says. Common culprits include pseudoephedrine (a decongestant), bronchodilators (for asthma), beta blockers (for cardiac issues), certain antidepressants, amphetamines (sometimes used to treat ADHD, obesity, and narcolepsy), some blood pressure medications, and anti-cholinergics (used for asthma, incontinence, and muscle spasms). Don't quit these meds without talking to your doctor first—you may be able to switch to an a.m. dose that won't interfere with sleep.
Taking melatonin may help you get back on a good sleep cycle, Dr. Bae says. In a 2013 research review, melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that sets our sleep-wake cycles, helped people fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and improved their sleep quality. Dr. Bae recommends 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams 2 hours before bedtime. You'll see other herbal sleep aids on the market, such as valerian and L-Theanine, but evidence for treating insomnia is inconclusive, and you must talk to your doctor before taking herbs to ensure they will not interact with medications you may be taking.
Silence the snoring
If you snore or wake up with a headache or dry mouth, you could have sleep apnea, which significantly dings your sleep quality. Treatments range from low-tech—raising the back of your bed by two inches or sleeping on your side—to CPAP, where a face mask is used to deliver mild air pressure while you sleep, or a dental device that repositions your jaw and tongue to keep the airway open. Losing weight helps, too. If it's your partner who's sawing wood while your trying to snooze, send him in for treatment or pop in a good pair of earplugs before climbing into bed.
Stick to a schedule
According to W. Chris Winter, MD, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, one key to better sleep is waking up at the same time every day (weekends included—sorry!).
"Our circadian rhythm relies on time cues," Dr. Winter explained to Health in an email. "Keeping a consistent wake-up time helps your brain understand not only when the day begins, but also anticipate when it will end." Translation: Rising and shining at the same time each day can help you doze off around the same time each night, too.
You’re probably not going to fall asleep while watching a thriller. "Most people find it easier to fall asleep when their mind is calm," says Dr. Winter. "For some, disturbing images or unsettling content can create anxiety which may prolong sleep onset." Instead, do something before bed that will soothe you, such reading an ultra-dense historical biography or listening to a guided meditation to prep your mind and body for rest.