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8 Ways to Sleep Better

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Imagine this: You're lying in bed, blissfully cocooned in your sheets. You've awakened not because an alarm clock has gone off or the kids are jumping on you like a trampoline but because you feel...completely refreshed. If this sounds like a fantasy, it shouldn't. "Good sleep is not a luxury," says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, co-author of Sleep for Success! "It's a necessity." Yes, you can feel happier, more energized and sharp all day. Put the following myths to bed and make the slumber of your dreams a reality—tonight.

MYTH: Never sleep with pets.

FACT: Some pet owners say sleeping with a furry friend offers a sense of security and comfort, according to a recent report by the Mayo Clinic. If yours isn't keeping you awake with snoring or bed hogging, cuddle on.

MYTH: I'll be a wreck tomorrow if I don't sleep tonight.

FACT: Don't worry about it. Seriously, don't. Resting in bed is very similar to sleep in terms of recharging your batteries. "Even if you wind up resting all night, you'll feel pretty good in the morning," says W. Christopher Winter, MD, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. Just avoid staring at the clock thinking about all the tasks you won't accomplish tomorrow unless you zonk out right this second. If you remain calm and continue relaxing, you might drift off more quickly.

MYTH: You can train yourself to need less sleep.

FACT: Sure, you'd be superwoman if you could function on just a few hours of shut-eye. Unfortunately, this is the real world—even Beyoncé needs sleep. If you're shortchanging yourself night after night, you may think you're functioning fine—you might even feel good!—but that's your brain playing tricks on you. Your cognitive capabilities are actually slower, although you don't realize it because you're so exhausted, explains Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Most adults need seven to eight hours a night for optimal performance and to reduce the risk for diseases associated with a lack of sleep, such as diabetes and obesity.

MYTH: It's fine to hit the snooze for a bit more sleep.

FACT: If you set your alarm for 6 a.m. and hit the snooze until 6:20, the extra 20 minutes seems like a heavenly win. It's not. For one, your alarm may have pulled you out of a restorative REM cycle. Plus any sleep you get in between snooze buttons will be light and fragmented—not restful and restorative—explains Robbins, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Medicine. That's why you still feel groggy even when you snag a few more minutes. The fix: Robbins recommends setting your alarm to the latest possible time. "Then get out of bed and start your day," she says.

MYTH: You can't catch up on sleep.

FACT: There will be days when you get no zzz's, leaving you walking around like a zombie. Many experts are cruel enough to say you shouldn't sleep in on the weekend, but here's your license to stay put: Extra rest after deprivation has been shown to improve your health. In a recent study, when adults were restricted to just 4.5 hours of sleep for four nights, their insulin sensitivity dropped 23%. Long story short: Sleep debt impedes your insulin control and ups your risk of diabetes. But when those people slept for about 10 hours a night over the weekend, their insulin function returned to normal. "You shouldn't make catching up a habit," warns study author Josiane Broussard, PhD, of the University of Colorado. "But if you can't get consistent rest during the week, it's important to make sleep a priority over the weekend."

MYTH: A short daytime nap isn't worth it.

FACT: Anyone who can squeeze in a half hour of shut-eye and feels the need should pull a blanket over their head and go for it. A short power nap can enhance your performance, alertness and attention. "It can be good for you, as long as you don't have insomnia," reveals Mayo Clinic sleep specialist Lois Krahn, MD. (People who have trouble falling asleep at night should try to save their zzz's for bedtime.) Otherwise, let yourself recharge—but sneak in that snooze before 3 p.m. When you fall asleep too close to bedtime, it's harder to drift off at night.

MYTH: A sleeping pill is the best quick fix.

FACT: Lying in bed awake may seem worse than missing an episode of Modern Family. But meds aren't always the answer. "Chronic trouble sleeping is a sign that you need to see a doctor to seek help for your insomnia," explains Zee. In fact, new guidelines from the American College of Physicians suggest that insomniacs try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) before taking a drug because medication can come with side effects. (Besides, if you just take a drug, once you go off it, your insomnia could return.) For CBT, a doctor might give you a set bedtime, provide coaching to relieve a racing mind, offer relaxation techniques or suggest a combination approach to get you the rest you need.

MYTH: Women don't get sleep apnea.

FACT: Eighteen million American adults have sleep apnea. And while it's more prevalent in men, as women approach menopause our rates start to catch up to theirs. But we don't want to hear it. "Women often don't believe it or get upset if their husbands tell them they snore, which is one sign of sleep apnea," reveals Krahn. Don't be embarrassed. "You're better off accepting it and getting help rather than insisting it can't be true," says Krahn. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding alcohol before bed reduces snoring. A dental device or slumbering on your side or stomach can also help.

SLEEP LIKE A PRO

How experts get a good night's rest—and pop out of bed in the morning.

I Chill Out: "I use a fan at night. The body cools down naturally in preparation for sleep, and sleeping in a cool room can help. Plus the hum is a nice relaxing white noise." —Cathy Goldstein, MD, sleep specialist at the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Centers

I Shorten My List: "I prioritize all my to-dos into what must be done tonight and what I'd like to get done. If the dishes aren't put away, I'd rather go to bed at my usual time and deal with them in the morning, when I'm well-rested." —Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine, Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, Montefiore Medical Center

I Snag Snuggle Time: "I cuddle with my wife. Being close to a loved one releases oxytocin, a hormone that decreases anxiety and promotes relaxation." —Robert Rosenberg, DO, author of The Doctor's Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety

I Practice Visualization: "Before bed, I vividly imagine big goals. It helps to focus on something pleasant instead of worries. You might think about running a marathon or finding your ideal romantic partner. Whatever you picture, make sure it's enjoyable and relaxing." —Steve Orma, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of the e-book Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good

I Soak Up the Sun: "As soon as I wake up, I get 10 minutes of sunlight. I'll either walk the dog outside or stand by my window and drink a glass of water. Sunlight helps shut off melatonin production, so it makes me less groggy." —Michael Breus, PhD, board-certified sleep specialist and author of The Power of When

SECRETS TO GETTING MORE SLEEP

You told us what's keeping you awake. We got experts to escort you to dreamland.

"Night is my only me time. I get sucked into TV until 2 a.m." —Kellie Samson, 40

"Never stay up late for something you wouldn't get up early for," says W. Christopher Winter, MD, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. It's perfectly fine to spend a little time before bed watching TV, as long as you stick to programs that help you relax (no scary stuff or political commentary). Then designate a cutoff time before you start to watch the House Hunters International marathon—and stick to it.

"I wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. and can't go back to sleep." —Kelly Vogt Campbell, 40

If this is something that happens night after night, get out of bed rather than tossing and turning, says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, co-author of Sleep for Success! Do anything mindless from folding clothes to washing dishes. Go to bed when you're absolutely tired and you'll slip into a deep sleep.

"My mind races at night. I can be up for hours." —Sarah Corbin, 42

Keep paper by your bed and write down the to-dos that pop into your head. After you make your list, repeat to yourself, "Now's not the time to solve this problem. I'll get to that tomorrow," advises Mayo Clinic sleep specialist Lois Krahn, MD. Also try listening to a podcast—something calming like learning about cherry blossoms in Japan—to distract yourself from drop-off schedules.

"I get caught up scrolling on Facebook and Instagram right before bed." —Eileen Romito, 32

The blue light from your phone discourages melatonin release, keeping your brain in "awake party mode," explains Robbins. Plus studies show social media doesn't make you feel good. Looking at pictures of people having a great time while you're in your PJs with eye cream all over your face isn't the best mood booster. Instead, unplug from all electronics—keep your phone across the room or in Do Not Disturb mode—and save the scrolling for mindless moments in the afternoon.

PILLOW TALK

Choosing the right pillow shouldn't be a pain in the neck. So we asked Family Circle staffers to try out more than a dozen brands to narrow down the options. Before you buy any pillow, ask yourself these three questions suggested by Michael Breus, PhD, sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan. Then consider our top-rated choices.

  1. What position do you start sleeping in? Side sleepers need a thicker pillow (about 5 to 6 inches) to maintain proper body alignment. Those who prefer catching zzz's on their back or stomach should look for a 1- to 2-inch fill.
  2. Do you prefer solid (like memory foam) or soft (such as down)?
  3. Do you have neck or back pain? If so, it's best to look for a cushion with a contoured shape, which offers more support.

Ideally, you want to lie on a mattress to test a pillow. If that's not an option, place one of these editors' picks against a wall to see if you love it as much as we did.

Contoured Therapedic Invista Memorelle Fiber Side Sleeper and Stomach/Back Sleeper Pillows (bedbathandbeyond.com, from $40) provide a memory foam–like feel and are allergy-friendly. One tester described them as "firm and supportive, yet cozy."

The silky fill and cotton cover of the Casper Pillow (casper.com, from $75) provides breathability and comfort. "It's super cuddly and soft" and "heavenly," staffers said.

Stay cool with the Hydraluxe Gel Dual- Sided Cooling Pillow (bedbathandbeyond .com, $60), which transfers heat away from your body, "feels luxurious" and is "the perfect combo of firm and soft," according to testers. —Mallory Creveling