We asked two top sleep experts to weigh in with their best tips on how to sleep better. (Spoiler: the path to dreamland starts first thing in the morning.)
If getting a good night's sleep were as easy as donning some fuzzy socks and drawing the shades, insomnia wouldn't be a billion dollar a year business. (According to Consumer Reports, Americans spent an estimated $41 billion on sleep aids in 2015 alone—a figure that's expected to jump to $52 billion by 2020.) The reality is, between fussy kids, demanding jobs, and whatever bit of Netflix brilliance we're binge-watching at the moment, most of us rely on caffeine and luck to get us through the average day. Here, two of the nation's top sleep experts weigh in with their best tips for getting a solid night's slumber (spoiler: the path to dreamland starts first thing in the morning).
1. Set a consistent wake-up time. That hour can be arbitrary, but you're up and at 'em at that precise time seven days a week. "Even if you wake up at two a.m. three nights in a row and can't fall back to sleep, your wake-up time is set in stone," says W. Christopher Winter, MD, D-ABSM, President of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. By working backward from your morning alarm, soon your body will tell you exactly when it's time to go to bed.
2. Expose yourself to bright, natural light the minute you wake up. "This turns off the melatonin fountain in your brain and signals the body that it's time to be alert," says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a.k.a. "The Sleep Doctor," author of The Power of When. If your pre-set wake-up time is before the sun comes up, both doctors recommend swapping out some of your regular light bulbs with special LED bulbs that help suppress melatonin production. "For under $50 with Amazon Prime they'll be at your house tomorrow and even your infants will sleep better," Winter explains. [Scrambles to Amazon and orders multiple sets.]
3. Down a massive glass of water first thing. During the course of an average night, most people lose the equivalent of a liter of water just through respiration, Breus explains. Translation: we basically wake up already dehydrated. (This is also why we weigh less in the morning. #MindBlown.) "Between gulps, taking deep rejuvenating breaths will get your respiratory system going, give you energy, and aid in weight loss," Breus explains. As importantly, you're setting the stage for successfully falling asleep later by helping your internal clock regulate periods of wakefulness and sleepiness.
4. Change the way you shower. Stand in the shower with your face pointing directly at the spigot, so that the water is pounding you square in the forehead and running down your face. "This forces you to breathe through your mouth slowly and deliberately which is very invigorating," explains Breus. Lowering the temperature at the end to cool (not cold; that's just brutal) can also increase alertness.
5. Eat a protein-rich breakfast. Since you've essentially been fasting for the last fourteen or so hours (breakfast = break the fast), the last thing your brain needs is a sugar-carb rush. Having some eggs, avocado, cottage cheese, or chia pudding will give you the sustained energy your body craves without a mid-morning crash.
6. Have your last cup of coffee or tea before 2:00 pm. Indulging any later is almost guaranteed to interfere with your ability to wind down and fall asleep at bedtime.
7. Have a nighttime routine. Breus recommends diving the last hour before sleep into thirds: The first twenty minutes is for last-minute stuff you need to wrap up, the second is for hygiene-related tasks, and the third is for relaxation (reading, meditating, listening to soothing music). Again, once this is an established routine, it sends powerful signals to your body that it's time to catch those Zzzs.
8. Reconsider your screen habits. We all know we shouldn't be on our screens before bed… but most of us do it anyway. Turning on your phone's version of "night shift" automatically changes the colors on your display to the warmer, more soothing end of the spectrum. Winter also recommends outfitting your laptop with the app f.lux, which removes stimulating blue-green light waves from your display during preset hours. Amber-tinted blue-light-blocking glasses have the same effect (and can double as part of your bug costume next Halloween).
9. Pay attention to temperature. Body temperature dips at night naturally, so forcing this feeling of coolness can stimulate sleep. As your body cools down after a hot bath or even a steamy cup of tea (bonus points for sleep-inducing ingredients like chamomile), this can trick the body into feeling sleepy, says Winter.
10. Step away from the wine. WE KNOW. But according to Winter, alcohol delays REM, creates frequent arousals and suppresses restorative sleep. His recommendation is to have your last glass four to six hours before bed, joking, "I tell people they can drink as much as they want… as long as they do it at breakfast."
11. Focus on quality, not quantity. Winter points out that the average adult has 20 "wakening episodes" every hour during the night; the ones we remember generally last three minutes or longer. So when people say, "I was up ten times last night," Winter counters: "But how do you feel?" If you're not falling asleep standing up or napping at your desk, waking up isn't necessarily a problem.
12. Don't fight it. If you wake in the middle of the night and your mind starts racing, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and try to be as still as you can. "Meditation offers 70 percent of the benefits of sleep," Winter insists. If you don't fall back asleep naturally, then get up. Yes, even if it's 2:00 in the morning. Do some relaxing work or write or read until you feel tired again (and if you never do that's fine; you'll sleep the next night). The key is to stick to that wake-up time you established in #1, even if it's ten minutes after you doze back off. "I do this with my kids," Winter says. "I tell them they can stay up as late as they want, but with no screens and no naps. They might try it once or twice but they're so sleepy the next day, the problem takes care of itself. Sleep is great that way; we can never sidestep it completely."