“I’m exhausted,” our friend Sara told us the other day. “It must be the stress, or my new job. But the last time I slept like a baby was when I was one!” She shook the last of her Diet Coke into her mouth. And we just shook our heads.
Scientists have discovered a host of factors interfere with a good night’s sleep—caffeine, stress, age. (Put down the Diet Coke, Sara!) But as we’ve become The Country That Never Sleeps, they’ve also uncovered ways to help you get a good night’s shut eye. Eat This, Not That! contacted America’s best doctors to ask them how they do it themselves. Read on, and don’t miss our essential list of the 50 Unhealthiest Foods On The Planet.
Get 7-9 Hours Each Night
“We think that the adequate amount of time we need to sleep is around 7-9 hours each night. Based on that, most people can function between 7-7 ½ hours of sleep regardless—some people may need a little more or can function on a little less,” says Alcibiades Rodriguez, MD, assistant professor of Neurology at the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center.
Understand Quality is Different Than Quantity
While it’s important to give yourself enough time at night to get the recommended quantity of sleep, it could be the quality of your sleep that’s leading you to still feel lethargic the next day. “7 to 9 hours is the quantity a normal person would need, but we also need to think about quality. If we don’t sleep it may decrease our attention, concentration, and our memory. We may be slower in our daily activities and may develop infections. Eventually we may even get depressed or also experience mental breakdowns or psychosis if we don’t [get enough quality sleep],” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Focus on Sleep to Improve Memory
If you’re feeling more forgetful or scatterbrained these days, it could be a result of poor sleep habits. “Sleeping is a way to rest the mind and store the all the information that we get during the day. A way to rest the different hormones that go to the brain to be able to function the next day. Sleep has multiple functions,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Catch Up When You Can
“In an ideal world you sleep 8 hours every night and feel good going to work the next day. That’s not always possible, many people have two jobs or go to work and then school. If you cannot get the recommended amount of sleep each night, then catch up when you can,” says Dr. Rodriguez. If that means taking a short nap in the afternoon or sleeping in a little laters on days that allow for it, then do it.
Don’t Count on Weekends to Reset
“Technically if you’re sleep deprived 5 days a week then catching up over the weekend may not be enough – even if you sleep 10 hours Saturday and 10 hours Sunday. Come Monday you’ll probably still feel tired because you’re not getting enough sleep over time, though anything you can get is better than nothing,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Avoid Long Naps During the Day
“If you sleep during the day it may interfere with your sleep during the night, which is a problem. Some people–especially those that are retired or out of work–sleep 4 or 5 hours at night and then sleep during the day and complain they can’t fall asleep at night. I think a one hour would be an adequate amount of time for a nap during the day. I don’t think more than that will benefit you that much unless you’re really sleep deprived. If you nap for longer it could negatively affect your sleep at night,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Stop Exercising 3 Hours Before Bed
“Exercise will increase adrenaline and it will increase your core body temperature. In order to sleep core body temperature should be lower than it is during exercise. In general we advise to exercise during the day because sunlight is a stimulant and exercise is a stimulant. However if you do it at night you should stop doing exercise at least 3 hours before bed. Once your core body temperature increases it takes a couple of hours to go down and you need the temperature to come down in order to go to sleep,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Choose Your Nightly Shows Wisely
Not only can exercise pump up your adrenaline and make it harder to fall asleep, but your favorite television shows could have a similar effect. “People who watch shows or sports before bedtime (something that gets them excited) can sometimes find it difficult after the event to go to sleep because adrenaline is up,” says Dr. Rodriguez. It may be hard to resist, but it might be a wise decision to record The Walking Dead and watch it at a more reasonable hour if you’re concerned about getting more sleep.
Avoid Eating Large Meals Within 3-4 Hours of Bedtime
“Eating can also increase your core body temperature. Believe it or not, you expend energy eating, though it’s minimal. A normal person may take 2-3 hours to digest all of their food. So, grandma’s advice to not go to bed with a full stomach is probably correct. It can be very uncomfortable [if you overeat] and you also need your core body temp to be down to sleep. I suggest that you don’t eat heavy meals within 3 to 4 hours of going ot bed. You can still eat snacks, but a heavy meal will more likely increase your core body temperature,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Certain Teas May Encourage Sleepiness
“There aren’t many specific food that will help you sleep, but some foods can help more than others. Certain teas like chamomile have a capacity to calm you down and can have an anti anxiety effect. They will relax you a little bit and as a result may help you go to sleep. In order to sleep you need to be relaxed and quiet,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Drink Milk Only If It Works For You
“Some people find that milk helps them, although there isn’t much research supporting a [link between drinking milk and falling asleep more easily]. Milk contains an amino acid called Tryptophan, which can trigger melatonin production which is why some people may think a warm glass of milk at night may help them sleep. Personally I think it just has more of a relaxing effect for some people, maybe invoking childhood memories of milk and cookies,” says Dr. Rodriguez. If drinking warm milk relaxes you then by all means have a glass, but don’t count on it to knock you out at night.
Don’t Use Alcohol As a Sleep Aid
“Alcohol is a sedative and will get you to fall asleep, but it may disrupt your sleep during the night so it’s not advisable as a sleep aid,” says Dr. Rodriguez. There is no specific recommendation for the amount of alcohol one can consume without it having an affect on sleep quality because each person is different. If you find that you’re consistently waking up in the middle of the night then it might be worth a try to nix your nightly glass of vino.
Don’t Obsess Over Sleep Apps
While sleeping apps can help make us more aware of our sleeping habits, it’s important not to put too much stress on getting the numbers and percentages just right. “Some people ask about using sleep applications, but I think some people pay too much attention to them. They’ll tell you that you had 20% deep sleep last night, but I think that’s normal. People can obsess over this and somehow the obsession about perfect sleep that this app may bring is the negative part about it [and as a result could inhibit a good night’s sleep],” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Inquire About Whether Your Medication is Interfering With Sleep
“Medication may affect sleep too, for example if you’re taking medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes etc. In this case it would be wise to consult your doctor or a sleep physician to see if that has something to do with your trouble sleeping [and come up with a plan together on how to minimize the effect],” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Don’t Rely On Sleep Medication as a Solution
“If you consult your doctor about sleep problems brought on by other medications, they may prescribe you a sleeping pill. In this instance you’re now taking two medications, when maybe there is a better [route to take]. I think anyone taking sleep medication should have some type of counseling in the sense that medications are part of the treatment but are not the solution. There are other issues like behaviors that they need to perform at night to make the medication work better that a counselor can help them identify,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Try Taking Melatonin
“One of the best uses of sleep medication is the use of melatonin, which is endorsed by the sleep academy. It’s medication that should be taken as needed. You might take it 2 to 3 times per week or when you’re traveling. There is nothing bad about using it, but if you’re [relying on it too much or for a long period of time] you should consult a sleep physician to [look into a potentially larger problem],” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Avoid Bright Lights
“Some populations like children, teenager or the elderly are more susceptible to the affects of looking at bright light [which suppresses the production of melatonin]. In order to suppress melatonin it has to be very bright light, not just a regular light. The light emitted from our phones or TV, may have some effect but I don’t think the effect has been well studied,” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Consult a Reliable Source
If you’re still unsure of what could be disrupting your sleep or curious to know more about sleep in general, Dr. Rodriguez suggests consulting the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website. They have a section called “sleep education” which provides some news and basic facts on sleep. The site can also help you locate a sleep center should you have more chronic sleep issues that you need an expert’s help with.
Don’t Think Too Much
“Once you find what works for you and you’re sleeping well you can do whatever you want. You don’t need to think too much about sleep. Consider that you don’t think too much about staying awake, so why should you think too much about sleep? If you’re having problems sleeping then think about following a different routine or a doctor’s recommendation, otherwise continue doing what works for you” says Dr. Rodriguez. Thinking too much about sleep may bring about anxiety on the matter and can negatively affect your ability to sleep well as a result.
Address Problems As They Happen
As soon as you start experiencing issues sleeping you should address them, because they will only worsen as you age. “As you get older your sleep will get lighter, so you’ll have more awakenings during the night. As long as you wake up and fall back asleep, that’s fine. People need to understand that sleep changes as you get older. If you have a sleep problem when you’re younger, it will only get worse [so it’s important to address it],” says Dr. Rodriguez.
Avoid Spicy Foods Around Bedtime
“It turns out that spicy foods can not only wake you up at night, but they can also cause what we call arousals from sleep where you brain wakes up and [you shift from a deeper sleep to a lighter sleep]. Sometimes people who consume very spicy foods will have unstable sleep and experience a light sleep with many arousals,” says Meir Kryger M.D., Professor, Yale School of Medicine.
Cut Caffeine After Lunch
“I try to avoid all caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a drug which counteracts a chemical in the brain called Adenosine, which is a compound that accumulates as you become sleepy during the day. In the morning it’s ok to take caffeine, at night it’s not ok to take it because it may block the effect of Adenosine and make it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Dr. Kryger.
Cut Back on Chocolate Close to Bedtime
“I will sometimes avoid eating chocolate late at night because there have been occasions where something in chocolate (potentially the caffeine), keeps me awake,” says Dr. Kryger. The small amount of caffeine in chocolate comes from the cocoa solids used to make the sweet. If you’re an avid chocolate consumer it might be worth a try to cut it out for a small period of time in an effort to identify whether it might be affecting your sleep.
Make Sleep a Part of Your Wellness Routine
If you consider sleep a part of your diet or wellness routine, you might find yourself more committed to getting adequate hours of sleep each night. “There’s a large amount of research that suggests that people who don’t sleep enough have hormonal changes that could lead to obesity. Eating the right amount and sleeping the right amount is probably the best thing that people can do in order to maintain their health and encourage hormone levels to function properly,” says Dr. Kryger.
Avoid Foods That Give You Heartburn
Inability to fall asleep at night could be as simple as eating the wrong food. Certain foods can trigger heartburn in some, which can affect your ability to fall asleep or may cause awakenings in the night. “People should avoid the foods they know that will give them heartburn if they want to avoid sleep disruption,” says Dr. Kryger.