Few things kick a day off better than waking up after a restful night’s sleep.
You got enough hours in, you didn’t wake up during the night, and, the crowning achievement — you woke up ready to get out of bed.
How often does that — or even one those things — happen?
Not enough for many people, according to sleep experts.
“Roughly one-third of the U.S. population is not getting sufficient sleep,” said Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at University of Chicago Medicine. “It’s a problem that seems to be on the rise.”
It could be the increased presence of screens like those on cell phones, computers and tablets messing with our ability to get to sleep, or increased pressure at work and worries about job security, Medalie said.
Or it could be the Starbucks on every corner, the extra-large cans of energy drinks for sale at every convenience store, she added.
And if you think you’ll catch up on sleep when you retire, think again, she said: Problems sleeping often increase as we get older.
But there are steps you can take in your evenings and changes you can make to your bedroom that can seriously improve your ability to get to sleep and stay there, Medalie and other experts told the Sun-Times.
The amount we need fluctuates with age, but the methods to get there stay basically the same.
Children need the most sleep, beginning as newborns who sleep off and on all day. After six months and through their toddler years, children still need about 12 hours a day, said Linda Szmulewitz, a licensed clinical social worker and children’s sleep coach.
Szmulewitz, who works with families on their children’s sleep issues through her business Sleep Tight Consultants, says kids have to learn how to get themselves ready to fall asleep at an early age. That happens through the use of consistent routines before bed, and avoiding the use of “sleep crutches” — actions parents use to get their children to bed that prevent the child from doing it themselves, she said.
“You have a routine that they begin to recognize,” Szmulewitz said. “They go through a process of soothing themselves. As children get older, they stand up and lay down, sing songs, practice things they learn during the day, they do all sorts of crazy things. All of that is part of the process of falling asleep as your body is ready.”
Though adults need far less sleep — somewhere between 7 and 9 hours a night — they still need those consistent routines before bed and a process for getting to sleep and staying there, according to Medalie.
Having a pre-bedtime routine that is consistent helps signal to your brain that it is time to start getting ready to sleep, Medalie said. The goal is to prepare your brain to produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, Medalie said. Screens interfere with that melatonin production, she said, so people serious about improving their sleeping habits should remove their televisions from the bedroom and turn off electronics at least an hour before bedtime.
“The bedroom should be only used for sleep and sex,” Medalie said. “if you are doing lots of things, eating, reading, watching TV, doing work, your odds of the bed cueing sleepiness signals will decrease.”
Exercise and caffeine consumption should come earlier in the day, Medalie said, with at least three hours between the end of a workout and bedtime.
Anyone who has tried to sleep in a hot, stuffy room knows the impact temperature has on quality sleep. Bedrooms should be kept cool and dark, Medalie said, adding that taking a warm bath or shower prior to bed are good ways of getting the body temperature to drop to a good level for sleeping.
Avoiding heavy foods or large meals for three to four hours before bed is also a good idea, according to Dr. Bharati Prasad, medical director at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Narcolepsy, Sleep and Health Research. Problems like reflux or a churning digestive system can keep you up, she said.
But for problems sleeping that go beyond insomnia, sleep studies looking at potential medical causes can be helpful, according to Prasad.
A sleep study, which involves spending a night in a controlled environment while a technician measures several different physiological parameters, is often used to diagnose people with breathing-related sleep disorders like sleep apnea, Prasad said. For people struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, they may not be as conclusive, she added.
But seeing a sleep specialist can still be helpful for insomniacs, Medalie said. For people diagnosed with insomnia, which is defined as taking more than 30 minutes to initially fall asleep at night or return to sleep after waking during the night three or more nights a week, Medalie said sleep specialists focus on behavioral treatments before turning to medication.
To deal with racing thoughts, Medalie recommends setting aside a specific time in your day to worry about — and plan for — problems that may come up the next day. Taking between 10 and 30 minutes to write down some of your worries and a potential plan of action to deal with each can be a way to free yourself from those problems before bed, she said.
Sleep quality is impacted by stress, travel, bedroom environment, comfort, what you did the evening before and more, Prasad said.
“There can be many, many reasons for a normal sleeper to have a bad night,” she said.
Six Tips For Your Best Sleep
There are lots of things you can do tonight to try to improve your sleep quality and quantity, and they don’t include anything lavender-scented. We’ve gathered six tips and tricks from sleep experts that they tell patients who have problems getting enough z’s.
Clear your bedroom of distractions
When it comes to bedtime, you have to set yourself up for success, experts say. This means removing televisions and other screens from the bedroom and creating a dark and quiet place that actually signals to your brain that this is a place to sleep. If you work in your bedroom, eat there or watch late night TV in bed, you can be interfering with the brain’s associations with that room, according to Medalie. Plus, turning on the TV before actually falling asleep cuts into the time that you could be sleeping, Prasad said, as shows can stimulate the brain to wake up and pay attention rather than drift off.
Avoid exercise before bed
Both Medalie and Prasad suggest avoiding exercise for several hours before bed, both to keep your body temperature ready to drop to a sleep-conducive level and prevent you from heading to bed too stimulated.
Stop eating several hours before bed
Besides avoiding caffeine after lunch, Prasad said making sure you finish dinner with at least three hours to digest before bedtime is a good way to ensure that an overactive digestive system isn’t interfering with your body’s relaxation. But a small snack is OK, Prasad said, or even that glass of warm milk.
Keep it cool
Natural sleep occurs when the body’s temperature drops, Prasad said, so it’s important to make sure you aren’t trying to sleep somewhere where it is too warm. In addition to cooling the bedroom down, you can help lower your body’s core temperature by taking a warm bath or shower before hitting the sack. The warm water can help you relax, Medalie said, and once you step out of it your body’s temperature will drop quickly.
Deal with your stress
If worrying about the day’s problems or the next day’s tasks are what prevent you from falling asleep, take some time to address them before you even try to close your eyes, Medalie said. Make a list of those worries and think about a solution and then a plan of action for each. Then fold up the paper and set it aside, knowing that you can go to bed and take the first steps in the morning.
If waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble going back to sleep is where your sleep problems crop up, don’t waste your time lying in bed stressing about it, Medalie said. Get up for a few minutes, maybe just to read on the couch and get your brain in a different place before trying to sleep again. The longer you lay in bed awake, the more frustrated you become, Medalie said, which can lead you to associate that feeling with the bed and keep you up even longer.
Diana Novak Jones is a local freelance writer.