12 Secrets to a Good Night’s Sleep

Studies show that good sleeping habits can add years to your life and, over time, increase happiness. Drawing upon recent scientific research, these tips will help you achieve a good night's sleep—every night.

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How to get a good night's sleep - woman sleeping well
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How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Prescribe yourself sleep

Convenient or not, it’s a biological fact: adults need to sleep between seven and nine hours each night. A colossal 66 per cent of us fail to do so on a regular basis. It’s not just a matter of feeling tired the next day; over the long run, sleep deprivation can contribute to depression, obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

“The silent sleep-loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century in developed nations,” argues Dr. Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, in his book, Why We Sleep. “Scientists like me have even started lobbying doctors to start ‘prescribing’ sleep.”

Walker’s top tip for a successful “prescription” is sticking to a schedule. The body naturally thrives on a regular sleep-wake rhythm, and a set bedtime will remove some of the temptation to spend your time in other ways.

To get a good sleep, he also recommends avoiding, if at all possible, medicines that could “conflict” with the sleep prescription, such as certain heart, blood pressure or asthma medications, plus some remedies for colds, coughs and allergies. There are alternatives available for many of these drugs, so if they’re costing you shut-eye, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.

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How to get a good night's sleep - woman waking up in hotel room
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Learn how to sleep away from home

If you’ve ever tossed and turned in a hotel room, you may have experience with “night-watch brain.”

Cerebral imaging has revealed that, similarly to dolphins, pigeons and other animals, humans rest one half of the brain less than the other when we’re in an unfamiliar setting. This adaptation would have been advantageous for our ancestors, who were at risk of predation in the wild, but it’s far less useful for today’s traveller. You can minimize it and get a good night’s sleep by staying at the same hotel for as long as you remain in a city and by booking similar rooms from the same chain wherever you go.

Crossing time zones when you travel can also hinder a good night’s sleep. Here’s helpful advice on how to beat jet lag.

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Try to foster your dreams

Scientists used to think that dreaming happened only during REM (rapid eye movement), the last stage of the sleep cycle. We now know that earlier stages can bring wisps of dreams, as well, but REM is the time of the most detailed, active and emotional ones.

Sleep deprivation is understood to be dangerous, but REM deprivation is also an issue, claims a 2017 review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. People with fewer dreams are more subject to mood dysregulation (recurrent temper outbursts or persistent extreme irritability), pain sensitivity, Parkinson’s, anxiety, dementia and delusions; ironically, dreaming helps you maintain your sense of waking reality.

Dreams are threatened by alcohol, which helps you nod off faster but then disrupts REM. Benzodiazepines (used as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medi­cation) “significantly repress REM/dreaming,” the review says. Another common culprit: alarm clocks. They are often necessary, but try to wake up naturally whenever possible in order to avoid interrupting sleep cycles.

Looking for more advice on how to get a good night’s sleep? Add these excellent sleep podcasts to your playlist.

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How to get a good night sleep - dog in bed
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Don’t be a furry friend

Should you let Spot into your room at night? Mayo Clinic researchers tackled this question by putting accelerom­eters on volunteers and their dogs for one week. Most of the pooches spent some time playing or moving around while their owners dozed. Even so, they didn’t affect the humans’ sleep much—so long as they weren’t allowed up on the bed. A blanket or a pet bed on the floor would be a good compromise if you’d like to enjoy a comforting canine presence without being disturbed.

Here’s why you should never let your cat sleep in your bed.

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Man suffering from sleep apnea
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Identify obstructive sleep apnea

One of the most common sleep disorders is also a potentially serious one. In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much during slumber, blocking breathing. This causes drops in blood-oxygen levels that, if left untreated, can strain the cardiovascular system and raise the risk of heart problems over time.

Sufferers will automatically wake up long enough to reopen their airways, but they don’t usually remember their episodes come morning. It’s often their partners who flag the disorder after noticing snoring, guttural sounds or gasping, says Dr. Michael Gelb, a New York–based specialist in breathing-related sleep disorders. People who sleep alone can use a mobile app, such as SnoreLab, to monitor noises. Other­wise, Gelb says, warning signs also include “waking unrefreshed, moodiness, difficulty concentrating, daytime sleepiness and memory problems.”

Sleep-deprivation symptoms aren’t definitive proof that you have sleep apnea. Nor, for that matter, is snoring, but both are worth investigating. “The diagnosis is ultimately confirmed through a home sleep test or polysomnogram,” says Gelb. “You can organize this through your medical practitioner.”

Here’s more expert advice to help stop snoring.

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Secrets to a good night's sleep - couple cuddling in bed
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Learn the smartest ways to share a bed

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, there are pros and cons to having a bedmate. Given the common realities of snoring, rolling over and hogging the blankets, tucking in alone will generally garner better results when one’s sleep quality is measured with objective criteria, such as the amount of slow-wave sleep, a non-REM stage that is key to memory consolidation.

On the other hand, people tend to be more subjectively satisfied with their shut-eye when they cuddle up next to a loving partner—it releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that reduces stress and promotes pair bonding, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Here are two ways to reap the benefits while minimizing the downsides:

  • Make sure your mattress is large enough for two, and if your partner’s movements are an issue, opt for memory foam; you’ll be less likely to feel every toss and turn.
  • Work on your partnership. Bad sleep is linked with poor relationship satisfaction and vice versa. It’s an equation that can be tackled from either side.

These are the best sleeping positions for a good night’s sleep.

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Secrets to a good night's sleep - feet in bed
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Know if you’re oversleeping

More isn’t always better: regularly sleeping more than nine hours at a time is associated with headaches, back pain, obesity and diabetes. These risks may be due to underlying causes (depression, alcohol abuse and narcolepsy, for example) rather than oversleeping itself. But either way, it’s worth telling your GP.

Here’s how much sleep you really need, according to science.

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See the light (and still drift off)

The blue part of the light spectrum boosts mood and energy during daytime but can throw off your circadian clock in the hours leading up to bedtime, and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Most of us are getting more blue-light exposure than ever because of smartphones, laptops and LED light bulbs, which are bluer than their less energy-efficient predecessors. You could cut down on late-day screen time, but if that’s not realistic, try wearing amber-tinted glasses in the evening, as a recent Columbia University Medical Center study of insomnia sufferers suggests.

Here’s what it could mean if you’re always waking up at night to pee.

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Avoid hidden caffeine

Although it’s one of the most famous sleep disruptors, caffeine can still sneak up on you. “It’s tasteless, so you don’t necessarily know how much you’re getting,” explains Dr. Neil Stanley, a member of the European Sleep Research Society. “And it can stick around in your body and affect you for hours if you’re sensitive to it.” Lesser-known caffeine sources to avoid if you want a good sleep include chocolate, soft drinks (such as Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and some vitamin waters) and decaf coffee, which simply contains less of the stimulant than regular joe.

Find out 10 late-night snacks that actually promote sleep.

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How to tap into the power of noise

White noise has been proven to mask environmental sounds that disturb slumber. Sleep scientists are now interested in pink noise, which resembles the white variety except that the lower frequencies are louder than the higher ones. There’s evidence that it can enhance slow-wave sleep. In a 2017 study, seniors did better at a recall test after spending a night with pink noise synced up to their slow-wave brain activity. If you’d like to conduct your own experiment, you can download a pink-noise app.

These are the best songs to help you sleep, according to science.

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Assorted carbs - Breads, pasta and cereals
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Eat yourself sleepy

Popular belief has it that the amino acid tryptophan (of turkey fame) makes you drowsy. The body needs it to build serotonin, a relaxing neurotransmitter, and melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone. However, it doesn’t trigger changes on its own. To prod your body toward dreamland, fill up on carbohydrate-rich foods. Carbs help tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier and induce sleepiness.

Discover seven natural ways to fall asleep (without sleeping pills).

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Beat chronic insomnia for good

There’s a heap of different reasons why you might fail to get a good sleep from time to time. But lasting insomnia often boils down to bad habits, mistaken beliefs or unhelpful thought patterns, all of which can be tackled by cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

“For instance, people often think, ‘I won’t be able to function if I don’t have a good night,’ or ‘My bad sleep results from a chemical problem in my brain, so I can’t fix it,’” says Tanja van der Zweerde, a psychologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Wakefulness-inducing worries like these can transform what otherwise would have been a rough night or two into a red-eyed vicious circle.

CBT for insomnia, or CBT-I for short, helps you identify and address the roots of your problem. Depending on what they are, it might involve relaxation training, tweaking your lifestyle or even, paradoxically, learning to let go and stop trying too hard to sleep.

Because CBT-I has proven itself to be highly successful—and because it doesn’t bring the risks and side effects of pills—it’s now recommended as the first-line treatment for people with chronic sleep difficulties. Van der Zweerde and her colleagues are currently testing iSleep, one of several online versions that are less costly than in-person therapist appointments.

Now that you know how to get a good night’s sleep, consult our ultimate sleep hygiene checklist.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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