More than two in three Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. Medical experts recommend seven to eight hours per night, but most people don’t get that. An estimated 70 million people have sleep problems so severe as to constitute a disorder. In one study, half of all people said stress gives them sleepless nights, but lowering stress isn’t the only thing you can do to get restful sleep at night.
In fact, scientists recently discovered a hitherto unknown important function of sleep. During the day, your brain’s ordinary activities generate waste products that can harm brain cells. When you sleep, cerebrospinal fluid in the brain washes these waste products away, cleaning the brain and readying you for the next day. If you don’t get enough sleep, there is the opportunity to these wastes to build up.
A regular schedule is the single biggest thing you can do to sleep well. Even on weekends, as much as possible try to go to bed around the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. The usual pattern is to incur a sleep debt during the week and then make it up on the weekends, but sleeping in those few mornings never quite makes it up and you end up fatigued. By sticking to a regular bedtime, you train your body to fall asleep at that time, and you don’t toss and turn.
Exercise also helps you sleep, and it helps you reduce stress as well. People who work out regularly average an hour and a quarter more of sleep every night. Other things that can help you reduce insomnia-causing stress include a warm bath before bed and meditation and relaxation exercises. Odd as it seems, writing down your concerns before you go to bed actually can make it easier to put them aside so they aren’t distracting you from sleep.
Caffeine can keep you up as well. That’s fine in the morning, but you don’t want to overdo it during the day—no more than about two cups of coffee or the equivalent-—and you should avoid caffeinated beverages less than about six hours before bedtime. Alcohol is also something to avoid; it makes you feel tired, but artificially, so the sleep isn’t very restful, and you often get up when it wears off.