Is a good night’s sleep the first thing you sacrifice when life gets too full and busy? If so, this is your wake-up call: You’re not just sabotaging your next day’s performance (news to none of us), but you’re actually harming your health.
“Sleep deprivation is a serious medical risk, but few people are aware of that,” says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine. “You have to pay as much attention to your sleep as you do to eating a nutritious diet.”
A spate of studies is turning up clear links between inadequate sleep and obesity, as well as several related conditions: heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. The good news is that with adequate shut-eye, these conditions may be reversible, our experts say. Drawing on studies about what robs us of quality sleep, they have devised strategies that can help you get the rest you need. Here’s a lineup of the most insidious sleep thieves—and the latest recommendations on how to bar them from your bedroom forever.
1. You think too much
The reason you sometimes obsess over a tricky work project or an argument with your best friend when you’re trying to fall asleep: “You can’t refocus your thinking at the edge of slumber the same way you can when you’re alert,” says Colleen E. Carney, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Insomnia and Sleep Research Program at Duke University Medical Center. “People have little control over their thoughts, because they may be going in and out of a light stage of sleep, even though they think they’re awake,” she says.
Fix It: When fretful, get up and go to another part of the house (but leave the lights off). “Your anxious thoughts will usually stop right away. Then you can go back to bed and fall asleep,” Carney says. This well-studied strategy, called stimulus control, also prevents you from associating your bed with anxiety. Another tip: Set aside time early in the evening to problem solve. Write down your pressing concerns, along with a possible solution for each, a few hours before retiring.
2. You sleep in
Late nights followed by extra sack time the next morning throw off your internal clock, which is controlled by a cluster of nerve cells in the brain that also regulate appetite and body temperature, says Lawrence Epstein, MD, medical director of Sleep Health Centers in Brighton, MA, and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. When Sunday rolls around, you’re reprogrammed to stay up past your bedtime, and you feel like a zombie on Monday morning.
Fix It: Even if you’ve been up late, don’t sleep in more than an hour longer than usual, Epstein says. To make up for lost slumber, take an afternoon catnap (no more than 30 minutes, though, because an extended daytime snooze can keep you awake at night).
3. Your spouse chops wood
A snorer’s sawing can reach 90 decibels—as loud as a blender. Even if you can get to sleep, his snoring will likely wax and wane through the night and wake you up during REM sleep, the most restful phase.
Fix It: Ask your partner to sleep on his side instead of his back. Try the FDA-approved Sona pillow ($69.99; SonaPillow.com), developed by a Harvard-trained neurologist. It’s specially shaped to tilt your head and open your airways. Moreover, the pillow decreased or eliminated snoring in nearly every patient studied and reduced sleep interruptions from an average of 17 an hour to fewer than 5. If that doesn’t work, earplugs will—but only if they stay in, says Meir Kryger, MD, director of research and education at Gaylord Sleep Center at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, CT, and author of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep Disorders. Try Hearos Ultimate Softness ($1) or Howard Leight MAX ($1); both are made of flexible, washable polyurethane.
4. Your hormones change
Fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone before or during your period or throughout perimenopause can sabotage sleep, says Walsleben. You may notice problems—mainly waking up during the night—long before you start having hot flashes, she says.
Fix It: A hot bath a couple hours before turning in and, if you’re often awakened by cramps, an over-the-counter pain reliever at bedtime may be all you need to counter premenstrual insomnia. For a stubborn case, ask your physician whether a short-acting sleep medication, taken two or three nights a month, would make sense. During perimenopause, stay on a consistent sleep-wake schedule, exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, and avoid caffeine after lunch and alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime (a cocktail helps you nod off, but its rebound effect will wake you up, Epstein says). For hot flashes and night sweats, try sleeping in a cool room and wearing light clothing (several companies make pajamas that wick away moisture). If you’re still tossing and turning, consider hormone therapy, Walsleben says. Recent research suggests that it may be safe for many women in their 50s (particularly the new low doses) when used for fewer than 5 years.
5. Your stomach growls
Going to bed hungry interferes with sleep—hunger pangs simply wake you up—and some evidence suggests that people trying to lose weight may wake up frequently, says Peter Hauri, PhD, a professor emeritus at the Mayo Clinic and author of No More Sleepless Nights.
Fix It: Hauri suggests saving some of your calories for a high-protein bedtime snack, such as a small serving of cheese or a hard-boiled egg. Protein produces greater satiety than carbohydrates and fat.