How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." Whoever actually coined that saying was closer to the truth than he ever knew (contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin was not the author).

Sleep is one of the most important factors in achieving good health. Not only does the lack of it affect mental and physical performance, lower immunity, make us more prone to gain weight, and put us in a foul mood. Research indicates lack of sleep may also play a role in depression, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes.

Insomnia is defined as having one of the following symptoms: Difficulty falling asleep, waking up often during the night, waking up too early in the morning and being unable to go back to sleep, or waking up in the morning feeling tired.

Transient insomnia lasts only for a day or two. It can be caused by sleeping in an unfamiliar bed when you travel, by the anticipation of an exciting or stressful event the next day, or by having a cough that keeps you up.

Short-term insomnia can range from a few nights to a few weeks usually because of a worrying problem or a temporary situation like waking up several times to feed a young baby. When the problem or situation is resolved, insomnia disappears and normal sleep patterns return.

Chronic insomnia can last for months or years. It needs medical and/or psychiatric help and can be a symptom of another health condition.

While not seemingly as serious as full-blown insomnia, "chronic sleep debt" or constant sleep deprivation of an hour or two daily can have a negative long-term effect on our health. This condition is usually due to what is called poor sleep hygiene or an unhealthy sleeping environment.

Here are tips from the National Sleep Foundation, The Better Sleep Council and other sleep experts.

Cool, dark and quiet
It has been said that modern man is sleep-deprived because of the invention of electricity.

Our ancestors followed the natural rhythm of nature and their internal body clocks. They slept when it was dark and awoke when it was light. But electricity has artificially extended our nights and our internal clocks have become confused.

The perfect sleeping environment is cool, dark and quiet. Room temperature should be neither too hot nor too cold.

A dark room is important because our bodies respond to darkness by producing melatonin, the sleep hormone, and light is one of the most powerful cues for us to wake up.

Researchers have found that even just the reflection of a street lamp can cause fragmented sleep in sensitive people.

A soft whirring sound in the background like that produced by an electric fan or air conditioner will lull you to sleep but sharp sudden noises like your cell phone beeping or your neighbor shouting will wake you up.

Experts suggest using eyeshades and/or earplugs if you can't control light and sounds from entering your bedroom. Earplugs can sometimes be the most practical solution if your partner snores loudly.

Another suggestion is to dim the lights in your bedroom a few hours before sleeping so your body starts winding down. Avoid watching TV shows that are loud and violent. Listening to soft relaxing music will put you in the mood for sleeping. So will reading a book as long as it is not too emotional and stimulating.

Make your bed and lie in it
Your bed should only be for rest, relaxation, sleep and sex. Avoid doing anything else on it like eating and working. Your body should be conditioned to go into sleep-mode when it lies down on your bed.

If you have serious sleep problems, experts say your whole bedroom should be off-limits to TV, radio, work-related projects, and anything else not connected with sleep.

The mattress and pillows you use can make the difference between a good night's sleep and a restless one. If you have any kind of musculoskeletal problem, it's even more important that you choose the right kind of bedding. If you sleep with a partner, the bed should be big enough for both of you.

Develop regular sleep-wake cycle
Stick to a regular sleeping and waking-up schedule every day. Every time you modify your schedule by a few hours, the body's internal rhythm gets thrown off track. Some people are more sensitive than others to this disruption.

They still do not know why, but researchers have found that sleeping early is what makes for a more restful night. If you sleep late, you wake up feeling disoriented even if you sleep the right number of hours.

One study found that people who sleep and wake up early live longer than people who sleep late even though they sleep the same amount. Other studies have found that night-shift workers have more health problems than day-shift workers even if they have similar hours of sleep.

Sleep on problems
Avoid thinking about problems at night. Tomorrow is another day. Problems will still be there but you won't have the energy to deal with them properly if you spend the whole night tossing and turning in bed with worry and anxiety.

A good night's sleep is what you need to find a creative solution or new perspective on your problems.

Experts say that if you really can't stop stress and anxiety from keeping you awake, get out of bed and do your worrying in another part of the house. What you are trying to avoid is linking your bed with stressful thoughts.

Writing, praying, meditating and reading are some of the things you can do to help keep your anxiety under control. Hopefully, your mind and emotions will quiet down enough to allow you to go back to sleep.

Even if you don't have any problems, if you are still awake 30 minutes after hitting your pillow, experts say it's better to get up and do something relaxing until you get sleepy.

The worst possible thing to do is to keep looking at the clock trying to force yourself to sleep and becoming more upset and stressed as each hour passes because you are not yet asleep.

Eat, drink and sleep well
Don't sleep immediately after eating a heavy meal. Give it at least three hours; otherwise, heartburn and indigestion can keep you awake. But don't go to sleep hungry either because both your brain and your stomach will keep you up. A light dinner is the common-sense compromise.

If a full bladder wakes you up several times a night, avoid drinking fluids two hours before sleeping. If in spite of this, you still get up to go to the bathroom often, go see your urologist.

Unless you are one of those rare individuals, like my husband, who can drink coffee and fall asleep right after, take your last cup of java early in the afternoon.

Remember, too, that other stuff like chocolate, tea, colas, some diet pills, and certain medications contain caffeine. Sensitive individuals can be kept awake by having a slice of chocolate cake after dinner.

Alcohol might put you to sleep but it's a fake kind of restful sleep that is interrupted and makes you wake up feeling even more tired. This is because alcohol interferes with REM or dream sleep.

Research indicates that smokers take longer to fall asleep and wake up more often during the night. Nicotine is a stimulant, so if you must smoke, have your last cigarette a few hours before sleeping. Besides, smoking in bed is a fire hazard.

For decades, Europeans have used the herb valerian to relax.

Also known as nature's Valium, valerian is a mild tranquilizer and muscle relaxant that can help you sleep if your insomnia is due to restlessness and anxiety. It is not a sleeping pill, is not addictive, does not make you groggy in the morning, and so far, has no known side effects.

The only negative thing is that it smells like sweaty socks! However, if you have an existing health condition, always consult your doctor first to find out if valerian is okay for your condition and if it can safely be combined with a medication you are already taking. Valerian should never be combined with any other type of sedative.

Kava-kava, which is an anti-anxiety herb, is not recommended because of reports linking its use to liver damage.

Scientists have found that a 30-minute soak in warm water (102 §F) taken two hours before bedtime hastens faster and deeper sleep. This is because the onset of sleepiness is associated with a drop in body temperature. A warm bath raises our temperature slightly then as it drops, it induces sleepiness.

Exercise, but not too close to bedtime
Many people find that regular exercise helps them have better sleep. However, working out too close to bedtime can keep you awake.

One reason could be that your nervous system is over-stimulated and takes some time to calm down. Another reason is that your body temperature stays elevated longer, and by the time it drops enough for you to get sleepy, the rooster is already crowing.

At least three hours between your workout and bedtime should suffice. Very sensitive individuals need to stick to morning exercise while some people have no problem whatsoever sleeping right after an evening run.

To nap or not to nap
While napping on the job used to be a sign of laziness and inefficiency, more and more office workers are realizing the importance of taking daily 20-minute "'power'' naps to increase productivity. However, naps can never take the place of the right amount of sleep.

Some experts say that if you are having problems sleeping, it is best to avoid napping. Others say that a nap is okay as long as you keep it short.

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