You toss and turn while trying to fall asleep, churning over the day’s worries in your head.
You try to squeeze more hours in the day to accomplish all your tasks, leaving too few hours for sleep.
Or maybe you wake up in the wee hours of the morning, unable to get back to sleep.
The list of things that can interfere with a restful night of sleep is long. So perhaps it’s no wonder so many Americans are slogging through their days overtired.
“It’s almost like we put sleep on the back burner,” Dr. Waters said. “We sacrifice it a bit, and then a bit more and then we’re having symptoms.”
Those symptoms of sleep deprivation can range from subtle to severe, she said.
They include not wanting to get up in the morning, overwhelming sleepiness in the mid-afternoon (some sleepiness at that “siesta” time is normal), difficulty staying focused and completing tasks efficiently, and even safety issues like drowsiness while driving.
Many Americans don’t know how much sleep they should be striving for every day.
A good goal for most adults is seven to nine hours.
Some people need more than that. And some people can get less than seven hours consistently and still be fully functional, but they’re a small minority, she said.
“It’s not that we cannot function on fewer hours, but there’s a threshold where you start to diminish your reflex time, your processing time, and how you’re able to function throughout the day,” Dr. Waters said.
Sleep deprivation can impair you in the same way as drinking alcohol, she said.
Here are Dr. Waters’ Top 4 tips for a better night’s sleep:
1. Establish a sleep routine
Try to get to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This consistent routine will do wonders for your body’s internal clock, called circadian rhythm, Dr. Waters said.
What’s especially important is to wake up at the same time every day.
“That’s what is going to anchor your day,” she said. “The pressure to sleep builds throughout the day, depending on how much energy we are exerting and what we are doing, and that pressure all builds to the end of the day.”
If you’re going to bed at the same time and struggling to fall asleep, though, you might need to make some adjustments, Dr. Waters said.
“Your brain isn’t settled for sleep, so don’t force the bedtime,” she said.
Instead, take time out of bed and have another spot designated where you can get sleepy.
“Pull that anxious time out of the bed and put it somewhere else,” Dr. Waters said.
Get comfortable, dim the lights and sit quietly. It might be helpful for some people to make a to-do list to get those tasks off your mind.
Other helpful practices include journaling, listening to quiet music, breathing deeply, doing a guided meditation, or doing progressive muscle relaxation.
“Go through that process of helping the brain to relax and then when you’re drowsy, go to bed,” she said. “If you can get to that point of being tired already, then the bed is conditioned as a place you fall asleep.”
Also, it’s best if this routine does not include personal electronics. Blue and blue-green light from screens—including tablets, smartphones and laptops—can keep you awake well after the device is powered down.
2. Control caffeine
Many of the same people who struggle to get adequate sleep will use caffeine to power through the day. And that can create a vicious cycle.
Dr. Waters recommends limiting caffeine consumption to early in the day, as its effects can stay in your system for a long time. Different people have different sensitivities to caffeine, so figure out your limit and then cut off the caffeine early enough that it won’t keep you awake at night.
It’s also a good idea to monitor what you eat and drink in the hours before bedtime. Alcohol or large meals can hinder sleep. Try to schedule your last, large meal at least three hours before bedtime.
If you need a snack after that, make it something light. Avoid midnight snacking if you wake up and you’re unable to sleep. That signals your brain that you have to wake up to do this every night, she said.
3. Shape your environment
Dr. Waters gives her patients four guidelines for a good sleep environment: cool, calm, dark and quiet.
While everyone likes different sleep temperatures, cool is generally best, she said. A programmable thermostat set a few degrees lower at night can help with this, she suggested.
Make sure the room has no distracting external stimuli. Dim the lights at bedtime.
“Melatonin is released with lack of light,” Dr. Waters said.
You might also benefit from room-darkening window treatments, white noise, a fan, an eye mask, earplugs or other tools. Some people also like to sleep with weighted blankets to help calm them and reduce restlessness throughout the night.
4. Get expert guidance
Just about everyone has a restless night every once in a while. But if it becomes a regular occurrence, it might be time to seek help from a medical professional.
There are some red flags that you should not ignore, including snoring or sleep apnea, a condition in which a person briefly stops breathing while sleeping. Other issues include restless legs, excessive sleepiness during the day, frequent napping and feeling unrested no matter how much you sleep.
If you identify with any of these, you might have a medical condition that needs treatment.
Also, if you have read this article, and tried these tips and found they have not worked for you, schedule an appointment.
“We can talk about it more,” Dr. Waters said.
She also said people who work shift work or nights have special circumstances that might need a doctor’s input.
“If the cookie-cutter answers don’t fit your situation, please talk to us,” she said. “We have seen it all.”