5 Secrets to a Better Night's Sleep

5 facts to help you sleep better, be healthier—and maybe even live longer, too.

By Andrea Atkins

Everyone needs sleep to function, but a growing body of evidence suggests that sleep is essential to our overall health. Sleep allows your organs to stay strong, your body to rejuvenate, and your brain to operate at its best. And sleep might even help you live longer. A recent survey by United Healthcare of 100 octogenarians found that 71% got eight hours or more of sleep each night. Take a look at these surprising facts and learn how you can sleep better tonight.

Fact #1: You might be asleep, but your body is at work
"Many people think that nothing happens while you’re sleeping,” says Laurence Epstein, M.D., president of the Sleep Health Centers, in Brighton, Massachusetts. “In fact, a lot goes on during sleep.” Your immune system gets revved up to fight infection and illness; what you’ve learned during the day gets processed, repackaged, and stored (or not) in your memory; your cardiovascular system rests and recharges. You’re not really dead to the world. You are getting yourself ready for the mental and physical tasks of the day ahead,” Epstein says.

Get your rest tip: Treat yourself like a kid—make a bedtime routine that allows you to put things away, take a bath or shower, dim the lights, and read in bed. Doing so will alert your body that it’s time to sleep, Epstein says. People who go, go, go right up to the moment they climb into bed are usually unable to fall asleep quickly or get the kind of rest their bodies need.

Fact #2: Lose sleep, gain weight
The science on this is clear—when you are sleep-deprived, your appetite hormones rise, leading you to think that you are hungry. And the ramifications are great—those who are overweight are more likely to have health problems. According to research at the Harvard School of Public Health, “Adults who get less than seven hours of sleep—and those who get less than five or six hours—are 30 to 80 percent more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease and die prematurely.”

Get your rest tip: Don’t be surprised if you notice that when you’re tired, you look for energy at the vending machine or in the refrigerator. Try to resist it, says Lisa Shives, M.D., medical director of the Northshore Sleep Medicine and Weight Loss Center in Evanston, Illinois. “We’re learning that appetite hormones have a set internal rhythm, and we’re realizing that’s one reason you shouldn’t eat late at night.” Avoid snacking within two hours of your planned bedtime. And don’t overindulge in alcohol. While there is no scientific evidence that food can interrupt your sleep, researchers are sure that alcohol consumption can lead to a more fragmented night’s sleep, which can make you feel more tired in the morning.

Fact #3: Light Matters
Before electricity turned us into night owls, we went to sleep in the dark and rose with the light. Our bodies are still programmed to do that, but the electric (and electronic) world beckons us to stay up late. “Light can reset your internal clock," says Dr. Epstein. "Stay in a well-lighted room, and you may get sleepy later and later.” Dr. Shives agrees, and notes that we are particularly stimulated by the blue wavelength light that emanates from lap-top computers, tablet computers, and cell phones. (And, says Dr. Epstein, the National Sleep Council estimates that 90 percent of Americans use some sort of screen within an hour of bedtime.)

Get your rest tip: Do not take “screen” devices into the bedroom. Laptops, cell phones, and tablets should be avoided right before bed (and stop yourself from putting them on your bedside table, where you can check them). For the best night’s sleep, start dimming the lights around your house up to two hours before your planned bed time. Some people find that they can reduce the effect of light on their sleep patterns by wearing specially made glasses that reduce light in the evening. (Try glasses made by Litebook).

Fact #4: A lack of sleep can kill you
People always talk about food as a must-have, but sleep ranks right up there. “Sleep is essential,” says Dr. Shives. “Pushed to the real extreme, if you’re sleep-deprived enough, you could die.” Research on rats echoes Dr. Shives assertion.

Get your rest tip: Before you start worrying whether or not staying awake at night is going to kill you, be assured that in our everyday lives, we really can’t go long enough without sleep to do ourselves any harm. “You can go without food for a long time and you’ll feel bad—and hungry. You can’t go that long before you’re fast asleep,” says Ralph Downey III, associate clinical professor of medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center and CEO of Dr. Downey Sleep Consultants. If you can't fall asleep, don’t just lie there. Get yourself somewhere you can sit in dim light and do something relaxing like read or listen to soothing music. Dr. Shives suggests audio books. “It’s something you can do in the dark, and if you are worried, or thinking obsessively about something, a story can supplant your thoughts.” Choose titles by Henry James or James Joyce—books that are not that exciting, Dr. Shives says.

Fact #5: Naps count
A 10-minute nap is restorative and much better than a 45-minute nap. In fact, Downey says, 10 minutes will leave you feeling rested while 45 minutes may leave you groggy and disoriented. That’s because 10 minutes doesn't allow you to get into a very deep sleep—instead, it's just enough sleep to help you feel refreshed. And any nap longer than 30 minutes is probably going to steal from your nighttime sleep.

Get your rest tip: If you nap, allow yourself 20 minutes, figuring it will take you five minutes or so to actually fall asleep. Then give yourself a few minutes to rise slowly, take a deep breath, and return to the rest of your day.

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Comments

I suffer with broken sleep patterns so I'll definitely give this a try! Thank you so much.

anonymous on 2012-09-10 21:20:44

I suffer with broken sleep patterns so I'll definitely give this a try! Thank you so much.

anonymous on 2012-09-10 21:20:43

@ helen - Hi! sorry you're having a hard time! I'm Rosered135, one of the group moderators in the Community section of the site. Are you new here or did you come over with us from the old GP.com? Either way, please know that there are problems with the site b/c of the transition - and sometimes, more problems, on and off, as the design team works on the original ones! Please be patient... It should all be straightened out soon... But I'm a little confused... You say you can't get into any of the articles, yet, clearly, you got into this one? So I'm guessing you mean that you find yourself able to get into this/that article but not others? Or you can get into them at one time and then not at another? I'm not sure but I think it's all part of the kinks in the transition process that I just talked about. Try again, periodically, and I'm certain you'll get to see everything you want. If you're not faring any better in a couple of days, I suggest you say something again. Thanks for your patience... Rosered135, moderator, Grandparents Caring for Grandkids and Mothers-in-Law Anonymous.

rosered135 on 2012-09-10 11:06:19

This does make more sense to me on the sleep factor than any thing else that I have acheived. I always turn off my lights when going to sleep at nite. But there does seem to appear through my window at night a street lite. I just close my eyes and drift away to sleep.
I am a diabetic and take water to bed at night as well as disc candy in case I need them when my sugar drops...
If I go to sleep early I have a tendsity to sleep later. Then when I go to bed late , I always get up early. I suppose that this is due to working at nights when I had done security for a living. Just can't break
the old habit.
Do you, have any advice to help elimnate this habit of getting up early and getting a great nights' sleep? pstroud0@gmail.com

anonymous on 2012-09-10 05:38:50