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Find your “off” button: 6 ways to improve your sleep

Colin By Colin Groundwater

Woman in bed, eyes closed and smiling

For a lucky few, sleep comes easy. If you’re like me, though, you spend too much time tossing and turning and not enough blissfully conked out. In fact, 35 percent of Americans aren’t sleeping the recommended 7 to 8 hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Advice on how to sleep better isn’t hard to find. But unlocking the mysteries of your personal "off" button is another story. “For something that seems so simple, it’s not simple at all,” says Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, also known as Dr. Raj, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and assistant professor of clinical medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. The reality is that many factors can influence how your body and mind turn off at night. But a few key changes can make a big difference.

1. Commit to your wakeup time.

I used to be a serial snoozer. I set my alarm knowing that I’d sleep for another 15 minutes after the buzzer went off. It may feel good, but hitting snooze seriously confuses your body by starting a new sleep cycle it will never finish. The result: You’ll want to return to that cycle for hours, even after you get to work. Instead, get out of bed right away to quickly adjust to a waking state and rev up for the day ahead:

2. Work on your diet.

Generally speaking, a good diet leads to good sleep. Being overweight contributes to sleep apnea, a brief pause in breathing that disrupts slumber — sometimes hundreds of times a night. Dropping extra pounds can reduce those episodes and increase the time you spend in restorative deep sleep.

Even if your weight isn’t an issue, eating healthy and sleeping well go hand in hand. Meals and snacks that are high in sugar and fat can hurt the quality of your sleep that night. When you’re looking for a midday energy boost, reach for protein instead. Closer to bedtime, a small amount of carbs can be soothing. But in general, Dr. Raj cautions against eating late at night.  (Read more healthy tips from Aetna dietitian Jennifer Lewis.)

3. Get some exercise.

During a workout, your temperature rises a few degrees above the usual 98.6. Afterward, your body interprets the drop in temperature as a signal to sleep. Experts say that even a brisk 10-minute walk can help the quality and duration of nighttime sleep. To magnify the calming effects of physical activity, exercise outdoors. The sunlight reinforces a healthy wake/sleep cycle. (Read how to optimize your music to boost your workout.)

4. Skip that second glass of wine.

Alcohol makes you sleepy, but there’s a catch. “The downside is that you’re going to get multiple awakenings, which keep you from getting to those deeper stages of sleep,” Dr. Raj says. Yes, you can still enjoy wine or beer with dinner, but cap it at one glass.

5. Resist the lure of your phone and computer.

Studies have shown that “blue light,” the main wavelength given off by LED screens in electronic devices, suppresses hormones that help you sleep. For one week, avoid late-night TV, email, social media browsing, and reading on your phone or tablet, and see what happens.

6. Cool off.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool room temperatures help your body wind down in preparation for sleep. For the same reason, don’t bury yourself under a pile of blankets. Start the night under as little bedding as possible, and pull up another layer only as you need it.

Learn more about the do's and don'ts that lead to a good night's sleep.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.