Stop Counting Sheep

And start sleeping better by following these rules

A low body temperature can make you feel tired. Work out in the late afternoon so you're ready for sleep by nighttime.     Photo: Dirima/Shutterstock

1. Be consistent. Nighttime sleep loss is cumulative, and naps won't fix the problem in the long term. "If you're regularly going to sleep at midnight and waking up at 5 a.m., by the third day, you can't function at your normal level," says Dr. Jerrold A. Kram, founder of the California Center for Sleep Disorders. Do your best to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, even on weekends.

2. Pay attention to lighting. Natural rays have a strong effect on the body's circadian rhythm, so open the shades when you wake up—the sun will make you feel alert. And because light suppresses the production of the hormone melatonin, which tells your body when it's nighttime, it's a good idea to avoid bright artifical light right before bed.

3. Finish exercising at least two hours before bedtime. One of the easiest pharmaceutical-free ways to improve your sleep is to keep your core temperature low at night. If you ride a bike or run within two hours of sleeping, your temperature will be too high for optimal sleep and your brain will be overstimulated. A cheat for the sleepless: Work out in the late afternoon. Your temperature will drop right around the time you want to hit the sack, making you feel tired.

4. Take a bath. According to Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, a warm bath several hours before bed will produce an effect similar to that of an afternoon workout. "Your core body temperature will drop significantly after the bath, which will help you get to sleep," says Walker.

5. Eat right. Stuffing yourself too close to bedtime can make it hard to fall asleep, and fatty foods can cause indigestion or heartburn. But if you have a favorite light snack that helps you nod off, stick with it.

6. Watch your toes. According to Stanford neurobiologist H. Craig Heller, foot temperature affects your sleep more than the temperature of any other body part. So if you find yourself sleeping poorly, kick the covers off your feet—or put on some socks if you're cold.

7. Kill the nightcaps. Booze before bed might steady the nerves and knock you out, but it also leaves you far more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. Cigarettes, which are stimulants, are also a bad idea.

8. Don't stay in bed if you can't fall asleep. Go into a different room and listen to soothing music—Sigur Rós or Norah Jones should do. Or try reading Finnegans Wake. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy.

9. Empty your mind. Keep a notebook at the side of your bed so you can scribble when your thoughts are racing late at night. Once you have that opening line of your novel down on paper, you'll sleep much easier.

10. But don't work in bed. Your mind should associate your bedroom with rest and relaxation, not anxiety and stress. So reserve your bed for sleep and sex.

11. If all else fails, drugs. But not too much. See the next page for a user's guide.

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