Tips for a good night's sleep

We are a nation plagued by sleeplessness. According to the National Institutes of Health, 50 million to 70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders and intermittent sleep problems that can negatively affect health, alertness and safety. Untreated sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression, among other chronic conditions.

So yes, sleep is critical. But before you go charging off to your doctor in search of an Ambien prescription, try making these adjustments to your nighttime regimen.

Skip the nightcap. Alcohol is probably the substance used most often for sleep, reports a study in Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. However, when you fall asleep under the influence, both the quantity and quality of your sleep are adversely affected. Even small to medium intakes of alcohol can suppress melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep), interfere with restorative N-REM cycles and prevent dreaming.

Junk the java. Caffeine enhances alertness, activates stress hormones, and elevates heart rate and blood pressure, none of which is very helpful when you're trying to get shut-eye. If you're sensitive to caffeine, take note that its half-life — the time required for your body to break down half of it — can be as long as seven hours! In women, estrogen may delay caffeine metabolism even more.

Coffee, tea, chocolate, energy/sports drinks and soft drinks all contain caffeine. It's also added to over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, appetite suppressants and cold medicines.

Turn down the heat. Most sleep researcher recommend keeping your bedroom cool but not cold. This allows your core body temperature to drop, which helps induce sleep. Proper air circulation and lighter-weight blankets can also facilitate a drop in body temperature.

Don't work out within three hours of bedtime. Physical activity raises core body temperature, which is why we're advised to skip exercising in the evening. The issue isn't so cut-and-dried, however. Some studies show evening activity to be bad for sleep, which others have found a positive effect, so find what works for you.

Develop a sleep ritual. Experts suggest doing relaxing activities in the evening to prepare yourself for slumber — something that you do every night to signal to your body that it's time to unwind.

Set a regular sleep-wake schedule. Most experts advise that we go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. They point to evidence that our circadian rhythms — the natural ebb and flow of energy levels that occurs throughout the day — thrive on consistency. The more predictable our sleep schedule, the better our bodies work, the theory goes.

But even those who most strongly espouse that view admit that while adhering to a regular sleep-wake schedule is helpful, it may not be the complete answer. Even if insomniacs keep regular sleep patterns, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll sleep well or long enough.

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