Regaining Sleep Control
If you're voluntarily short-changing yourself of sleep, in an effort to get more done in a day, it's time to give sleep the respect it deserves in your life. That means figuring out how much sleep you personally need to feel well rested, alert, and energetic.
Then, carve out that amount of time by setting a consistent bedtime and awakening time so that your body gets into a regular rhythm, says Richard J. Schwab, M.D., co-director of the Penn Center for Sleep Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Move your bedtime 15 to 30 minutes earlier each week until you're getting the amount of shut-eye you truly need, each and every night.
To improve the quality of your sleep, avoid drinking alcohol. According to the National Institutes of Health, heavy drinking robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
Other tips: Don't consume a heavy meal in the evening; also, try to cut back on your caffeine consumption during the day. Exercising regularly can enhance the quality of your sleep as long as you finish your workout at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet and your pillows and mattress are comfortable, Dr. Schwab says. And be sure to put your worries to bed before you turn in: If troubles are on your mind, swing into problem-solving mode in the late afternoon, then do something relaxing—such as taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, practicing relaxation exercises (deep breathing, anyone?), or reading a book that isn't overly stimulating—before turning the lights out.
But if you're not getting enough sleep because you suffer from insomnia or another sleep disorder—such as sleep apnea (in which a person periodically stops breathing during sleep) or restless legs syndrome (in which a person experiences leg discomfort during sleep and needs to move the legs frequently to get relief)—then it's time to consult a sleep specialist. It's important to find a way to take back the night, Dr. Schwab says, because "any way you look at it getting more sleep is going to be good for you."
To Nap or Not to Nap?
If you have trouble squeezing enough shut-eye into a given night, a short nap can help rejuvenate you and boost alertness. In fact, napping can be especially useful during or before periods of sleep deprivation, experts say. "It's the total sleep time in 24 hours that really determines recuperation," says Gregory Belenky, M.D., research professor and director of the sleep and performance research center at Washington State University.
Generally, it's best to limit naps to 30 minutes or less, though. Otherwise, you could end up with sleep inertia (a.k.a., severe grogginess) after a marathon nap. But if you struggle with insomnia, napping at all may not be such a good idea because it could interfere with your nighttime slumber.