How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

If you're anything like most Americans, you've been looking for ways to live a happier, healthier life. Fad diets, prescription depression medications, rigorous exercise and more are used to combat the ill effects of the unbalanced and unhealthy lifestyle that has come to characterize much of modern living. If you've tried these methods but are still unsatisfied with your progress, maybe what you need is a simple good night's sleep.

Modern research points to sleep's importance to brain function and overall health. Dr. Ken Phillips, associate dean of research and director of the Mind, Body, Spirit Research Group at the University of Tennessee, says "the way our thoughts and emotions interact with our physical health is directly influenced by sleep."

An activity that takes up an average of one-third of our lives, it's hard to argue that sleep doesn't play a major role in our everyday routines. Before the invention of electric lights, people kept a regular sleep schedule according to the sunrise and sunset. But with the coming of lamps, televisions and computer screens, maintaining that natural rhythm has become more difficult.

Getting quality sleep is important for people of all ages. For children, teens and young adults, adequate rest allows the brain to recharge after a day filled with activity. For adults, the downtime helps to reduce stress. For everyone, sleep helps to increase energy levels and decrease fatigue, and studies have shown that adequate sleep improves learning and memory function.

When we don't get enough sleep, or if the sleep that we enjoy is disrupted, it affects other parts of our lives, too. A consistent lack of sleep can add up to create a "sleep deficit" that only grows worse over time. Dr. Phillips says people who don't receive adequate sleep are more likely to be involved in car accidents, often suffer from decreased work productivity, and have a higher chance of developing debilitating conditions such as depression and diabetes.

Poor sleep can be caused by many things: health, mood, work schedule, and for women even the menstrual cycle can affect quantity and quality of sleep. Sleep and stress levels are intricately bound together, too. "Problems at work, school, or home, financial hassles, even substance abuse" and the stress they create can lead to poor sleep quality, he says. In turn, lack of adequate sleep prompts the body to produce cortisol, a stress hormone, which can negatively impact waking hours in the form of irritability, impaired cognitive function and weight gain. "It's a vicious cycle—that's why sleep is so important."

The good news is that there are many easy ways to improve your sleep routine. Dr. Phillips suggests these simple changes to anyone who is in search of a better night's rest:

• Create a regular sleep schedule:

By establishing a waking and sleeping routine, your body will begin to more energized throughout the day. Studies have shown that "by establishing normal sleep habits" depression is reduced and patients note improved quality of life.

• Sleep with the lights out:

Sleeping in darkness allows the body to better produce melatonin; sleeping with any visible light induces the body to produce less of this important hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle.

• Keep the bedroom cool:

Lower room temperatures promote sounder sleep, meaning less time spent awake in the middle of the night. "The number of night-time wakenings are directly related to sleep quality."

• Watch what you eat before bed:

Dr. Phillips recommends not eating within three hours of going to bed, because the digestive process tends to disrupt sleep. "Spicy foods are especially bad," he notes. Consuming caffeinated beverages or alcohol shortly before bed also causes mid-sleep waking.

• Exercise on a regular basis:

Although exercising late in the evening may promote nighttime wakefulness, sticking to a regular exercise regimen helps the body also stick to a regular sleep schedule. "Most people find that exercising in the morning helps them feel energized throughout the day and helps them sleep soundly at night."

• Try sleep aids:

If all else fails, safe over-the-counter sleep aids are available at health stores and pharmacies. Melatonin supplements and diphenhydramine (i.e. Benadryl) can be used over the short-term to help promote sleep regularity. "But," Dr. Phillips hastens to add, "the best long-term treatment is lifestyle changes."