Between demanding jobs, an overabundance of stress, late nights, and an increasingly plugged-in life (put down that iPad Mini, please), it’s no wonder that most of us aren’t getting the proper amount of rest. Making matters worse is the fact that women are biologically programmed not to sleep as well as men, thanks to our good friend (stupid jerkface) progesterone.
According to Dr. Donna Arand, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, when the balance of estrogen and progesterone in your body fluctuates (like during your period, or when you enter menopause), it can affect how well you sleep.
"When progesterone is low, you might experience insomina because progesterone is also used as a precursor to chemicals that induce sleep, like serotonin," she says. "That just means there are fewer materials to generate the sleep hormone. You may find you have more difficulty falling asleep just before and during your period, when progesterone is at its lowest levels, and that you can fall asleep much more easily just after, when it is at its highest." Just as not every woman's cycle is the same, Dr, Arand says that these levels may not impact every woman in the same way — some women don't see any issues related to their cycles. It's just the luck (or misfortune) of the draw.
In addition to the fact that your body is working against you, it turns out that most of us are actually making it more difficult on ourselves by engaging in a whole host of sleep-depriving activities during our day. We asked Dr. Arand to tell us what mistakes we're making in the bedroom and how we can fix them, pronto. So, pour yourself a warm glass of milk, turn on the white noise machine, snuggle under the covers, and read on to learn the secrets of slumber.
Illustrations by Ammiel Mendoza
Stop Freaking Out
Stress is one of those unfortunate things that's impossible to avoid and that has a negative impact on almost every aspect of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident (or annoying) than in the case of your nightly slumber. Lying awake staring at your ceiling while the million things that are bugging you run through your head is one of the most depressing, frustrating experiences. Since you can't stop stress altogether, Dr. Arand says you need to focus on ways to manage it instead.
"Multiple studies have shown behavioral approaches to reducing insomnia are extremely effective," she says. Before you head to bed, take a few minutes to sit down and put to paper all of the things that you need to do tomorrow, then write a brief plan of action on how you are going to complete each task the next day. That way, when you start fretting over everything you have to do, you can calm yourself down with the reassuring thought that you are a woman with a plan.
Still having trouble calming your overactive noggin? Dr. Arand is a big fan of deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation (especially good for those who physically tense up when they are stressed), and guided imagery. "If you get in bed and can't turn off your mind, focus on an image or activity that you find really peaceful. Fill your mind with relaxing thoughts, which will block out the other things that are keeping you awake." Her favorite visualizations: Meandering down an endless ski slope with no one around, or drifting down the coastline on a boat and watching the scenery pass you by. Just be sure to pick an activity that calms you and that has no discernible end point.
You're Never Too Old For A Bedtime
"The body loves consistency," says Dr. Arand, "and if you always go to bed at a certain time and wake up at a certain time, your body gets very conditioned [to that] and you'll have much steadier sleep." Try to get into a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day — yes, even on weekends. This will make it much easier for you to get the proper amount of sleep for you, rather than being sleep-deprived all week and trying to catch up by dozing away your weekend.
Cut The Caffeine
Caffeine has a half-life of up to five hours, meaning it can stay in your system and have an effect on your body for over five hours after you ingest it. So, it's probably not a good idea to drink a shot of espresso at 5 p.m. if you're looking to turn in by 10. "We generally say don’t drink caffeine in the afternoon and limit your intake to two cups per day," says Dr. Arand.
Also, if you're devoted to Starbucks' seasonal lattes, Dr. Arand warns you that you might be getting way more caffeine than you bargained for, so drink with caution. "Specialty coffee can have five times the amount of caffeine found in one cup of regular coffee," she says. So, if you must have that Mocha Latte, just be sure you drink it early in the morning and not during the afternoon slump, otherwise you'll be bouncing off the walls all night.
Step Away From The iPhone
While it can be nice to be plugged in, 24/7, checking your work email obsessively before bed is not going to make it any easier for you to slide off into dreamland. "Instead of creating an environment of relaxing and shutting down, it becomes an environment where you are potentially stressing out about things that you are reading on the computer," says Dr. Arand. So, cart the TV, the phones, the computers, and all other distracting gadgets out of the bedroom, or at least turn them off, put them away, and let yourself shut down mentally.
Learn The Fine Art Of Compromise
Your partner can be wonderful in all other aspects of your life, but as anyone who's ever had the pleasure of sleeping with a heavy snorer or serial toss-and-turner knows, they can be murder on your REM cycle. If your partner is on a different sleep schedule than you are, that can also cause issues, as they may wake you up when they are coming to bed or getting up, hours ahead of you. Instead of banishing them to the couch for the rest of eternity, Dr. Arand says you should try working out a sleep compromise: If you go to bed early and they go to bed late, learn to meet in the middle so that both of you shift your bedtime an hour or so.
If snoring is the problem, get thee to a doctor, stat — there's no amount of nose plugging, sleep strips, or violent poking that's going to get it to stop, so for your sanity, talk to the pros. If tossing and turning is the problem, Dr. Arand suggests trying one of the joined beds that have separated mattresses — it looks and works like a shared bed, but the mattresses are separate so you won't be disturbed by constant nocturnal movement.
No More Nightcaps
Despite what Don Draper may say, seeing yourself off to bed with a nighttime tipple is not going to make you sleep any better. "Alcohol is the most commonly used over-the-counter treatment for insomnia in the country," says Dr. Arand. "While alcohol is initially a depressant — it will make you feel relaxed and sleepy — after it is metabolized three or four hours later, there is this secondary stimulation or arousal affect from the alcohol wearing off. So, you might find yourself awake at 2 in the morning and unable to fall asleep because your brain is stimulated and is now bouncing back from being slowed down."
If you plan to be out partying and still expect to get a good night's sleep, Dr. Arand says to be sure to drink lots of water while you booze it up — and try to eat some food. This will speed up your metabolism and help lessen the overall effect of the alcohol on your system.
Chill Out, Literally
Apparently there's an ideal temperature for sleep — a comfortable 67 or 68 degrees. "In a 24-hour period, your body temperature fluctuates and can vary as much as two degrees in a day. It’s at its max at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, then as you get close to sleep it starts dropping and you get that drowsy feeling," says Arand. So, do yourself a favor and turn down the thermostat when you're getting ready for bed. You'll sleep a lot better than you would if you left your room feeling like a sauna, trust us.
Get The Early Bird Special
While that midnight pizza may taste awesome, all that grease and spicy pepperoni is going to keep you up into the wee hours of the night. "We recommend not eating within a couple hours of going to bed," says Dr. Arand. "When you have a full stomach, it can interrupt your sleep because it redirects the endocrine system and other activities to digest the food. It's disruptive when the brain is trying to go to sleep and the body is focusing on digestion."
Conversely, if you're one of those people who wakes up starving in the middle of the night, Dr. Arand says it's perfectly acceptable to make yourself a light, healthy snack — it will help satiate the hunger pains and let you drift back off. She suggests opting for foods that contain tryptophan, and especially dairy products. Avoid foods with caffeine, like chocolate, and any spicy foods, if you suffer from acid reflux, as they will upset your esophagus and make it difficult to fall back asleep.
"People do sleep better and longer in a completely blacked-out room," says Dr. Arand. That's because our bodies are very attuned to the light/dark cycle, a holdover from our caveman ancestors. Before electricity, our bodies learned when it was time to be awake and active and when it was time to sleep based on the sun.
"There are sensors in the eye that monitor the amount of light around you, and they trigger the circadian clock to say 'yes, it’s light out, you should be alert,' or 'it's dark out, turn down the activity system' so we start to wind down. If you have light in your room while you're trying to sleep, you are giving your brain mixed signals." Dr. Arand says that having a computer screen on while in bed can actually reset you circadian clock, causing your brain to not register that it's nighttime and leaving you all hyped up and unable to fall asleep. So, once again for the slow learners: Shut. It. Down.
Don't Be A Pill-Popper
Hopping on our soapboxes a bit here, but it's all too common in our modern society to rely on pharmaceuticals to "fix" our problems. And while sleeping pills may address the symptoms of your insomnia, they won't help remedy its cause, leaving you reliant on the Ambien to get a proper night's rest. "Chronic use of prescribed medication or over-the-counter medication will impair your ability to fall asleep naturally and cause you to develop a dependency on these medications," says Dr. Arand.
If you are relying on a substance, long-term, to help you fall asleep, she suggests making an appointment with a sleep expert to get to the root of your problem. "There are therapies that are just as effective as medication, but last longer, have zero side effects, and don’t cost you anything." The danger of continuing with this vicious cycle of pills, according to Dr. Arand, is that you end up developing poor sleep habits on top of the initial issue, and grabbing for the medication makes it even more difficult to treat the underlying problem.