16 changes you can make to get a better night's sleep

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Science journalist Henry Nicholls told Vox that our internal clocks depend on syncing with the "blue lights of dawn and dusk."
  • Experts recommend using your bed for only sleep and sex.
  • Regular exercise and exposure to bright light during the morning and midday are two of the biggest ways to help you get a better night's sleep.
  • A consistent sleeping and waking schedule is key - sleeping in on weekends may do you more harm than good.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia can address your underlying sleep issues and provide greater long-term results than prescription sleep medications.

Everyone has trouble sleeping once in a while. But if it's becoming a regular problem, you can try making small changes to your bedtime schedule and sleep habits to get a better night's sleep.

If you think you have a sleep disorder, you should talk to your doctor about a diagnosis and appropriate treatments. But if you're experimenting with ways to sleep better, here are 16 things to try.

Build a pattern of sleep stability for yourself

Circadian rhythms - 24-hour patterns of drowsiness and wakefulness - play a huge role in how you sleep, and small disruptions in your routine can throw your entire system off.

Dr. Rachel Salas, an associate professor of neurology and a specialist in sleep disorders at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told INSIDER that being consistent with waking and sleeping times is an important part of optimising your sleep behaviour.

If you notice that you're having trouble sleeping, try to keep a strict schedule. Go to bed and wake up at certain, consistent times - even on weekends.

Use light exposure to help you wake up and get to sleep

Bright lights, whether they're artificial or daylight, trigger strong feelings of wakefulness. If you have more sleep problems in the winter, some researchers believe that it might be because the decrease in daylight hours disrupts your circadian rhythm.

Exposing your body to sunlight every day can help you sleep better at night. Science journalist Henry Nicholls told Vox that our internal clocks depend on syncing with the "blue lights of dawn and dusk," which let you know when to go to sleep and wake up.

Avoid drinking caffeine 6 hours before you go to bed

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2013 concluded that consuming caffeine six hours before going to bed affects your sleep. And in addition to being a well-documented stimulant, caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it makes you need to urinate.

Go over any medications you're currently taking with your doctor - some can cause sleep disturbances and may need to be adjusted

Some medications can interfere with sleep or cause insomnia, and others can cause drowsiness during the day. Talk to your doctor about what you're taking, including over-the-counter supplements - having a complete picture will help you and your doctor figure out if something you're taking is interfering with your sleep. Harvard Health Publishing has a helpful list of medications that may interfere with your sleep.

Naps may be inviting - but they might also be interfering with your sleep

A power nap of no more than 20 minutes can have serious benefits. But taking a one- or two-hour nap, especially in the afternoon, can wreck your chance at a good night's sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests eliminating even short naps if you're having trouble sleeping at night.

Kick all the screens out of your bedroom

Bright lights help wake you up, as do blue lights, which are in computer screens, phones, tablets, and TVs. According to Salas and her Johns Hopkins colleague Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, blue light can keep your body from producing melatonin, which is a naturally occurring hormone that tells your body to prepare to sleep.

Sleep experts advise making your bedroom a place where you only sleep and have sex. This isn't practical if your place is tiny, but you can try to avoid eating, working, and looking at your screen while you're under the covers.

Clear the clutter and make your sleeping area as restful as possible

An unmade bed and clothes thrown everywhere can stress you out. Try to keep a calm, well-ordered sleeping space; Salas and Gamaldo say you should make your bed each day, put your clothes away, and keep clutter out of your bedroom.

Wash your sheets more

Clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus wrote for Fast Company: "What touches our skin while we sleep has significant effect on our sleep experience, but the biggest factor here is temperature, not texture. Our sleep rhythms follow the rhythms of our core body temperature, which also fluctuates. Generally, rising temperatures make us more alert, and lower temperatures make us sleepy."

Keep temperature in mind when choosing everything from bedding to pajamas to the nighttime temperature settings on your thermostat. Breus recommended choosing natural, breathable fabrics for your sheets and pajamas and washing your sheets once a week to rid them of any trapped dust that could be making them hotter.

Get some exercise during the day - but not too close to bedtime

Exercise raises your body temperature, which can make it hard to fall asleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting your exercise in at least three hours before you plan to sleep.

Avoid drinking any kind of liquids in the hour or 2 before you sleep

Nothing interrupts sleep quite like having to go to the bathroom. This condition is called nocturia, and, according to the Cleveland Clinic, it can result from high fluid intake before bed. It can also be indicative of more serious health concerns, including Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, so if you rule high fluid intake out and this is still a problem, you should talk to your doctor.

Identify what helps you unwind and work that into your pre-bedtime routine

Reading a book, listening to a podcast, meditating, or taking a hot bath can help get you relax so you can sleep well.

Different things work for different people, so find what works best for you and stick to it. The National Sleep Foundation recommends relaxing for at least 30 minutes prior to going to sleep each night.

If you find that you can't sleep one night, get up and do something away from your bed to benefit your future sleep

Whether you can't go to sleep at all or wake up in the middle of the night, if it becomes clear that you're not going to be able to fall asleep, get up and do something out of bed.

The National Sleep Foundation advises that you do something relaxing but stay out of your sleep space. Anxiously lying awake in your bed can lead to you associating the space with that feeling and inhibit your future attempts at sleep.

Have your pets sleep in a different room

Your best friend isn't your best sleep buddy if they're snuffling in your face and waking you up by shifting around in bed or making you too hot.

Even if your pets don't sleep in your bed with you, the noises they may make during the night can interfere with your sleep. If this is the case, Salas and Gamaldo say you may want to have them sleep in another room.

Keep a sleep diary to try to identify and address problematic patterns

NBC spoke to sleep-medicine specialist Matthew Ebben about the importance of keeping a detailed sleep diary.

It's about much more than what time you go to sleep and wake up, he said - record your daily habits, such as caffeine intake and exercise, so you can see if there are any patterns.

If you have chronic trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor - undiagnosed sleep disorders can wreak havoc on your life

"Sleep disorders are often diagnosed and thus untreated," Salas said. "People don't realize that they may be at risk for a sleep disorder. Many people believe that sleep apnea, for example, is a disorder from being overweight. Obesity is a risk factor - but it's for sure not the only one."

Consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia

Prescription sleep aids can be prescribed as a short-term solution, but cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia will likely be a better long-term treatment. It can help identify patterns that are disrupting your sleep and address and treat the underlying causes of your sleep issues.

Look for a certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist - the Mayo Clinic has some helpful tips on where to look and what to expect.

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