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Home » Revealing the Truth About Sleep: Myths and Realities for a Better Night’s Rest

Revealing the Truth About Sleep: Myths and Realities for a Better Night’s Rest


Experts Share Their Secrets to a Good Night’s Sleep

Call us a nation of insomniacs: We already weren’t sleeping much (20% of Americans get less than 6 hours nightly), and then the bad economy hit. Now one-third of us are losing shut-eye over worries about money, says a recent National Sleep Foundation poll. “We live in a culture that prides itself on its ability to get by on little sleep. But the reality is that lack of sleep can increase your risk of many conditions, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes,” explains Richard Castriotta, MD, director of the Division of Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. In other words, not getting your zzz’s is a risk factor you can’t afford to ignore.

Here’s the rub: Listening to the experts talk about the “rules” for getting a good night’s rest can make it seem like an impossible dream. So we asked them to level with us and reveal what you can—and can’t— get away with.

Rule: Get Eight Hours of Sleep a Night
Get as much (or as little) as you need to feel well-rested. Most adults typically need between seven and nine hours, but everyone’s needs vary. In fact, if you’re good on six and a half to seven hours of sleep but in bed for eight or nine, you could be setting yourself up for insomnia, says Shelby Freedman Harris, PsyD, CBSM, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. How to tell what you need: For two mornings in a row, let yourself wake up without an alarm. However long you sleep is how much you require.

Rule: Don’t Watch TV Before Bed
Skip the stressful shows. A little Letterman can actually lull you to dreamland if it helps you unwind, explains Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of Beauty Sleep. Just avoid anything anxiety producing, like the news. Another keeper-upper: the bright light emanating from the screen (it stimulates your nervous system). So about an hour to a half-hour before bedtime, try dimming the TV screen by adjusting the Brightness setting.

Rule: Keep Your Bedroom Pristine and Clutter-Free
Ignore the mess if it doesn’t faze you. That pile of clothes on the chair and old magazines on the dresser are only a problem if you stress about cleaning when you see them, says Dr. Castriotta. What is important: The room should be completely dark, says Joyce Walsleben, RN, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and coauthor of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep. You can do this fairly inexpensively, either via blackout curtains (like Solaris’ 84-inch blackout panel, $39.99; ) or an eye mask (look for one with eye cavities so your eyes don’t rub against the material, like Dream Essentials Sweet Dreams Eye Mask, $6.95; ).

Rule: Keep Spot Out of Your Bedroom
Train pets to sleep at the foot of your bed or on the floor. They’ll be less likely to disturb you than if they’re hogging all the covers or draping themselves over your pillow. If they pace around a lot at night, however, or if you’re allergic to pet dander, they will need other sleeping quarters.

Rule: No Eating Before Bed
Keep it light. The right snack (nothing gassy or greasy, like chips, that’ll cause indigestion) about a half-hour before turning in may prevent you from waking up hungry in the middle of the night, says Aneesa Das, MD, a sleep specialist at Ohio State University. If you tend to get hungry, try something rich in complex carbs and protein, like a slice of whole-grain bread with a dab of peanut butter, or high-fiber cereal with lowfat milk. These combos don’t break down as fast as simple carbs, so they’ll hold you through the night. And it’s a good idea to cut back on fat in general: A recent study found that the more fat people eat, the more likely they are to wake up during the night.

Rule: Avoid Naps; They Make You Groggy
Time it right—make it either a 25- or a 90-minute nap. “Twenty-five minutes is short enough to prevent you from entering the deep-sleep cycle, so you’ll wake up refreshed, while 90 minutes allows you to go through an entire sleep cycle, so you won’t wake up feeling groggy,” explains Dr. Breus. If you’re really hurting for zzz’s but can only catch a quickie, try drinking a cup of coffee and then closing your eyes for 10 to 15 minutes. It takes about a half-hour for the caffeine to fully kick in, so you’ll be raring to go when naptime is over.

Rule: No Alcohol Four Hours Before Bed
Make last call at least two hours before bed. While alcohol will initially cause you to nod off, its sedating effect wears off once it’s metabolized, causing you to sleep poorly or even wake up. These effects are much less likely if you keep it to just one or two drinks, especially if you have food with them, which slows the absorption of alcohol, says Dr. Breus. Also, for every glass of alcohol, have a glass of water. This can help prevent dehydration, which can affect sleep.

Rule: Use the Bedroom for Sleep and Sex Only
Stick to a nightly routine—whatever that involves. If you always snuggle up with the crossword puzzle page or a good book before bed, don’t ditch the habit. “I often recommend sticking to fiction, as nonfiction can make you start thinking about your own life, which can lead to ruminating,” says Dr. Breus. Your body associates these simple before-bed habits with sleep and naturally starts to wind down as you go through them.

Rule: Don’t Exercise in Late Afternoon or Early Evening; It Will Keep You Up
End your workout by 7 p.m., or at least don’t do anything intense. Moderate aerobic exercise—like a brisk walk or jog— a few hours before bed raises your body temperature and then causes it to drop, a process that helps your body wind down. The best time to get moving is between 5 and 7 p.m., since your temp will then drop about two to four hours later, when you’re going to bed, says James Maas, PhD, a sleep specialist at Cornell University and author of Power Sleep. If the only time you have to work out is later, don’t overdo it, and dim the lights. Bright lighting can shift your body’s biological rhythms, making it harder for you to fall asleep afterward, says Christopher Drake, PhD, a psychologist at the Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit.