The Sleep Snatchers
Feel like you need to catch up on some sleep? Better hurry: Men in a 2010 Penn State study who logged 6 hours a night or less were four times more likely to die younger of any cause than those who slept longer. "Lack of sleep can disrupt your immune system, metabolism, and cognitive function, and also increase your risk of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes," says study author Alexandros Vgontzas, M.D., Ph.D. Even if a shortage of shut-eye doesn't kill you, the outcome still ain't pretty: People who skimp on sleep appear sicklier and less attractive, a new Swedish study reveals.
Your sleep thief may not be something as obvious as a noisy street or a bedside window. We've exposed six sneaky sleep saboteurs; read on to find out how to put 'em to bed. We're betting you'll notice a difference immediately: Getting a good night's sleep is the fastest way to improve your health, work performance, and even your sex life. Sweet dreams.
Sleep Saboteur #1: A Hot Bed
Sure, during sex you want things to heat up. The rest of the time, though, you should keep your cool. Keeping your thermostat between 68° and 74°F promotes solid slumber, says psychiatrist and sleep specialist Tracey Marks, M.D., the author of Master Your Sleep.
Your body clock regulates your core temperature, and its fluctuations tell you when to sleep and when to wake up, she says. "You're coolest in the middle of the night, when sleep is deepest." If you're too warm, your internal alarm assumes it's time to rise, and sleep becomes fitful.
If the idea of cooling your entire house gives you nightmares, consider installing a "slave thermostat" to regulate only your bedroom temp. You can also tackle the problem lying down by using 400-thread-count cotton sheets—they're breathable but soft—and a gel mattress topper, such as the Hirakawa Gelmat ($50 and up, coolgelsolutions.com). "It's the opposite of memory foam, which retains your body heat," says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the sleep medicine center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. "The gel maintains a surface temperature that's lower than the mattress's, creating cooler contact points."
Sleep saboteur #2: Money Worries
A seemingly endless economic recession can swipe your sleep with the speed of a free-falling 401(k). "Decreased financial resources leads to worry over paying bills, and you may be required to work more," Dr. Marks says. "The physical and mental overload increases activity in your brain, causing you to 'think yourself awake.'" This is when frustrated insomniacs often resort to distraction tactics, such as television. But even though watching TV may calm your racing mind, the flickering light will interrupt secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, causing a less-than-restful night.
You'll need to wage chemical warfare. Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to insomnia, says Dr. Marks. Endorphins, the brain's "happy chemicals," have a relaxing effect. Sex or masturbation causes a rush of endorphins, but there's an even quicker fix: humor. Try watching a funny 3-minute video on YouTube, Dr. Marks suggests. To avoid stimulation from the light of your screen, install F.lux (stereopsis.com/flux), which dulls its glow to a warm hue at night. If you still wake up fretting in the night, try counting sheep. Seriously. Counting occupies space in your brain's "articulatory loop," the part that processes ongoing information, according to a 2010 study review in Insomnia and Anxiety. The loop's capacity is limited, so the fluffy guys crowd out unwanted thoughts.
Sleep saboteur #3: Hellish Heartburn
If daytime heartburn is a pain, a midnight attack is a nightmare. "It can stir you awake, often multiple times throughout the night," says William Orr, Ph.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma. Symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, occur when the valve between your stomach and esophagus malfunctions, allowing acid to seep past. Some patients wake up choking or coughing, while others don't consciously rouse but still feel drained in the morning. People with nighttime heartburn often wake up with a bitter taste in the mouth or a sore throat.
Beyond avoiding oversize meals and spicy food before bed, try a sleeping wedge to elevate your head a few inches above the rest of your body. "It's a lot easier for acid to creep out of your stomach and into your esophagus if you're lying flat," Dr. Winter says. If you like to sleep on your side, curl up on your left side. On you right side, the sphincter between your stomach and esophagus may stay open longer, letting acid flow freely, a study review in the Archives of Internal Medicine found.
Sleep saboteur #4: A Squirming Bedmate
A limb-flinging, snoring, blanket-stealing partner will undeniably disrupt your sleep, but your bedmate may also be guilty of subtler offenses. Your partner's teeth grinding, frequent bathroom trips, or even body heat can also spoil your slumber, says Dr. Winter.
Rest easy: If she tosses and turns, top your mattress with memory foam, which won't shift with her body. If that's too warm, choose a mattress with pocket coils; these aren't tied together, so movement won't create a chain reaction. If she's a kicker, ask her to sleep on her back or stomach. "On her back, it becomes more of a toe-tapping movement," says Dr. Winter. Or consider "sleep vacations"—sleeping apart a few nights a week. "You're ensured sound sleep, and there's no guilt, because these are set nights," Dr. Winter says.
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