5 Steps to a Good Night's Sleep

Ned Frisk/Jupiter ImagesBy the editors of FITNESS Magazine

We'll keep this short because we know you're exhausted. According to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of women say they get a good night's sleep just a few days a week or less, and nearly half admit they're so beat that it interferes with daily activities. "We live in a 24-7 society with a huge amount of pressure and commitments," says Helene A. Emsellem, MD, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of Snooze...Or Lose! "It's very easy to sacrifice sleep time for other things we think are more important."

Then there are all those nights we can't nod off, no matter how hard we try. Research shows that women's sleep tends to be disrupted during menstruation, pregnancy, and perimenopause. Women are also more likely than men to suffer from insomnia (about 7 out of 10 women reported having it in a recent poll). Given all this, it's no wonder that the amount of money we spend on sleeping pills has more than doubled since 2002, according to IMS Health, a healthcare information company. And it helps explain why more than a third of women chug at least three caffeinated beverages daily.

If you don't want your best rest to happen during an important meeting at work or at your desk at 3 p.m., here's how to take back your night.

Related: What to Eat for Better Sleep

Step 1: Hit the sheets
.
We know, we know -- the dog needs a bath, you've got 124 e-mails to answer, and you have to do two loads of laundry before you can call it a day. But here's the thing: The chores can wait. "Adequate sleep is as essential to a woman's health as eating and exercise. Stop feeling guilty about getting it," says Lawrence Epstein, MD, author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep.

Is that really possible? Yes, if you prioritize what has to get done right now, and what can wait. Try this simple exercise: "About an hour before bed, type up a to-do list of all the things you need to accomplish, print out the list, then ball it up and throw it in a wastebasket," says Patricia Smith, coauthor of Sleep Disorders for Dummies. "The physical act symbolizes that you don't have to worry about these things until morning -- they'll all be there safely on your computer and you can deal with them then."

Step 2: Do z math.
"Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep a night," says Dr. Emsellem. Since constant catch-up can make it hard to determine exactly how much your body needs, figure it out on your next vacation, when you're miles away from your alarm clock and jam-packed schedule. "You should reach a point where you're going to bed at the same time, rising at the same time, and feeling rested," says Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Human Sleep Research at Stanford University. "That's your optimal sleep length." Once back home, make it a goal to stick to that amount, since skimping even a little can have a huge effect on your mood and concentration: "Studies have shown that if you cut back by about an hour just for one night, your alertness decreases by up to one-third," says Dr. Kushida.

Related: 8-Minute Yoga Routine to Get to Sleep Faster

Step 3: Zap your rest robbers.

Okay, you're ready to get your eight hours, but something else is keeping you up. In a word: pain. Backache. Headache. Cramps. "Pain is the number-one reason why people can't sleep," says Smith. If over-the-counter meds don't help, see your doctor. It sounds like a no-brainer, but, experts say, you'd be surprised how many people try to tough it out.

Other common sleep stoppers are easier to fix. For one thing, kick your kids, pets, computers, and any work-related reading out of bed. "Americans turn their bedrooms into Grand Central Station," says Smith. "Clear out the clutter." If your partner's snoring is the problem, turn on some white noise, such as a fan, to help drown out the racket. You should also send him to a sleep doctor. Loud snoring and twitching can be symptoms of serious disorders, including sleep apnea.

Step 4: Don't skimp on sleep in order to fit in exercise.
"People often think the choices are between two things that are healthy -- sleep in or get up early to exercise," says Dr. Epstein. "You need the exercise and you need the sleep, but you probably don't need those back-to-back Entourage reruns." Or all that time spent surfing the Internet. See, we just bought you an extra two hours!

Sleep secret:
Wear socks to bed. According to a Swedish study, warming your feet helps your body relax, which can promote zzzs.

Related: How to Become a Morning Person

Step 5: Think like a kid.

Yep, even adults need a routine. Here's yours (no binkie required):
• Hit the sack within 30 minutes of the same time each night, and try to wake up at about the same time each day -- even on weekends. Experts swear it works.
• A before-bed routine can also help you chill. Try a hot shower with a favorite, scented body wash; some evidence suggests that when your body temperature is elevated that way and begins dropping, it has a calming effect that can help you sleep more soundly, explains Dr. Epstein.
• Follow your tub time with a single chapter of a relaxing book, or listen to a few soothing songs on an iPod playlist.
• Put on a pair of socks before you hop in bed: According to that Swedish study, the blood vessels in the feet naturally dilate as the body begins to relax, and warming your feet facilitates the process.
• Finally, set the thermostat to about 68 degrees, close the blinds to block out light, and pull up the covers. Sweet dreams!

More from FITNESS Magazine:

15-Minute Workout to Boost Energy, Blast Fat Fast!
20 Healthy, Veggie Side Dishes
Your All-Day Energy Guide