At Last: The Secret to a Good Night's Sleep

Sleep BetterScientists like their zzz's just as much as you do - and have put their (hopefully well-rested) brains to studying what really helps you get a good night's sleep.

1. Pump it Up

Regular aerobic exercise - bicycling, walking at a moderate pace, swimming laps - for 30 to 40 minutes, four times a week, improves sleep quality. You can break it up into two 20-minute sessions if that fits better into your life. But don't schedule it in the evening; while exercise helps regulate your sleep/wake cycle, the stimulation that comes from a workout in the three hours before bedtime may cancel the benefit.

2. Combine Carbs and Proteins

Carbohydrates help your brain use tryptophan, an amino acid that causes sleepiness. And proteins help your body build tryptophan. Get the duo in a light bedtime snack of peanut butter on toast or low-fat cheese and crackers.

3. Choose Cherry
The fruit is rich in melatonin, which helps the body regulate its sleep/wake cycle. When study participants drank eight ounces of a tart cherry - juice beverage twice a day for two weeks, they reported significant improvements in insomnia. Find the juice at Whole Foods Market and natural foods stores.

4. Try Tai Chi
This meditative martial art helps you sleep more deeply and for longer, studies have shown. Taichiproductions.com offers a selection of good, though somewhat pricey ($25), DVDs for beginners. The site also includes lists of certified instructors.

5. Develop Patterns
Try to turn in and wake up at the same time every day. But don't worry if you occasionally miss your bedtime during the week - new research shows you can use weekend sleep-ins to help restore your body.

6. Chill Out
A cool bedroom lowers your core body temperature, which initiates sleepiness. Ideal thermostat setting? It varies from person to person, but try 65 degrees to start and then adjust, if necessary.

7. Log Off to Nod Off
Computer and video game players who spend more than seven hours a week on games sleep less and are generally more tired, researchers from the University of Arkansas have found.

8. Stress Soother
Frazzled people sleep less and have worse sleep quality, and compromised slumber contributes to stress. A research-proven way to relax: a warm bath before bed. Not only does a soak help you forget the day's troubles, but raising your skin temperature may enable you to fall asleep faster and then shift you into deeper sleep.

Related: 9 Causes of Sleeplessness

9. Check Your Meds
Common drugs, including beta blockers, steroids, and opioid pain pills, can interfere with sleep either by keeping you awake or by contributing to sleep apnea. Some supplements can cause sleep loss, too - ginseng, for example, is a stimulant.

10. Sprinkle Some Lavender
In numerous experiments, subjects have reported sounder sleep when exposed to the scent. Sprinkle a few drops of essential oil on a cloth and slip under your pillow; use a diffuser; or iron pillowcases with lavender-scented water.

11. Forget About Thread Count
Choose sheets by their finish. If you like your bed to be crisp and cool, go with percale. Sateen and flannel are better for those who prefer a softer, cozier feel. For long-lasting linens, look for Egyptian cotton.

12. Turn Lights Off
Switch off the TV and computer, and face your alarm clock away from you. You'll banish the glow and also those late-night inner monologues - It's 3 A.M.! How will I ever be able to function tomorrow? - that can keep you awake even longer.

13. Snooze Sideways
Snoring, besides disturbing your partner, can wake you up. To stop the roar, get off your back. Airways are most blocked in this position, so you snore more.

14. Resist the TV
If you're tired, you may be tempted to just veg out with a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. But boredom can actually cause sleep loss. Stay busy and challenged during your waking hours - socially, emotionally, and physically - and you'll sleep more soundly.

15. Quit Caffeine Early
Cut yourself off from coffee and other caffeinated beverages at 2 P.M. It may be hard to resist a Starbucks run when you hit your afternoon slump, but take a short walk instead, and you'll ensure the caffeine won't be keeping you buzzed when you're trying to wind down at night.

Related: How to Get to Sleep Fast

16. Cover Your Eyes

The best masks in GHRI tests: Bucky 40 Blinks Mask ($13; bucky.com), Mack's Dreamweaver Contoured Sleep Mask ($8; macks moldex.com), Dream Essentials Dreamer Sleep Mask ($22; dreamessentials.com).

17. Give Fido His Own Room

A Mayo Clinic survey found that 53 percent of people who share beds or bedrooms with pets have disrupted rest. It's best to keep pets out of your room, but if you don't have the heart to teach your old dog a new trick, set up a cozy bed on the floor.

18. Read a Bad Book
When you wake in the night, you can read. But choose something boring, go into another room, and limit it to 20 to 30 minutes. Go back to bed; if you don't fall asleep, repeat the cycle till you feel drowsy.

19. Rethink Your Day Job
It may be interfering with your night life. A study of 2,300 U.S. adults found that people who frequently felt upset at work were nearly twice as likely to develop sleep troubles (interestingly, long hours weren't as disruptive). Try to leave office problems at work. Once you're home, really focus on your family: Put colleague conflict or other work troubles out of mind, set your BlackBerry on "silent," and don't check office e-mail.

Related: 15 Easy Ways to De-Stress


20. Count Blessings, Not Sheep
In a British study, survey respondents who scored highest in gratitude slept longer than less appreciative participants. The quality of their sleep was also better. Take a few minutes each day to mentally savor the things, large or small, that you're thankful for.

21. Low-tech, High Return
Sound machines work for low sounds, but for loud noise, try simple earplugs. They help block everything from street noise and TV to your husband's snoring. Highest in GHRI tests for their muffling ability and comfort: Hearos Ear Plugs Ultimate Softness Series ($3 for four pairs; hearos.com).

22. Nap the Right Way
If you didn't get enough sleep, take a short early-afternoon siesta (10 to 40 minutes). Follow with a spritz of water on your face, or (to save your makeup) pat the back of your neck with cold water.

23. S-t-r-e-t-c-h
In a study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, women who did upper- and lower-body stretches four times a week for about 15 to 30 minutes reduced their problems falling asleep by 30 percent.

24. Act Like Goldilocks
Choose a "just right" mattress that's not too hard and not too soft. Then act like the princess with the proverbial pea: Flip and rotate your mattress every few months to avoid lumps and sags.

25. Put Yourself on the Couch
Try the Conquering Insomnia Program (cbtforinsomnia.com), a $35 interactive course developed by Harvard Medical School psychologist Gregg Jacobs, Ph.D. In one study, 90 percent of participants reported improved sleep; the same number needed fewer or no sleep meds.

How do you sleep soundly through the night? Let me know in the comments!

- By Marnie Soman

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