It seems that once we pass age ten or eleven the days of sleeping well are behind us. First we have the teen years where early mornings and late nights are thrust upon us without our permission. Next, during the young adult years, we choose late nights with friends over sleep. Finally we face the parenting years - that blur of sleepless nights that begins with fussy infants and closes out with new teen drivers.

And then, just as we begin to look forward to one of the major rewards of the empty nest - a good night’s sleep – the game changes yet again. Hormones, changes in circadian rhythm and maybe a few health problems conspire to keep us awake at night.

It’s an ugly story because we know that insufficient sleep correlates with a laundry list of health problems. Weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and mood disorders are all correlated with lack of sleep, as is a decrease in longevity.

Lack of sleep also has an impact on public safety, affecting quality of medical care and causing as many as 20 percent of motor vehicle accidents.

This is all great information, but if you can’t get to sleep at night what are you supposed to do?

Sleep specialists recommend “sleep hygiene” for those of us who face regular sleep difficulties. Just like brushing and flossing, sleep hygiene should be a part of your evening routine. Here are a few tips to help you get a better night’s sleep.

  • Establish a bedtime routine. It was good for your toddlers and it’s good for you. Go to bed at the same time each night. Give yourself about 30 minutes to an hour before your bed time to shut down. Don’t work or engage in mentally stimulating tasks. Take a warm shower, read a book, meditate, stretch. Any combination of these things done night after night will help you settle in to sleep.
  • Maintain your routine on the weekend as much as possible. If you have a late night, don’t let yourself sleep much later than usual. Then you can jump right back into your routine the next night.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day. We all know this, but it bears repeating. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can keep you up or decrease the quality of your sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol late in the evening, too. Alcohol does have a sedative effect, but only initially. That glass of cabernet may end up waking you several hours later as it begins to have a stimulating effect on the brain.
  • Avoid screens in the hour before bedtime. Television and electronic devices emit light that confuses your internal clock. Beyond the light issue, an episode of Breaking Bad is not exactly lullaby material. So shut off the electronics and maybe even dim the lights in the last hour of your day.
  • Be sure to have medical concerns addressed. Lack of sleep can exacerbate medical problems, and the reverse is also true. Unaddressed medical problems can impact your ability to sleep. It’s important to get needed medical care to disrupt the cycle. Discuss the impact of medications on sleep with your doctor, as well.
  • Look for signs of depression if you are unable to sleep. Depression is a medical condition, and it should be treated just like any other chronic disease. Unfortunately, we often don’t seek treatment since there is a perceived stigma to mood disorders. The ugly cycle of depression and insomnia is particularly troublesome.  Don’t hesitate to get necessary medical help if you feel this applies to you.
  • See your doctor about your snoring. It’s a common sign of sleep apnea. If you are sleeping a full eight hours but still feel unrested, apnea may be the issue. Individuals with sleep apnea aren’t able to draw a breath as they fall asleep. This causes them to wake momentarily to catch their breath. You may not be aware this is happening, but if you often jerk awake or snort suddenly and loudly in your sleep, your snoring may not be benign. Your spouse can be a good judge of the situation and will surely appreciate any effort you make to address the issue.
  • Exercise early in the day. Exercising too late can be stimulating, but a good work out early on will help you fall asleep at night. With the sedentary lives many of us lead, a good exercise routine can go a long way toward a good night’s sleep.

If you’ve incorporated your best efforts into sleep hygiene and still have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, give your doctor a call. Sleep specialists can get to the root of more unusual but problematic issues that can cause sleep disturbances. Just remember the Irish Proverb, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”