How to Put Yourself to Sleep

Take the tossing and turning out of your nighttime with these why-am-I-awake?! solutions.

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Before You Sleep

Our number one dumb nighttime mistake? We don't downshift gradually to ease into slumber. That's like suddenly trying to hit the brakes in a car when you're going 60 mph, says sleep expert Rubin Naiman, PhD, of the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine. Use these moves to change gears intelligently.

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Create a routine. Every mom knows that kids need nighttime rituals (Goodnight Moon has sold about 25 million copies for this exact reason). You need them too: Before you lie down, prime your sleep pump by doing something you find relaxing, like light stretching, writing down the sweetest moments of your day, or reading a novel. Repeating that routine nightly tells your brain, Hey, it's time to sleep, says Nancy Collop, MD, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta.

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Set two "bedtimes." Plan to check off all that busywork you try to do before sleep by your first "bedtime," which should be 30 to 60 minutes before you actually climb into the sack, Naiman says. You don't want to move from something ­stimulating — laying out work clothes, packing lunches, etc. — to lying down to sleep. Signal that first bedtime with an alarm clock to hold you to it. When it goes off, get into wind-down mode.

Have your bad dreams before you go to bed. When we're alone in the dark without distractions, "there's a natural tendency for our fears to rise to the surface," Naiman says. "Of course, we can't rid ourselves of all negative thoughts before bed, but if you can talk with a partner or write in a journal and let some of those things go, then what's gnawing at you is less likely to keep you awake." If these thoughts pop up again as you try to drift off, relax and tell yourself, I already dealt with that, Collop says.

Close your eyes and love it. "People who don't sleep well often set their sights on tomorrow's awakening," says Naiman. "Good sleepers will tell you that they close their eyes and savor sleep. There's a sensual quality to it — a whole process of surrendering and letting go. Once you fall back in love with sleep, slowing down and stopping will become a pleasure, rather than an annoyance."

In the Middle of the Night

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A weird clunk. A bad dream. A 3 A.M. pee break. It's perfectly natural for us to wake periodically at night. The problem is our reaction to that trouble. "People go into fight mode. We think that any wakefulness at night is insomnia," Naiman says. "But usually you can nod off again." Try these tips to stop your mind from going on a worry bender — at least long enough for you to get back to sleep.

Don't let the eight-hour myth make you cuckoo. Thinking that you absolutely must get eight hours of sleep every night or all is lost has kept many an insomniac tossing and turning. Everyone's needs are different, but many people do fine with less. Stop catastrophizing if you're awake for a while. For plenty of us, it's just part of a normal pattern.

Let your body handle it. When your ruminating brain won't let you sleep, breathing exercises are your best bet. Just focus on your breath — inhale, exhale, repeat. "Doing this redirects the part of your brain that wants to stay active," Collop says. Or you can try progressive muscle relaxation, which also helps distract your churning mind. Tense your toes, then relax. Tense your calves, then relax. Keep working upward, toward your head. By the time you hit your shoulders, you're usually back in la-la land.

Get out of bed. If nothing's working, go to another room. Other­wise, you may associate the bed with tossing and turning. Move to a dimly lit place and do something calming (flip through a book with pretty pictures, meditate) until you feel sleepy, then head back to bed, Collop says.

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The Day After

We're all going to have a rough night every once in a while. Manage your next day with the "plan zzzz" below so that one eyes-wide-open spell doesn't trigger days of misery.

Stick to your schedule. If you have an off night, don't cave in to the temptation to take a nap the next day or go to bed earlier that night. Let your usual schedule prevail. When you vary your sleep patterns, it throws off your circadian rhythm, so you'll be working against what your body naturally wants you to do at certain times, says Michael Irwin, MD, director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Have regular, healthy meals. Emphasize protein and complex carbs (veggies, whole grains); avoid heavy meals and sugar, which can add to drowsiness, Naiman says. During the day, use your energy productively when it's there, and do stuff you can just muddle through when it's not. Actively battling sleepiness only burns up your energy.

Don't overdo the drinks. Booze depresses the central nervous system, and as it wears off, the system rebounds — which can make you wakeful in the middle of the night and have less dreamy REM sleep. If you're having one drink, finish it at least one hour before bedtime. Two drinks: Stop two hours before bed, says Collop. Three drinks? That's just too many!

Unplug yourself early. Sitting in front of one screen or another in the evening seems relaxing, but the blue light from your electronic devices stops your melatonin from rising and working its slumberland magic. If you must use your gadgets in the hour or so before you turn in (you don't sleep with them, right?), a pair of "blue-blocker" glasses may help mute their sleep-wrecking effects, Naiman says.

Be extra vigilant about the simple things. You probably already know the classic sleep-better tactics. So, are you using them? Three commandments: Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and as noise-free as possible; avoid caffeine six hours before bed; and stick to a regular exercise schedule, but don't work out too close to sleep time. G'night, everyone.

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This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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