Throughout the month of January, we’re serving up a series of "New Year, New Healthy Habits" articles on how to tackle common bad health habits by adopting some simple behavior change techniques. We kicked off the series with tips on how to slay stress. This week, we're looking at another prevalent health concern: how to get enough sleep.
If you routinely have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you're far from the only one who's trying to keep your eyes open right now. According to a 2014 poll from the National Sleep Foundation, 35% of Americans describe their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair.”
Why has catching those Zs gotten so difficult?
Blame stress, says Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.
"Far and away, it's the most common reason people don't sleep," Gehrman says.
Short of removing every possible anxiety-producing situation from your life (we wish!), there are a few simple strategies that may help you drift off to dreamland faster and arise feeling more refreshed—like these five sleep-better hacks.
Wind Down for an Hour Before Bed
These days, we get so busy that we don't slow down physically and mentally before we try to sleep, Gehrman says. But taking time to relax before you hit the sheets is crucial.
And, ideally, you should be doing that relaxing away from your cell phone.
According to, Director of Clinical Research, Janssen Research & Development, the blue light emitted by digital screens, like those on mobile phones and tablets, alters the brain's release of melatonin—the hormone that affects our circadian rhythms and makes us sleepy in the absence of brightness.
If reading quietly under a dim lamp just isn't your thing, there's good news: "I don’t generally count TVs as problematic screen time," Gehrman says. So if a sitcom helps you chill out, go for it. Just avoid anything potentially overstimulating, like a horror movie or the news.
And aim to make this a consistent habit, doing it at the same time every night—even on weekends. Sleeping in on your days off will only make it harder for you to fall asleep at a normal time during the workweek.
Change Up Your Exercise Time
If you have trouble sleeping and also work out at night, there may be a connection.
"Normally, our core body temperature drops at night, and as it cools, we tend to feel more sleepy," Gehrman explains. "If you do cardio exercise, it raises your core temperature and typically keeps it elevated for one to two hours. That can make it hard to fall asleep."
Sound familiar? Try shifting your routine to the morning, or at least earlier in the evening. (If you're doing something lower-impact like yoga, there's no need to adjust.)
Lower the Temp in Your Bedroom
It's tempting to keep the house toasty in winter, but studies show that people who get the most deep sleep do so in a cool bedroom. "Not cold, but cool," Gehrman stresses.
As your body temperature drops, you typically feel more drowsy. So turn down the heat a few degrees, open a window or turn on a fan if your room's too warm.
This most likely works for the same reason it pays not to exercise at night: As your body temperature drops, you typically feel more drowsy. So turn down the heat a few degrees, open a window or turn on a fan if your room's too warm.
Don't Just Lie There
If you're tossing and turning in the middle of the night, get out of bed. While this may sound counterintuitive, it actually works. "The harder you try to fall asleep, the harder it is," Gehrman says.
Walking away and engaging in a quiet activity—say, flipping through a magazine or tidying up the living room—until you start to feel sleepy again distracts and relaxes you so you can return to the pillow in a better mindset for scoring shut-eye.
Let a Pro Help
If changing up your habits doesn't seem to be working, it's worth talking to a doctor.
Stress aside, "the most common causes of poor sleep are behavioral," points out Dr. Savitz, who's currently studying a new medication to relieve insomnia. "People might drink too much caffeine or alcohol before bed," for instance, which can disrupt your sleep cycles.
The culprit could also be physical problems, like obstructive sleep apnea or periodic leg movements, which a physician could diagnose and treat.
And a therapist can rule out mood-based causes, like depression, or simply teach you mental skills to lull you into better slumber on a regular basis. For example, consider jotting down anything that's stressing you out right before going to bed, so you don't lie awake out of anxiety creating a mental list.
"There's a great deal of evidence," says Dr. Savitz, "that cognitive-behavioral therapy is quite useful for insomnia."