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Solve your sleep crisis -- tonight

By Jennifer Abbasi, Health.com
updated 7:07 AM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
Increasing stressors like juggling work and family and the economic slump are taking a toll on our sleep, experts say.
Increasing stressors like juggling work and family and the economic slump are taking a toll on our sleep, experts say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last year women received 5.8 million more sleeping pill prescriptions than five years ago
  • Not getting enough sleep can lead to depression, high blood pressure, heart disease
  • Doing even half of the recommended weekly exercise will help reduce sleep problems

(Health.com) -- Sleepless nights aren't a modern invention. But experts say modern life is making them increasingly common.

"More and more, we are seeing women who have trouble falling -- and staying -- asleep," says Rebecca Scott, a behavioral sleep medicine expert at the New York Sleep Institute.

Last year, in fact, women received 5.8 million more prescriptions for sleeping pills than they did just five years earlier.

Psychologists and sleep clinicians believe this sleep crisis is due to increasing stressors like juggling work and family, caring for aging parents, and the crummy economy.

"We now know that many health issues, including sleep disturbance, are related to anxiety," notes Robin Haight, a clinical psychologist in Tyson's Corner, Virginia.

Technology is another modern stimulant: Ever stayed up watching "Mad Men" or playing a game (or 10) of Bejeweled on your smartphone when you knew you should be getting shut-eye?

The toll could be considerable. Aside from leaving you sluggish and cranky, not getting enough sleep can lead to depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain and diabetes.

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With our sleep problems worsening, experts say it's time we made serious changes to get better rest. Here are real solutions to today's top sleep obstacles.

Sleep problem #1: You can't fall asleep

Instead of winding down and relaxing before bed, we're doing chores, checking e-mail, and getting riled up by the TV news until we hit the sack. To create a more snooze-inducing routine:

During the day

Squeeze in exercise whenever you can. Chris Kline, who studies the effect of exercise on sleep at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, says that doing even half of the recommended weekly 150 minutes of moderate activity and two muscle-training sessions has been shown to significantly reduce sleep problems in women, in part by regulating body temperature and reducing anxiety and depression.

Surprisingly, being active in the early evening may help you fall asleep more easily, Kline says, but see what timing works best for you.

Health.com: 7 tips for the best sleep ever

Two hours before bedtime

Lower the lights. Turning off lights and lamps signals to the body that sleep time is near-- the way twilight did before we had electric lighting.

The type of lightbulbs you use also matters. "The hue of light can be described as warm versus cold, or soft versus harsh," says Michael Terman, an expert on light and biological rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center and author of the upcoming book "Chronotherapy."

"Cold, harsh white light" -- like that found in fluorescent bulbs -- "contains a significant blue component, which is most likely to interfere with sleep onset," Terman says.

Blue light, more so than other colors in the light spectrum, suppresses the body's release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. The cooler the prominent colors in a type of lighting (blue and green, say, as opposed to yellow and red), the higher its color temperature, measured in kelvins (K).

Check lightbulb packaging for the words "soft" or "warm" and for a color temperature of 3000 K or less, which is less likely to trigger insomnia, Terman says.

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An hour before bedtime

Dim your screens. Watching TV or tooling around online may help you decompress, but most screens emit more blue light than lamps do, and that -- plus any exciting or disturbing stuff you see -- will keep your brain going.

So if you can't give up your late-night screen time, at least turn down the brightness on your TV, tablet, or computer. You can also install a free program called f.lux on your laptop to automatically reduce the blue light it emits at night.

Half an hour before bedtime

Power down. Now's the time to turn off the tube -- experts recommend reading by low lamplight. Pick an article or book that's not so suspenseful it keeps you up (think "Bossypants," not "Hunger Games"), and nothing work- or school-related -- too stressful!

Health.com: How to turn your bedroom into a sleep haven

Sleep problem #2: You can't stay asleep

It's natural to drift in and out of sleep, especially during the second half of the night. Since slumber grows lighter as we get older, the over-40 set is especially prone to late-night interruptions. What to do when they happen:

Step 1: Don't check the alarm clock to see what time it is, since knowing it's 3 a.m. will only stress you out. Keep the clock under your bed so you can't look.

Step 2: Have a strategy to keep middle-of-the-night anxiety at bay. When your mind starts going a mile a minute during nighttime wakeups, it's even more impossible to relax back into sleep.

If unfinished tasks keep you from sleeping soundly, jot down a to-do list for the next day before turning in. This can help keep you from coming to full consciousness when you wake up.

"It tells the brain that it no longer needs to stay on high alert and can focus on promoting sleep," Scott explains. If the thoughts start flooding in anyway, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you've written down everything you need to tackle in the morning, so it's safe to fall back asleep.

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Step 3: Mind still racing? "Think of a positive experience you had that day or one thing that you're grateful for," Scott advises. Or visualize yourself in a comfortable place (think the beach, the woods, or a hammock) to create a relaxation response and ease into slumber, Haight says.

Step 4: Fight hot flashes. Lowered estrogen levels can cause this common menopause symptom. When they happen at night, the rise in your body temperature will likely wake you up.

If you're facing a regular case of the night sweats, keep your bedroom cool with an open window, fan, or air conditioner, and switch to lightweight cotton PJs and bedding. And talk to your doctor, who may suggest hormone therapy or other medications, such as antidepressants.

Health.com: What's keeping you awake at night?

Sleep problem #3: Your sleep is interrupted

Enter a snoring husband, bed-hopping pets and kids, or blinking, pinging e-mail alerts on your BlackBerry. To defuse them:

Step 1: Ask your snoring spouse to talk to a doctor. He could have a treatable condition, like sleep apnea.

Step 2: Keep kids and pets out of your room if you aren't getting restful sleep. Easier said than done, yes. But be strong!

Step 3: Lights and noises disrupt your sleep more than you might realize. Silence your phone at night and keep it charging where you can't see it.

A pitch-black bedroom is ideal for good sleep, so skip the nightlights and use amber-colored ones in the hallway and in the bathroom -- they won't mess with your melatonin levels when you get up to go in the middle of the night. Consider installing blackout shades or curtains on your windows, too. Then simply close your eyes, enjoy the silence and prepare for a hard-earned night's rest.

Health.com: Which sleep style is healthiest?

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

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