Get sunlight every morning.
If you don’t commute to work, it can be easy to spend your entire mornings inside. But exposure to sunlight serves an important purpose: It shuts down the release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. “Most brain fog in the morning is caused by continued melatonin production,” said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Power of When.” “When sunlight hits your eye, it sends a signal to your brain to tell the melatonin faucet to turn off.” Aim to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight first thing every morning.
Make your bed a haven.
Working from home — sometimes from our beds — has erased a lot of the boundaries between work and sleep. But turning your mattress into an office can condition your brain to view your bed as a place that makes you stressed and alert, which can lead to insomnia. That’s why sleep experts say you have to reserve your bed for two activities only. “The bed is for sleeping or sex,” said Dr. Rosen. “If you’re not doing either of those things, then get out of bed. If you have the luxury of going to a different room, then that’s even better. You have to break the association of being awake in bed.”
Exercise for better sleep.
The pandemic led people to cut back on physical activity. But exercise is the easiest way to improve sleep, said Dr. Breus. “Sleep is recovery,” he added. “If you don’t have anything to recover from, your sleep isn’t going to be that great.” At least 29 studies have found that daily exercise, regardless of the type or intensity, helps people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, especially among people who are middle-aged or older. According to the Sleep Foundation, people with chronic insomnia can fall asleep about 13 minutes faster and gain up to 20 extra minutes of sleep per night by starting an exercise routine. One caveat: End your exercise at least four hours before bedtime, otherwise it could interfere with your sleep by raising your core body temperature, said Dr. Breus.
Cut off caffeine at 2 p.m.
Caffeine has a half-life of six to eight hours and a quarter-life of about 12 hours. That means that if you drink coffee at 4 p.m., “you’ll still have a quarter of the caffeine floating around in your brain at 4 a.m.,” said Dr. Breus. Avoiding caffeine in the evening is a no-brainer. But ideally you should steer clear of caffeine after 2 p.m. so your body has enough time to metabolize and clear most of it from your system.
Follow the two-drink rule.
If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to two drinks in the evening and stop at least three hours before bed. Alternate each drink with a glass of water. Because alcohol is a sedative, some people drink a nightcap to help them fall asleep faster. But alcohol suppresses REM sleep and causes sleep disruptions, which will worsen the overall quality of your sleep. “The closer you drink to your bedtime, the worse your sleep is going to be,” said Dr. Breus.
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When to Seek Help
The occasional bout of insomnia is nothing to fret about. But if you make changes to your sleep routine and nothing seems to help, then it might be time to see a doctor. A sleep specialist can determine whether you need cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or another treatment. Or it could be the case that you have an underlying sleep disorder, such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea. A doctor would evaluate you to find out.
If you need help, go to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s website, sleepeducation.org, and enter your ZIP code to find a local sleep doctor or provider. “Don’t suffer in silence,” said Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg. “Ask for help if you need it. There are sleep physicians everywhere, and that’s what we’re here for.”