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Tossing and Turning? 7 Science-Backed Secrets for a Better Night’s Sleep

Sometimes, all you need are a few simple changes.

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animation of moon moving over a lady sleeping on a big pillow, sleep, rest
Sam Island
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I’ve started wearing something new to bed lately, and it’s really made a difference. You might be thinking slinky lingerie, but no, sorry, it’s a sleep mask — and it’s helped me greatly.

The mask blocks the glare from outside light that seeps through our window shades, the night-light’s glimmer from the nearby bathroom, and the glow from my husband’s iPad, which he often reads in bed. This may not sound like such a big deal, but numerous studies report that nighttime exposure to artificial light can disrupt our body’s natural sleep cycle and, over time, increase our risk for serious illness, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Even a single night spent sleeping in a moderately lit room increases heart rate and hampers the body’s ability to metabolize glucose the next morning, says Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University and senior author of a 2022 study on the effects of bedroom light exposure published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Sleep disturbances are common among older adults who are also at risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disorders,” she stated. “If possible, minimizing exposure to light in the bedroom during sleep and getting more light during the daytime may have a beneficial effect on health.”

To cut down on the light in my bedroom, I ordered a $10 sleep mask. I initially had low expectations, but to my surprise, it has helped me fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly. I have stopped waking up feeling as tired as I was when I went to bed.

Feeling less fatigued isn’t the only benefit of improved sleep — it also can affect mood, appetite, immune function and stress hormones, writes sleep researcher Sophie Bostock, author of “The Sleep Scientist” blog. Disrupted sleep may increase heart disease risk for post-menopausal women even more than for older men, a 2021 study in the European Heart Journal found.

Sometimes simple changes can help enhance our sleep quality. Here are seven surprising tips to help you get more z’s.

Orgasm can help. Sexual activity — whether it’s with a partner or through self-stimulation — helps improve sleep quality for both men and women, researchers report. The study, published in 2019 in Frontiers in Public Health, surveyed 780 adults about the effect of sex with a partner before sleep versus masturbation before sleep. Both men and women said having an orgasm helped sleep quality slightly more, but the bottom line was, any sexual stimulation helped improve their sleep.

Try socks. Wearing socks to bed to warm up those “popsicle toes,” as the 1976 song by Michael Franks called them, might be a good way to get a better night’s sleep. Cold extremities are especially common among women — about 30 percent compared to about 7 percent of men, a 2008 study in the Journal of Sleep Research reported — and make falling asleep more difficult. Another study, published in 2007 in the journal Physiology and Behavior, found that older adults who warmed their tootsies by either wearing socks or taking a warm footbath before bed fell asleep faster.

Rethink using the TV as a sleep aid. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 62 percent of boomers watch television in their bedrooms before trying to go to sleep. Many say a muted TV acts as low-level background noise (similar to white noise) that helps them drift off, especially if they listen to a familiar, feel-good show. On the other hand, TV is a source of blue light that can be disruptive to the body’s sleep-wake cycle. One way to reduce the harm, suggests physician Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, is to set a timer to turn off the TV once you’ve fallen asleep.

A warm bath to cool down. This may sound counterintuitive, but taking a warm bath or shower an hour or two before bedtime helps your body cool down more easily, which helps promote sleep. The core body temperature needs to drop by some 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit for better sleep, according to Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and sleep specialist at the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Why We Sleep.

According to Walker, the warmth of a bath brings blood to the skin’s surface, allowing heat to be released more easily and the body to cool. An analysis of bath-before-bed studies published in 2019 in Sleep Medicine Reviews also found that a bath or shower of about 104 degrees before bedtime — even for as little as 10 minutes — was significantly associated with improved sleep quality.

Aim for a 10 to 11 p.m. bedtime. Researchers say this may be the best time for bed. A 2021 study published in the European Heart Journal that looked at data from sleep trackers on more than 103,000 adults, ages 37 to 73, found that those who regularly went to bed during this time had the lowest risk for heart disease, especially women. Researchers aren’t sure why that particular time window is ideal, but they think it may have to do with the body’s natural 24-hour circadian rhythm. No matter what, try to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning at the same time each day. It’s irregular sleep-wake patterns that mess with the body’s natural cycle the most and increase the risk of disease.

Try a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets, filled with pellets that can add from 10 to 25 pounds, depending on the one you choose, have been touted for their calming and sleep-promoting effects. Some say using a weighted blanket feels like being hugged; sleep researchers suggest it applies touch pressure similar to a massage. A 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that patients with major depression and other mental health disorders reported significantly less insomnia, daytime fatigue, depression and anxiety after using a weighted blanket for four weeks. After the study ended, most of the study participants opted to keep using the blankets, and a 12-month follow-up found that 78 percent continued to experience less insomnia.

Dial back daytime caffeine. Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. because its effects can linger in your system much longer than you realize. Six hours after you consume caffeine, half of it is still in your body, says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. That means your 3 p.m. cup of coffee is still being felt at 9 p.m., and may not be gone from your system until after midnight.

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