Do you spend too many nights counting sheep? You're not alone. According to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, nearly two-thirds of adults have trouble sleeping a few nights per week or more. "Insomnia is universal. Everybody has it as some point," says Martin B. Scharf, Ph.D., director of the Tri-State Sleep Disorders Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, who deems insomnia "the number-one sleep disorder." But rest assured; by brushing up on what sleep specialists refer to as your "sleep hygiene," you can help make sleepless nights a thing of the past.
Stay on schedule—even on weekends. Turning in and getting up at about the same time every day gives your body the cues it needs to nod off. (Attempting to catch up on your zzz's over the weekend will only result in a sleepless Sunday night.) For the best rest, turn in early. "Studies suggest that if you normally need eight hours of sleep and you get them between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M., you'll feel more rested than if you go to sleep at midnight and get up at 8 A.M.," says David Simon, M.D., medical director of the Chopra Center in La Jolla, California.
Exercise regularly—but not too close to bedtime. Working out increases the time you spend in deep sleep, the stage during which your body begins to repair its cells and refresh the immune system. But exercising less than three hours before lights out can leave you too pumped up to sleep, cautions Peter J. Hauri, Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Insomnia Program and coauthor of No More Sleepless Nights.
Cut the caffeine. Switch to decaf at least six hours before bedtime, recommends the National Sleep Foundation.
Say no to nicotine and nightcaps. Cigarettes are a powerful stimulant that can keep you jittery for hours. And though you may feel like nodding off after you have a drink or two, once the effects of alcohol wear off, sleep actually becomes more fitful.
Dine early—and keep it light. Eating a big meal in the evening isn't conducive to sleep. "The body can't rest while it's digesting," reports Dr. Simon, who recommends consuming a light dinner no later than 6:30 P.M. But don't go to bed hungry—it's hard to fall asleep when your stomach is growling. If you need a snack, opt for a couple of cookies or crackers; carbohydrates can increase levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is thought to produce deeper sleep.
Keep cool. "A cool room—between 60° and 65° F—makes for optimal sleeping," says Andrea Herman, director of the Better Sleep Council. And, as cozy as it may feel, snuggling under a crush of heavy blankets can push your body temperature too high for deepest sleep.
Draw the shades. The absence of light is crucial to sleep, explains Daryn Eller, author of Power Up. "It's darkness—including that provided by your eyelids—that allows the release of melatonin, a hormone produced in the pineal gland when we normally sleep." If your bedroom is lit up (either by street lights or a night owl roommate), Eller suggests investing in a sleep mask or darker curtains.
Noises off. Consider earplugs if you sleep with a snorer or live on or near a loud street.
Choose a mattress that passes muster. Besides offering comfortable support (that is, the same alignment as when you're in good standing posture), a mattress should be spacious enough to allow for free and easy movement. For most couples, that means a queen- or king-size mattress.
Soak your way to slumber. Take a hot bath, which will cause your body temperature to rise, two hours before bedtime, suggests Scharf. "As your temperature comes down, it will help make you sleep."
Reserve your bedroom, or at least your bed, for sleep and sex. You want your body to associate the bed with sleeping, making love and nothing else. If you like to read or watch TV before hitting the hay, do so on the couch or in a chair—preferably one in the living room.
De-stress. "In order to fall asleep, you have to get your mind to quiet down," says Dr. Simon. Some relaxation techniques include listening to calming music, inhaling scents you find soothing, and practicing body awareness, in which you direct your attention to any place in your body where you're holding tension and, slowly and deeply, breathe into it. "Somewhere along the way, most people will conk out," says Dr. Simon.