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How to get a better night's sleep

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Middle-of-the-night awakenings are common for many people, and how we deal with this habit is key to getting a good sleep, says sleep expert Michael Grandner, a psychologist at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Whatever you do, do not look at the clock. Checking the time leads to two things antithetical to sleep, Grandner says — math and worry. You are bound to calculate how many hours of sleep you've gotten and how many are left, thereby triggering daytime brain functions. You are likely to then start worrying about being tired tomorrow as you tackle a long to-do list, thereby activating stress.

Staying in bed while awake trains you to associate your bed with wakefulness rather than sleep, Grandner says.

So, how can you maximize your chances of sleeping through the night?

Get exercise: In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Public Health, researchers using survey data on sleep and exercise found that people who reported getting “any exercise” in the past 30 days were less likely to have complaints about sleep or daytime tiredness.

Avoid TV and tablets right before bed: The body prepares for sleep over a period of three to four hours, says Charlene Gamaldo, a Johns Hopkins neurologist. “There's a whole cascade of events, including the release of melatonin,” a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. The blue light of television and electronic devices is particularly disruptive to hormones involved in circadian rhythms and can lead to problems initiating and maintaining sleep.

Don't drink to get sleepy: Alcohol can contribute to middle-of-the-night awakenings as well.” The term ‘nightcap' is a misnomer,” Gamaldo says. “Alcohol does have sedative properties and might help you get to sleep, but it's rapidly metabolized, and when cleared by your body can function to wake you up.” Gamaldo calls this “rebound insomnia.”

Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet: “Like a cave,” Gamaldo says. “Anything that disrupts that lovely little formula can wake you up in the night.” Use window blinds to block street lights, and mute your cellphone.

If you wake in the night?: “Once you're awake more than 20 minutes, you should leave the bedroom,” Gamaldo says. Go to another room, engage in a relaxing activity, such as listening to music or reading, but keep lighting on the dim side. When you're tired, go back to bed. The process can take an hour or more. “It's an established technique to deal with insomnia. What you don't want is a negative association between your bed and not sleeping.” Grandner agrees, although he knows it seems counterintuitive to get out of bed in order to sleep. “In the short term, you may sleep less. But it's for long-term gain.”

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