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Sleep deprivation is the worst. Just ask any new parent, or cramming college student, or medical resident working 24-hour shifts. When you can’t give your body the sleep it truly needs, your whole life is off-kilter.
But what happens when you actually have the time to sleep, and then can’t get your body to cooperate? Who hasn’t lain awake at night, watching the numbers on the clock slowly tick ahead, unable to drift off? There’s a mental math the sleepless go through: If I fall asleep RIGHT NOW, I can get six hours, that’ll be OK. And an hour later: Well, five hours will still do something for me, right? And on and on it goes, until you rise from the bed as the alarm clock goes off, realizing begrudgingly that slumber never came, and now you’re a zombie staggering through whatever tasks lie ahead.
Here are nine things to try, from simple socks and essential oils to breathing exercises, that can help you get those ZZZs.
1. Wear socks
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Warm feet can help you sleep better. No, really. According to the National Sleep Foundation, toasting your tootsies causes vasodilation (dilation of the blood vessels), which sends a signal to your brain that it’s nighttime. But they’re not for everyone: If you’re one of those who just have to let your toes roam free, try an extra blanket on your feet, or even Grandma’s old-fashioned standby, a hot-water bottle.
2. The 4-7-8 breathing method
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This one’s a little complicated at first, but many sleep-seekers swear by it. Dr. Andrew Weil, the director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, teaches the “4-7-8 Breath” method, which goes like this: Exhale audibly through your mouth, then close your mouth and inhale for a count of four. Then hold that breath while you count to seven. Exhale audibly through your mouth again, but this time, count to eight while doing so. Repeat the steps three more times. (You can watch a video here.) Once you’ve tried it once or twice, you’ll realize it’s not that difficult, and the deep, cleansing breaths put you in the ideal relaxed state for sleeping.
3. Ditch the screens before bed
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In this day and age, not looking at a smartphone, laptop or tablet computer before bedtime can seem almost unnatural. Many of us claim that this is how we wind down, whether reading online articles, catching up on email, or flipping through Facebook or Twitter. But, really, don’t we have enough hours during the daytime for all that? Our beloved screens emit artificial light that mimics daytime, and the last thing we need before sleep is to think it’s high noon. You don’t have to give up the phone completely, but try to put it away for an hour before you want to nod off. That BuzzFeed “Which Harry Potter character are you?” quiz will still be there in the morning. (P.S.: You’re Hermione.)
4. Can’t ditch the screens? Dim them
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So you say you just can’t give up the screens before bed. At the very least, dim them so they don’t remind you of that harried 10 a.m. meeting under the fluorescent lights of your busy office. You can use a program like f.lux to make your screen’s brightness always match the room you’re in, or you can just manually dim your screens. In fact, it also helps to dim your home lights several hours before you start to get ready for bed, as if you’re preparing to close your eyes.
5. Get blackout curtains
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What kind of window coverings are in your bedroom? Light, pretty curtains? Blinds or shades that you always forget to pull? You want to make your nighttime sleeping area as cavelike as possible, so look into what are called blackout curtains. These curtains don’t have to be black in color, but they often come with a liner for extra sleep-inducing darkness. Many stores, including IKEA, Bed Bath & Beyond and Target carry them — simply try searching for “blackout curtains” on your favorite store’s site. Not only do they keep the light out, but blackout curtains can keep your room quieter and warmer, both of which also help you slumber.
6. Try soothing scented oils
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Scent is an incredibly powerful and underrated sense. This is obvious if you’ve ever sniffed your grandmother’s Chanel perfume years after you last saw her, and suddenly felt her presence. Now you can use scent to your advantage. Certain smells — including orange, lemon, lavender, rose and geranium — are known to be sleep-friendly. You can find essential oil versions of these in your favorite health-food store (or Whole Foods). Dab a few drops on a cotton ball to be placed on or under your pillow, apply behind your ear or drop a few in a relaxing nighttime bath for a scented sleep assist.
7. Skip the nightcap
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The word “nightcap” makes it sounds like an alcoholic drink before bed is a perfect remedy for insomnia, that it will knock you right out. Here’s the dilemma: While it may help you get to sleep, doctors say your alcohol-induced sleep will be restless and unsatisfying. A drink with dinner shouldn’t cause problems, but don’t sip one closer to bedtime unless you enjoy the possibility of a shifting, fretful sleep.
8. Drink warm spiced milk or chamomile tea
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What should you drink? Weirdly, that old standby from children’s stories — warm milk — really does help you snooze. But maybe not for the reasons you think. Something about the steamy bland beverage and its long association with bedtime pours over our psyche and convinces us it’s time to sleep. (Think it tastes too bland? Sprinkle a little nutmeg, a natural sedative, on the drink for extra help.) If milk doesn’t moo-ve you, that old classic sleepy-time beverage, chamomile tea, helps many. It, too, may be a placebo, but, hey, this calming drink worked for Peter Rabbit. Hop to it!
9. Stick to a comforting bedtime routine
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So much of getting to sleep is mental, not physical. Begin now to develop a pre-sleep routine that you stick to every night, and soon your mind will begin to associate the items on your to-do list with slumber. You might incorporate several of the steps listed above — put on those cozy socks, make that mug of herbal tea, skip the smartphone for a certain calming book you read a chapter or two of before bed. It’s worth the ramp-up time to get the routine established. After all, sleep is the one thing we never get tired of.
What’s your secret to a good night sleep? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.