Dr. Oz: 6 Ways To Sleep Better -- Starting Tonight

01/17/2014 11:01 am 11:01:56 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

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I don't have to tell you how important a good night's rest is for your health—and you don't have to tell me how hard it can be to squeeze in those precious hours of shut-eye. But an overbooked schedule may not be the only reason you're exhausted; the change in seasons could also be to blame. Up to 20 percent of adults may experience mild seasonal affective disorder, which can be caused by a disruption in the body's natural circadian rhythm triggered by fewer daylight hours in winter, and may lead to disordered sleep patterns, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Another issue: sleep apnea. This condition, which is characterized by pauses in breathing, may worsen in winter because of upper-airway infections (associated with colds) and irritation from indoor-air pollution (which can increase when we shut our windows to seal in heat). But sweet dreams can be yours with a few simple adjustments to your routine. Here's what to do.

Get a whiff of lavender
My latest trick for deep sleep is using a lavender-scented diffuser in my bedroom. The scent has long been known to have sedative properties, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, a Wesleyan University study found that women who sniffed lavender oil before bed experienced, on average, 22 percent more restorative slow-wave sleep.

Break a sweat
Though exercisers and non-exercisers clock about the same amount of sleep each night, according to a 2013 National Sleep Foundation poll, those who worked out rated their sleep as significantly better. Even light exercisers were 43 percent more likely to get a good night's rest than those who were mostly sedentary.

Go Mediterranean
According to a study in the European Respiratory Journal, people with moderate to severe sleep apnea who followed a Mediterranean diet—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish—and walked at least 30 minutes a day for six months experienced roughly 18 fewer episodes of obstructed breathing per hour of REM sleep. Given that excess belly fat increases the risk of sleep apnea, researchers attribute their findings to the decrease in waist circumference that resulted from the regimen.

Check your meds
You already know to avoid caffeine close to bedtime, but some painkillers contain enough of the stimulant to keep you up at night. And certain antidepressants increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine—two neurotransmitters that can suppress REM sleep. If you think your prescriptions are affecting your zzz's, talk to your doctor about alternatives.

Choose your dinner wisely
A small study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that adding food high on the glycemic index, like rice and potatoes, to your evening meal roughly four hours before bed could help you fall asleep 49 percent faster than a low-GI meal. High-GI foods increase the body's levels of the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan.

What's the best position?
The winner: On your side!

According to the Better Sleep Council, stomach sleepers are most likely to report restlessness, while some studies have shown that sleep apnea is worse for people who snooze on their back. Research in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that people who spend 20 to 80 percent of the night on their back could have four fewer events of obstructed breathing per hour by simply rolling onto their side.

Also on HuffPost:

  • It’ll Ward Off Brain Blight
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  • Seven -- that’s the average number of hours slept each night by women who scored highest on cognitive tests (reasoning, vocabulary, memory and more). When sleep decreased to six or fewer hours nightly, scores plummet -- especially in reasoning and vocabulary -- and the brain effectively aged by four to seven years, found a five-year study published in the journal SLEEP. While correlation isn’t causation, sleep has restorative properties -- and the habitual seven hours has also been linked with a lower dementia risk later in life.
  • It’ll Give You A Stiff Upper Lip
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  • Surplus sleep is more effective than painkillers -- a surprise discovery by researchers at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital. When drowsy people were allowed to sleep for up to 10 hours, four nights in a row, they were 25 percent less sensitive to pain (more effective than 60 milligrams of codeine!) and more alert, compared with those who slept their normal hours. The lesson: While any sleep helps decrease pain sensitivity, an extra one to two hours for several nights before a surgery or procedure may steel you even more.
  • It’ll Weaken The Pretzel Dog’s Siren Song
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  • Cheat yourself of two or more hours of sleep each night this workweek and you may find yourself two pounds heavier by Saturday -- as volunteers did in a study at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Eating more is one explanation. The other is what you’ll eat: pasta, cake, bread -- anything high in carbs -- especially after dinner. Even a night or two of short sleep boosts the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite, and decreases leptin, which suppresses it.
  • It’ll Do Better Damage Control
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  • One more reason to get at least seven hours nightly? The simple carbs you can't help but love -- soda, pasta, the deep-fried pretzel dog -- would be (well, not exactly healthy but) less harmful than when you’re sleep-deprived. Even one night of shortened sleep decreases our ability to clear glucose from the blood -- by up to 25 percent -- found researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands. After six years of mild sleep deprivation, volunteers in a SUNY Buffalo study were three times likelier to have abnormal blood sugar levels -- on the slippery slope to diabetes.
  • It’ll Help Protect Your Breasts
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  • Clock in your seven hours of shut-eye -- no less -- and avoid a striking 62 percent increase in breast cancer risk, finds an eight-year Japanese study of 24,000 women. The theory: Without adequate sleep, the light-sensitive pineal gland doesn’t secrete enough hormone-regulating melatonin. That’s a problem, because our bodies use melatonin to suppress the hormone estrogen -- which, unchecked, may stimulate (cancerous) breast cell division.
  • It May Stop You From Bringing Mr. Handsome Home
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  • Look at something cute -- like bunnies and ice cream sundaes (or perhaps any guy in a baseball cap). If you have underslept, you may respond more positively than usual (even giddily), as sleepless volunteers did in an fMRI study at UC Berkeley and Harvard. Sleep deprivation spikes the hormone dopamine, which excites the brain’s reward-motivation-and-sex-drive-related pathways, and suppresses the “rational” prefrontal cortex. The result: risky, over-optimistic, impetuous decisions. (Mix sleepiness with alcohol and you’re also likelier to drink more than you otherwise would.)
  • It’ll Be Bankable
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  • We've all heard that a weekend of “catch-up” sleep can't compensate for getting six hours or less all week. (The bounce-back actually takes a week or two of extended sleep.) The good news (for those who can plan ahead) is that if we get the extended sleep up front -- 10 hours a night, every night -- it’ll protect us from subsequent short sleep. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that a week’s investment (early to bed, late to rise) before a week of sleep deprivation adds up to longer-lasting alertness and a speedier recovery period.
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