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Only one in three Americans gets enough sleep, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
updated 1/2/2009 9:21:25 AM ET 2009-01-02T14:21:25

Your husband is on his third cup of coffee — and it's not yet 8 a.m. Your teen is so bleary-eyed and grumpy that you want to run in the other direction. And you're so tired you can barely remember your middle name.

If your family is like most, everyone is seriously sleep deprived. A study from the CDC found that only 1 out of 3 Americans gets enough sleep all month long. And 16 percent of adults get less than six hours per night, says the National Sleep Foundation. That's well short of the seven to eight hours needed to ward off obesity, high blood pressure, and other ills.

To complicate matters, each family member deals with unique sleep sappers, says Susan Zafarlotfi, PhD, director of the Institute for Sleep-Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center.

But these simple strategies will help your family sleep longer and better every night.


Sleep thief: Late-night gadget time.

Artificial light from computer and television screens tells the brain that it's not time to wind down. "Your body thinks artificial light is daylight — which prevents the release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing chemical," says Zafarlotfi. A study from Wayne State University found that talking on a cell phone before snoozing caused a 13 percent drop in deep sleep — the type that helps people recover from daily wear and tear.

To get your kids to log off:

  • Set a technology curfew. Shut off the TV and have your children stop using phones and computers at least an hour before bed, advises Zafarlotfi.
  • Use the dimmer switch. Turn down the lights in your kids' rooms a half-hour before bedtime to allow melatonin to kick in, says Zafarlotfi. Or try switching the bulbs in their rooms to 60 watts or less.
  • Do morning prep at night. Teens, whose biological clocks tend to be on a later sleep cycle, often struggle with early start times at school. Encourage your kids to shower and get clothes and homework ready in the evening, and choose fast breakfasts (like cereal) so they can sleep in as much as possible.


Sleep thief: Stress.

Anxiety and other frazzled states cause your body to release adrenaline, a brain chemical that triggers alertness, says sleep specialist Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor of medicine at New York University. Adds Zafarlotfi: "Stress seems to keep more women awake than men — which explains why 90 percent of my patients are female."

To ease your mind:

  • Shower an hour before bed. The warm water is relaxing. Plus, your body temperature will dip afterward, mimicking the physiological changes that naturally occur before sleep.
  • Write away worries. During the day, scribble down your concerns and how you plan to handle them, advises Walsleben. For example, if you're panicked about bills, you might write that you'll go through them and come up with a payment schedule for those you can't tackle right away. Then, if you start to ruminate before lights-out, tell yourself firmly, I've already dealt with this. It's time to go to sleep.
  • Make exercise a habit. Getting your heart rate up for 20 minutes every day — by walking, gardening, or cleaning the house — can lower anxiety and stress levels by as much as 40 percent, according to a study of about 20,000 adults at University College in London.


Sleep thief: Snoring.

By age 50, half of men snore, says Dr. Michael Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "The noise can actually wake him up," he says — or prevent him from getting into deeper, more restorative sleep stages.

To stop the noise:

  • Measure his neck. "A big neck increases the odds that breathing during sleep will be interrupted," says Charles Bae, MD, a neurologist and sleep specialist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. One reason: If his neck is bigger than 17 inches, it may indicate excess weight — which puts pressure on the airways and can lead to snoring.
  • Skip wine with dinner. If he likes to wind down with a drink, make sure his last cocktail is at least 3 hours before bed. Alcohol relaxes the throat, which makes snoring worse, says Thorpy.
  • Get help. If he has tried everything and still feels exhausted during the day or is falling asleep during work (or while driving!), have your husband checked for sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is blocked for seconds at a time. The disorder prevents the body from getting enough oxygen during sleep and raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Your husband is also more likely to have high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction if he has sleep apnea.
  • Don't banish him to the couch. It's tempting, but even if he has severe snoring or apnea, try to nod off next to him. (Use earplugs or a white-noise machine to muffle the din.) A man is more likely to stick with sleep treatment if his wife shares his bed, finds a study from Rush University.


Sleep thief: Changing circadian rhythms.

As people get older, hormonal and brain changes cause a shift in the body's internal clock, so they might find themselves sleepy very early in the evening. "This starts a vicious cycle," says Zafarlotfi. "If your parents go to bed at 8, they may rise at 3 or 4 in the morning. Then they take long naps. So when bedtime rolls around, they're not tired enough to doze off, which deprives them of deep sleep."

To help your parents snooze on schedule, suggest that they:

  • Skip catnaps. Your parents should try to get all 8 hours of sleep at one time — or, if they must take a nap, have them set an alarm so they sleep no more than 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Stick to light fare. Recent animal studies suggest that a high-fat diet can disrupt circadian rhythms. Though further research is needed, "greasy, heavy dinners and desserts may disrupt digestion, so you toss and turn," says Bae.
  • Turn up the light. Unlike teens, seniors may benefit from bright light exposure in the evening — it keeps them from falling asleep too early, explains Bae. Look for full-spectrum bulbs, which mimic natural daylight.

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