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16 Ways to Get a Better Night's Sleep — Without Popping a Pill

Tossing and turning every night? Try these easy ways to get a better night’s rest, straight from the experts.

by Christina Heiser /
Image: A man sleeps in bedHero Images / Getty Images/Hero Images

If you often get into bed after a long (and exhausting) day and just can’t drift off to sleep — tossing and turning until 2 a.m — you’re definitely not alone.

A survey of more than 25,000 people conducted by SleepScore Labs (a sleep technology company) analyzed two million nights of data and found that 75 percent of people get less than seven hours of sleep a night.

Half of the participants even reported using a mix of two or more sleep aids (like OTC pills or herbal supplements) each night. The thing is, these can come with a bevy of side effects, such as making you feel drowsy during the day.

The good news? It’s possible to get your snooze on without resorting to meds. That being said, if non-drug remedies aren’t working, see your doc. “People who have chronic insomnia typically need long-term solutions for their problem,” says Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. “However, those who experience intermittent problems with falling and staying asleep may use short-term fixes.”

Here are 16 easy ways to get a better night’s rest, straight from the experts.

1. Stick to a Routine

When it comes to sleeping well, repetition is the name of the game. Going to bed and waking up at the same time is a great idea, says Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute. This will reinforce your body’s internal biological clock, allowing you to fall asleep and wake up more easily. As part of your bedtime routine, start winding down one to two hours before you actually want to drift off, says Jordan. Change into your jammies, dim the lights, read a little and try some deep breathing exercises to get yourself in the mood for sleep.

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2. Nix the Screens Before Bed

You might think scrolling through Instagram is a totally relaxing pre-snooze activity — but it’s actually the complete opposite. “The light from these devices — and the emotions that can result from checking email or social media sites — can make it harder to unwind and fall asleep,” says Richard Blackburn, PhD, sleep psychologist at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. The blue light actually blocks the release of melatonin (the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycles), explains Blackburn. He suggests putting your iPhone into “night shift” mode when you’re ready for bed, as this removes the blue light on your screen. But an even better option is to skip the electronics altogether.

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3. Keep Things Cool

As the temperatures start to warm up, it’s important to make sure you keep your bedroom cool. “In general, a cooler room is more conducive to sleeping, as the cooler temperature tends to induce sleep,” says Marc Leavey, MD, primary care physician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. If you’re someone who frequently finds yourself tossing off blankets in the middle of the night, be sure to switch out heavy winter fabrics for lighter summer sheets and blankets.

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4. Sweat It Out

Hitting the gym early in the day can make hitting the sheets later on a whole lot easier. “Regular exercise in the morning or early afternoon can help augment nighttime sleep quality because physical activity is a stress-releaser and prepares us for a restful night of sleep,” says Shanon Makekau, MD, medical director of the Kaiser Permanente sleep lab in Hawaii. In fact, a 2011 study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that participants who got 150 hours of moderate to intense exercise slept better.

5. Say No to That Afternoon Latte

Participants in the SleepScore Lab survey who drank four cups of coffee a day actually slept 26 minutes less than those who imbibed less than that. Caffeine is a stimulant that prevents your body from initiating sleep, says Buchfuhrer. He advises having your last cup of Joe at least six hours before bedtime. And Blackburn points out that soda, chocolate and certain teas also contain caffeine, meaning they can rev up your body, too.

6. Read the Labels on Your Meds

If you’re all stuffed up, proceed with caution before popping a pill to ease the sniffles. Decongestants (often found in cold remedies) have a potent stimulating effect, so they should be avoided for up to 12 hours before bed, says Buchfuhrer.

Participants who drank four cups of coffee a day actually slept 26 minutes less than those who imbibed less often.

7. Skip the Late Night Glass of Wine

Let’s be honest: Sometimes, a cocktail is necessary at the end of a long day. But having one too close to bedtime could do more harm than good. “Alcohol depresses the nervous system, so a nightcap may help some people fall asleep,” says Morton Tavel, MD, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and author of “Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice.” “But this effect disappears after a few hours and may lead to waking up throughout the night.”

8. Sip on Tart Cherry Juice

Craving a drink? Pour yourself a glass of tart cherry juice instead of wine. “Tart cherry juice increases your melatonin levels,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that older insomniacs who drank two eight-ounce glasses of tart cherry juice a day slept for 85 minutes more than those who downed a placebo drink.

9. Invest in the Right Mattress and Pillows

What you sleep on matters — and mattresses aren’t one size fits all. “Ultimately, what it comes down to is how supportive a mattress is,” says Keith Cushner, general manager of Tuck, the largest collection of aggregated data on sleep surfaces on the web. When buying a new mattress (which Cushner says you should replace around every seven to eight years), take your height, weight, body type and sleep position preference into consideration. Let’s say you weigh over 200 pounds, for example; Cushner says you’re going to want to choose a mattress with a higher density support foam or one that has lower-gaged coils that will push you back and hold you up. When buying a new mattress, keep this in mind: “You have to spend at least 30 days with a new bed in order for you to get used to that bed and for that bed to conform to you and break in a little bit, so to speak,” says Cushner.

As far as pillows go, look for ones with high-quality fill that can be washed or cleaned, says Michelle, Fishberg, co-founder of Slumbr, a sleep wellness company. “While people spend hundreds — if not thousands — on a mattress, most people consider pillows an afterthought,” says Fishberg, who points out that old and poor-quality pillows can cause neck pain as they lose support. Plus, dust mites, fungi, dirt and oils build up over time on your pillows, and that can exacerbate your allergies.

10. Organize Your Bedroom Strategically

It’s not only about the quality of your mattress, but how it’s arranged in your bedroom, that’s important for sleep success. “Move your bed a comfortable distance from the bedroom door where you can still see who or what is coming through, but so you’re not in the direct path,” says Beth Steflik, Feng Shui consultant and teacher. “This placement provides the body the needed relief from the activity of the door, which calms the amygdala — the fight-or-flight mechanism of the brain.”

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11. Hide Your Alarm Clock

Set your alarm and then get those glaring red numbers out of sight. Jonathan Alpert, New York City-based psychotherapist and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days,” recommends turning your alarm clock away from you in the bedroom. “Have confidence that it will sound when it is supposed to,” he says. “Looking at the time only increases anxiety about going to sleep and getting enough of it.”

12. Take Some Deep Breaths

If stress is getting in the way of your sleep, pay attention to your breathing (which tends to speed up when we’re stressed out). “To help with stress, try slow, deep abdominal breathing before going to bed,” says Jordan. “You can also use this if you wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning.”

13. Keep a Journal

Embrace your inner teen — you know, the one who wrote down every single emotion. “Free your mind of persistent worries by jotting down your stresses or what you forgot to do that day in a journal,” says Makekau. “Whether it’s itemizing our to-dos or our worries, writing these things down allows us to let go for the night and be reassured that we can pick up where we left off the next day.”

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14. Kick the Kitty Out

Sorry Fluffy, but you’ve got to go! Your bedroom should be peaceful, says Marra Francis, MD, medical director of EverlyWell, a digital health startup. As adorable as they are, animals may distract you — moving around and making noise during the night — interrupting your sleep.

15. Resist the Urge to Indulge in a Big Meal Before Bed

“Going to bed on a full stomach can cause reflux,” says Cassetty. “Anyone who's been there can tell you this is unpleasant — it can feel like your esophagus is bathing in acid.” She suggests avoiding eating within three hours of bedtime to help reduce the chances of this happening.

16. Nosh on Sleep-Promoting Snacks

There are foods that actually do produce sleep, though. Milk, almonds, turkey, cheese, yogurt and ice cream are all chock full of tryptohan, a natural calming agent, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of “The Self-Aware Parent” and co-star of Sex Box on WE tv. Meanwhile, bananas have magnesium (a muscle relaxant) and two sleep-promoting hormones: melatonin and serotonin. Pair that with honey, which contains glucose. “Glucose sends a message to the brain telling it to shut of oxerin, the chemical that regulates arousal, wakefulness and appetite,” says Walfish.

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