Science & Society

How to get a good sleep

by Susan Brink

USN&WR Issue of May 17, 2004

The cruelly precise digital clock says it's 3:18 a.m., and the alarm is set to go off in less than four hours. You try to will yourself back to sleep, but you peek at the clock again and it's 3:37, then 4:06. At 4:48, you know the next day is going to be a real grind.

Insomnia is trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking far too early, and 58 percent of American adults experience it a few nights a week or more.

Some sleep tips are virtual no-brainers, says Meir Kryger, who is on the board of the National Sleep Foundation ( sleepfoundation.org ), but people need reminders, so he listed some of his favorites in his book A Woman's Guide to Sleep Disorders.

Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. If you can't sleep, get out of bed. "Do something that's boring, not something that will jazz you up," he says. Avoid anything that will arouse your brain late at night: "No arguments, no discussions about money." Don't eat spicy foods or nap during the day. Exercise, but at least two or three hours before bedtime. Develop relaxing bedtime rituals such as a bath. Don't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine before bed. And get a good mattress and pillow.

Drugs? Prescription medicines, called hypnotics, can provide relief. Two of the most common sleeping pills are Ambien and Sonata. "The newer hypnotics are much safer than the ones we used to use," says Kryger. But all sleeping pills should be taken as a doctor prescribes--usually for a couple of weeks, or intermittently if longer. An article in Sleep Medicine Reviews in 2000 by Daniel Kripke found that two thirds of hypnotic prescriptions go to chronic users who have taken the drugs for five years or more. Overuse of the drugs, he writes, presents a mortality hazard similar to smoking one to two packs of cigarettes a day.

The pharmaceutical industry has several new sleeping pills in the works. David Dinges, chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says: "The holy grail now is to produce normal, natural sleep and keep you asleep."

Oh, and about that alarm clock. Turn it toward the wall. "People keep peeking at it, asking 'Am I asleep yet?' " says Kryger. "Nothing good comes from looking at an alarm clock in the middle of the night."