According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of Americans aren't getting enough sleep, and one-fifth of us may have major sleep disorders. No matter what our fast-paced culture says, this is a serious health problem, and marketers are taking note.
Your body's natural sleep rhythms are related to the amount of light in the room. So make sure to turn out the lights, cover the windows, and even use an eye shade or sleep mask (about $5 for a pack of 12), if necessary. Also, don't drink anything for at least two hours before bedtime if you can help it. Those bathroom breaks can interrupt your deepest, most restful sleep.
Having trouble with noise in your sleeping area? Try earplugs; the cheap silicone variety for swimmers are the best at blocking out noise and staying in your ears all night. Mack's AquaBlock brand sells for $3.50 per two pairs.
Light-Based Alarm Clock
If you hate being jolted awake by a loud alarm, the Phillips Wake-up Light can help. Half an hour before your alarm goes off, a light turns on low and gradually gets brighter. The light stimuli transitions you from deep sleep to light sleep, making your wake-up less jarring.
Whether it's a hot flash or just irregular temperature regulation, for many, waking in the middle of the night is integrally tied to getting hot. Sheex are bed sheets made of the same performance fabric used in athletic clothing. They are intended to wick away moisture, breathe better than cotton, and help you stay cooler. I tried a set and liked the way they felt; silky smooth and so soft. They did catch a little on the rough parts of my feet, but I got used to that quickly.
I slept with Sheex for a few weeks and didn't notice significantly cooler bed temperatures, but I enjoyed how comfy they were. I didn't, however enjoy the price tag for Sheex. A queen set (including pillowcases) cost $199. The company that makes the product said the quality of the fabric accounts for most of the steep price and that many high-thread count sheets can cost almost as much. http://www.sheex.com/
Smartphone sleep disruptions
According to a Pew Research study, 65 percent of us sleep with our cellphones next to the bed, and that number goes up to 90 percent for people aged 18 to 29. It's true that phones make good alarm clocks, but they can wake you up when someone sends you a text, and they present a temptation to check your email and social networks. Engaging in work email or using Facebook can stimulate you just as you are falling asleep, and set your mind racing when you should be quieting it.
If you must keep your cellphone or smartphone nearby, try leaving it where you can't reach it. That way you'll have to get up to turn off the alarm, anyway. And an app like the free Lightning Bug for Android phones (or the 99 cent aSleep 3 for iPhone and iPod Touch) can help you get to sleep by playing relaxing sounds.
Many of us need white noise or music to block out ambient noise, but white noise machines are expensive and maybe your partner wants silence. Bedphones are earphones that lie flat on your ears and connect to a music player or your phone. They'll even reduce the volume over time to eventually leave you sleeping in silence. http://www.bedphones.com/ And an FYI- you can download white noise tracks from the Internet.
Even worse than keeping a smartphone nearby are those late-night computer sessions. Again, your circadian rhythms are based on light, and the blue light that's put out by computer screens makes your body think it's still daytime. That keeps it from producing melatonin -- the sleep-inducing antioxidant that the tart cherry juice contains.
As the people who make F.lux explain, "During the day, computer screens look good -- they're designed to look like the sun. But, at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. or 3 a.m., you probably shouldn't be looking at the sun." That's why they made F.lux, a free app for Windows, Linux (including Ubuntu), and Mac OS X, that adjusts your screen colors to look less like sunlight.
They claim that it helps you sleep better, it causes less eyestrain, and it makes your computer look better, too. What's not to like?
The scientific method
Finally, we come to perhaps the most thorough way to fix your personal sleep problems: The Zeo Personal Sleep Coach ($199). It's an alarm clock and wireless headband that monitors and records your sleep patterns. It tells you how much sleep you're getting, including deep, light and REM sleep. Then its online apps and email coaching help you analyze your lifestyle to find out what helps you sleep better, and what's keeping you up at night.
I compared the Zeo's results to the sophisticated sleep evaluation from a Pleasant Hill, Calif., clinic -- the Bay Sleep clinic -- and found the results were fairly accurate, with a few exceptions. The Zeo added an extra 10 minutes to my total sleep time, for instance, and slightly under-estimated the amount of time that I spent in deep sleep.
The biggest differences were that Zeo over-estimated my REM sleep, putting it at 31 percent of the time that I spent asleep instead of 22 percent, and it counted only two instead of 16 awakenings. The reason for the awakening discrepancy is that the clinic counts any wake time of three seconds, while Zeo only counts awakenings of two minutes or longer.
After using Zeo for two months, I adjusted the time that I eat (earlier by an hour), and switched to using a thinner pillow and a sleep mask. Not only has this helped me gain an average of an hour more sleep every night, I also wake up less during the night.
Jared Spurbeck contributed to this story.