Upgrade Your Life: Great tips for a better night’s sleep

Jared Spurbeck

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than two thirds of Americans aren't getting enough sleep, and a fifth of us may have major sleep disorders. No matter what our fast-paced culture says, this is a serious health problem, even an epidemic. So in this week's episode of Upgrade Your Life, Yahoo! News' Becky Worley shows us some of the newest ways to improve our sleep.

The basics

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.

New Sleep Products

Here's a new tip: According to a multi-university study, the natural antioxidants in tart cherry juice help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. The 15 older adults in the study had fewer night time wakings when they drank at least two cups a day, and they spent more time asleep, too. A 16-oz. bottle of juice concentrate sells for about $10, online or at a natural foods store, and should make enough cups to last five days.

Finally, lower back pain is a common complaint amongst adults, and a culprit responsible for nighttime waking and trouble sleeping. Becky's found that using a foam roller -- like this one by Smooth Fitness ($16.99) -- helps stave off lower back pain in the night. It's like massaging your back ... and it works! Stretching the hamstrings before bed can help, too.

Smartphone sleep disruptions

According to a Pew Research study, 65% of us sleep with our cellphones next to the bed, and that number goes up to 90% for people age 18-29. 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 $0.99 aSleep 3 for iPhone and iPod Touch) can help you get to sleep by playing relaxing sounds.

Laptop-induced insomnia

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 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, 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 monitor and record 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.

Becky compared the Zeo's results to the sophisticated sleep evaluation from a Pleasant Hill, California clinic -- the Bay Sleep clinic -- and found the results were fairly accurate, with a few exceptions. The Zeo added an extra 10 minutes to her total sleep time, for instance, and slightly under-estimated the amount of time that she spent in deep sleep.

The biggest differences were that Zeo over-estimated Becky's REM sleep, putting it at 31% of the time that she spent asleep instead of 22%, 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, Becky has adjusted the time that she eats (earlier by an hour), and switched to using a thinner pillow and a sleep mask. Not only has this helped her gain an average of an hour more sleep every night, she also wakes up less during the night.

Talk to your doctor

None of the products Becky discussed this episode will cure your sleep apnea, or any other potentially life-threatening sleep disorders. There are no quick fixes for these. Talk to a doctor about them ... and sleep tight!