The New Rules For Better Sleep

How to get your best sleep yet, thanks to our friends at Shape.


It's time to rethink our idea of a healthy night's sleep. It's not about when, where, or even how much mattress time you get. In fact, obsessing over these factors can backfire, turning what's supposed to be the most restful thing you do into one of the most stressful.

No, the idiom, and Holy Grail of millions like yourself, is defined by what healthy sleep strategies work best for your body to renew energy and reset your mood, reveals recent research. Learn the latest science-backed techniques to ensure you get your deepest and healthiest rest yet — every night.

Despite conventional wisdom, women who sleep between five and seven and a half hours a night live longer than those who get eight, according to a study in the journal Sleep Medicine. In fact, too much sleep can make you feel as groggy as getting too little, notes sleep expert Daniel Kripke, PhD, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. How do you determine if you're sleeping enough? Check 30 minutes to an hour postrising to see if you feel awake and alert — it takes that long to get your brain and body going, says Michael Grandner, PhD, member of The Center For Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology. Once you find your sweet spot, stick with it as much as you can. (Check out more of the 12 Common Sleep Myths, Busted.)

Many so-called insomniacs may actually be night owls trying in vain to adopt early-bird habits. "Everyone has a relatively unique biological fingerprint of sleep," explains Robert Thomas, MD, associate professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Your body is wired to shut down during a specific period of time." If your built-in bedtime is 11:30 p.m., then you won't be able to drift off at 10 p.m., no matter how tired you are." Rather than overriding your innate inclinations, embrace them: if you're a night owl, try to find ways to sleep in by showering at night instead of the morning and not scheduling events first thing. If you're an early bird, take advantage of less-crowded gyms in the a.m. Even consider asking your boss about tweaking your work schedule: adjusting your start and leave times by just 30 minutes can be a game changer for productivity, says David Brown, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

The afternoon power nap has achieved widespread approval, with companies like Google and Procter & Gamble even offering on-site "nap pods" — quiet spots where employees can recharge. But for some, midday dozing leaves them feeling groggy and screws with their nighttime routine. Since the cult of nap is so forceful, you might even fear you're missing something — or doing it wrong. But your ability to nap is preprogrammed, Brown says. Instead of a nap, rev your energy by taking a quick walk or talking with a friend.

That daily midafternoon energy drop does not — repeat, does not — mean you haven't slept well enough. It simply means you're human, given that the circadian alerting signal responsible for wakefulness naturally dips in the late afternoon, taking your pep along with it, says Brown. Rather than seeking a caffeine fix when your energy flags, take a break from mentally challenging to-dos and focus on creative tasks — you're better at innovative thinking when you're feeling a bit fatigued, a study in Thinking & Reasoning found. Then just ride it out. It will end. (Recharge with these 5 Office-Friendly Snacks That Banish the Afternoon Slump.)

Everybody's been there: you wake up at 3 a.m., can't go back to sleep, and start downward spiraling with an insomnia self-diagnosis. But this wee-hour waking is just as natural as the afternoon slump. In one classic study from the National Institute of Mental Health, people who spent 14 hours a night in a dark room for four weeks — in an effort to reset their sleep patterns — began waking once a night, though they slept more overall.

Back in the preindustrial days, Brown says people passed this time in bed or out, reading, writing, doing light housework, or having sex. All these activities are still fair game — as is TV, though stick to more formulaic, sleep-inducing fare (think House Hunters International, not Orange Is the New Black). Your alertness shouldn't last more than 30 minutes (or occur more than once or twice each night). If you don't panic, you'll fall back to sleep easily. (And you find your mid-night waking is due to sleep troubles, try these sleep aids from GNC Live Well.)

— Celeste Perron