That's just the warm-up. Sleep deprivation can alter your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, potentially affecting everything from your memory to your immune system, heart, and metabolism. Of course, lack of sleep can kill you instantly -- as when you run your car off the road because you've dozed at the wheel (an estimated 71,000 people are injured in fall-asleep crashes each year). In fact, studies find that if you've been awake through the night, it's as if you had a performance impairment equal to .10 percent blood alcohol content, more than enough to get you arrested for drunk driving in most states.
Given the evidence, you'd think we'd all be hitting the pillow as soon as the sun dropped below the horizon. Ha! Today Americans get 25 percent less sleep than they did a century ago. Nearly 4 out of 10 don't get the minimum 7 hours of sleep necessary for optimal health and daytime functioning, while 15 percent get less than 6 hours most nights.
Since we're all in agreement that a good night's sleep is one of the best things you can do for your health and mood, pick three of these tips to follow each night until you get the night's sleep you so desperately crave.
1. Create a transition routine. This is something you do every night before bed. It could be as simple as letting the cat out, turning out the lights, turning down the heat, washing your face, and brushing your teeth. Or it could be a series of yoga or meditation exercises. Regardless, it should be consistent to the point that you do it without even thinking about it. As you begin to move into your "nightly routine," your mind will get the signal that it's time to chill out and tune down, dialing down stress hormones and physiologically preparing you for sleep.
2. Figure out your body cycle. Ever find that you get really sleepy at 10 p.m., that the sleepiness passes, and that by the time the late news comes on, you're wide-awake? Some experts believe sleepiness comes in cycles. Push past a period of sleepiness and you likely won't be able to fall asleep very easily for a while. If you've noticed these kinds of rhythms in your own body clock, use them to your advantage. When sleepiness comes, get to bed. Otherwise, it might be a long time until you are ready to fall asleep again.
3. Sprinkle just-washed sheets and pillowcases with lavender water and iron them before making up your bed. The scent is scientifically proven to promote relaxation, and the repetition and mindlessness of ironing will soothe you. Or, instead of ironing your sheets, do the next best thing: Put lavender water in a perfume atomizer and spray above your bed just before climbing in.
4. Hide your clock under your bed or on the bottom shelf of your night stand, where its glow won't disturb you. That way, if you do wake in the middle of the night or have problems sleeping, you won't fret over how late it is and how much sleep you're missing.
5. Switch your pillow. If you're constantly pounding it, turning it over and upside down, the poor pillow deserves a break. Find a fresh new pillow from the linen closet, put a sweet-smelling case on it, and try again.