Health and Fitness: Sleep

ON THE PILLOW: Every morning, more Americans wake up feeling tired than refreshed. Here's how to sleep right. Check out all of our health and fitness coverage for more ways to live a healthy lifestyle.

Many of us simply have no memory of what alert feels like. According to the annual Sleep in America poll, we get about six hours and 55 minutes of sleep on weeknights (as opposed to the eight experts suggest we need), and 63 percent of us say we don’t get enough.

And yet how we sleep affects every aspect of our lives, from our waist size and our self-esteem to our performance at work and our sex lives. In fact, a recent review of studies involving 1.4 million test subjects showed that those who often slept fewer than five hours per night were 12 percent more likely to have died during the course of the studies. But make sure you get enough sleep, says Erin Evans, a research fellow at Brigham and Women’s, and “you will have absolute peak performance at everything you do, every day.”

In that spirit, here are a few things to think about before you turn in tonight. —Casey Lyons

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle

The Five Habits of Highly Effective Sleepers

Source: The National Sleep Foundation’s Bedroom Poll, 2011

1. Turn on a fan. A cool room temperature was cited as an important factor by 78 percent of those who regularly sleep well. How cool? Research suggests a temperature between 61 and 66 degrees.

2. Use no more than two pillows. Of those who sleep well all the time, 77 percent use just one or two pillows.

3. Don’t shower before bed. Only 33 percent of those who frequently get restful sleep said bathing before bed was important.

4. Wash your sheets with scented detergent. Believe it or not, 71 percent of respondents say they get a more comfortable night of sleep on sheets with a fresh scent.

5. Make your bed. Those who tidy their beds every day (or nearly every day) were 19 percent more likely to report frequently sleeping well.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle

Sleep and Appetite

Looking to lose weight? It makes as much sense to hit the hay as it does the gym.

Consistently sleeping fewer than eight hours per night for adults correlates to an increase in body fat. As we sleep, our fat cells secrete leptin, a hormone that makes us feel full, and ghrelin, which makes us feel hungry. When we get four hours or less of shut-eye, our bodies release less leptin and more ghrelin. This causes us to wake up voracious and more inclined to snack on junk food—about 200 extra calories per day.

No one knows exactly why this is, but Orfeu Buxton, a neuroscientist in Brigham and Women’s Division of Sleep Medicine, has a theory. “The body appears to mistake fatigue for hunger,” he says. The key is how our bodies deal with stress: The fight-or-flight mechanism floods our systems with enough stress hormones and fuel to help us neutralize a physical threat. That was handy when our ancestors had to deal with cave bears, but not for today’s stressors. As Buxton says, “We didn’t evolve to take stress over the phone.”

how to sleep better health fitness lifestylePhoto courtesy of Zeo

Rest Easy

Want to find out just how much you’re sleeping? Zeo, a Newton-based company, sells a $100 at-home monitor that records your sleep data and allows you to analyze it on your smartphone. Senior editor Janelle Nanos used Zeo to study her sleep patterns and was relieved to find out that she conks out faster than she thought. “Your own perceptions of who you are as a sleeper change,” she says. “You stress less about it.” 

The World of Sleep Aids

Which options truly help you get your zzz’s, and which aren’t worth the bother? We asked Arnold Epstein, a physician and sleep specialist at Brigham and Women’s. —Caroline Hatano

From least to most effective:

how to sleep better health fitness lifestylePhotos via Thinkstock


Many people turn to nightcaps to wind down. It helps in the short term, but decreases your sleep duration and increases the number of times you wake up during the night.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle

Warm Milk  

It’s never been proven to induce sleepiness, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from swearing by it. Chalk that up to the psychological effect.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle


This herb, which is the most effective of the natural supplements, is a mild soporific. As with all supplements, however, it is not approved by the FDA.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle


Benadryl and most other over-the-counter sleep aids rely on antihistamines, which cause drowsiness. Benadryl works for occasional sleeplessness, but a tolerance to its sedative effect develops quickly.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestylePhoto courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration


Used to treat patients who suffer from insomnia, as well as anxiety and stress, this pharmaceutical contains triazolam, which knocks you out in a hurry, but is potentially addictive.

how to sleep better health fitness lifestyle


Lunesta is effective for insomniacs who can’t stay asleep (as opposed to those who can’t fall asleep). Be prepared to conk out for seven to eight hours.

If You Only Do One Thing: Unplug

Six in ten Americans spend time with cell phones, video games, or computers in the hour before going to bed at least a few nights a week. That’s bad for sleep, because the mind doesn’t have a chance to wind down, and because the light from the screens, like that from televisions, inhibits the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.


Check out all of our health and fitness coverage for more ways to live a healthy lifestyle.