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By Lambeth Hochwald
Sleep can be an elusive thing. Experience a couple nights of tossing and turning in bed, and it's all too tempting to reach for a sleep aid. But before you do, consider that several recent studies conducted at major institutions all over the country show that, despite their ordinary nature, simple behavioral strategies -- like going to bed at the same time every night and avoiding afternoon naps -- really do work. What's more, over-the-counter sleep medications can leave you feeling sluggish the next day, and "there's very little evidence that these sleep aids actually result in significant sleep," says Mark Mahowald, M.D., director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis.
What about prescription sleep drugs? For acute, short-term insomnia -- such as that brought on by a stressful event, like a death in the family -- experts say these medications can help. "In fact, by treating acute short-term insomnia [with prescription sleep aids] when it first occurs, we can actually prevent the development of long-term insomnia," says Dr. Mahowald. But for the occasional sleepless night, consider the following 10 tips. You may find they help you get to sleep just as well as popping a pill!
Don't lie awake in bed If you're not tired, or if you can't fall asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, leave your bedroom and read for a bit before tucking yourself in again.
Skip the pre-sleep workout A post-dinner stroll is better than a sprint through your neighborhood. This is because the harder you work out, the more stimulated your body will be and the longer it will take to wind down.
Choose sleep-enhancing foods Opt for a diet that's rich in vitamin B. This vitamin helps the brain release serotonin, a chemical messenger that has a calming effect on your body and brain, suggests Kathleen Hall, founder and director of The Stress Institute in Atlanta, Ga. Good sources of vitamin B include: bananas, avocados, whole grains and leafy greens. Another alternative is to choose foods that contain tryptophan, like turkey, peanut butter and milk. Tryptophan helps your body produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates your internal clock and can help you feel more relaxed and ready to sleep.
Calm yourself down If you're feeling stressed or anxious, take time for a warm bath before bed, listen to soothing music or indulge in another activity that relaxes you. When in doubt, Hall suggests placing a vase full of flowers on your bedside table. It will ease anxiety and chase worries away.
Check your medicine chest Certain prescription drugs, including some antidepressants and high blood pressure medicines, can interfere with sleep. So if you think your medications may be keeping you up at night, talk to your doctor.
Watch what you eat Keep evening meals light, since lying down on a full stomach is not only uncomfortable, but it can trigger heartburn, which can also keep you up at night.
Beware of bevs In addition to food,it's also a good idea to avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can prevent you from falling asleep or staying asleep through the night.
Use trigger pictures to help you relax When you have trouble settling your mind to sleep, think about favorite places or moments that make you feel relaxed and good inside, suggests Hall.
Skip late-night TV and e-mails Researchers at Stanford University have found that watching TV or using a computer before bed can actually reset your wake/sleep cycle and postpone sleepiness by up to three hours.
Breathe deep and visualize "Visualization and breathing techniques have proven helpful in developing brain patterns that foster restful sleep," says Hall. So the next time you lie down for the night, take a few minutes to focus on your breathing and "visualize the day leaving and the night coming in," instructs Hall. Then enjoy the pleasant sensation as you drift...gently...off...to...sleep.
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Lambeth Hochwaldcontributes to such publications as Eating Well, Health, Marie Claire, Parenting and Redbook and is an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.