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African American woman napping.

Source: BraunS / Getty

In today’s multi-tasking, hardworking society, getting a full night of restful, restorative sleep is viewed as a luxury, when it’s actually a necessity. It’s a necessity that too many of us have either chosen or adapted to going without, and it takes a huge toll on our health and well-being.

Once upon a time, I was a full-blown insomniac. Fueled by anxiety and youthful resistance on a cellular level, I powered through my high school and college years on an hour-ish of sleep every now and again. I can remember watching TV infomercials all through the night and begrudgingly accepting that the sun would rise and a new day would begin whether I had slept or not.

At some point, my body asserted its need for slumber, and swung to the other end of the spectrum, keeping me knocked out past noon on weekends and having to throw my energy-free body out of bed each morning, after exhausting my chances with my good buddy Snooze Button.

I decided to try and gain a little control of the situation, so I dedicated myself to figuring out how to sleep better. As an adult, I had to research and teach myself how to do this thing that babies and household pets do with ease. I learned what goes into a good night’s sleep, and I want you to have more of those too.

If you’re not getting enough sleep, the first thing to do is determine whether you can’t sleep or you won’t sleep. Insomnia is a genuine inability to fall asleep, or, if you can, a chronic inability to stay asleep. (Or a mixture of both.) Causes can be physiological or psychological, such as an overactive thyroid or my anxiety, or a more short-term or sporadic issue like drug use or indigestion.

Everyone will have a sleepless night, or a cluster of them, from time to time. But chronic sleeplessness has to be addressed. For insomnia, it’s advisable to speak with a doctor before attempting an at-home remedy, to rule out a more serious condition and also to discuss possible medications.

Not sleeping might be more of a conscious choice than you think. Many of us are clinically sleep-deprived, and it is largely by choice. A lesser-of-two-evils and sometimes subconscious choice, but a choice nonetheless. Not only do we face realities of schedules and demands on our time and energy that require more waking hours than ever, but prioritizing sleep is also considered self-indulgent or lazy by many.

So we make little bargains with ourselves: I have to finish this project tonight no matter what, but I’ll catch up on sleep over the weekend. Or we drink more coffee. Or we think nothing of nodding off on the subway out of pure exhaustion. And we carry on.

How much sleep you actually need per night varies from person to person, but experts suggest a window of 7-9 hours for otherwise healthy adults. We all hear this figure bandied about, but how many of us are actually logging that much sleep time? It can seem unrealistic, but it’s worth it.

Not only do you want to avoid looking like the Walking Dead version of yourself, but when you regularly skimp on sleep, you build up sleep debt that’s harder to get rid of than just having a Saturday morning lie-in. Your circadian rhythm, or your “body clock,” can only be disrespected for so long before it starts flipping tables on your insides and you feel the effects.

Fatigue or basic daytime sleepiness might seem normal, but they can easily become irritability, depression, anxiety, difficulty paying attention and focusing, memory loss, tension headaches, or stomach and digestive issues, all from lack of sleep. Beyond that, sleeplessness has the magical ability to magnify itself exponentially, since worrying about being able to fall asleep or get enough sleep can lead to prolonged insomnia.

Also, according to the CDC, up to 5 or 6 thousand fatal automobile crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Enough of the bad news. Here’s some good news: sleep is free and you can get some right now. In addition to overall well-being, getting enough sleep on a regular basis bolsters your immune system, and it can even aid weight loss if you happen to be a dieter.

Here are a few ways to help make sure you get your zzzzzzzz’s:

1. Decide to do it.

Give yourself a bedtime and a wake-up time, and stick to them. Make them consistent and realistic for your schedule, and make whatever changes you can to your schedule in order to prioritize sleep. Even a nap can help pay off your sleep debt better than weekend snoozes, provided you nap early enough in the day (before 2 or 3 PM for most people) to not interfere with nighttime sleep, and that you’re consistent.

People who work at night or on swing shifts need to make alternate arrangements, of course, paying more attention to ensuring restorative rest at times when others do not, but it is simply crucial to get regular, restful sleep.

2. Seriously, decide to do it. And then do it.

For whatever reason, it’s become corny to voluntarily turn in at a “decent” hour. Do it. Be corny. Your mind and body will thank you.

3. Start “going to bed” hours in advance.

This is extra difficult for parents or those of us who have uniquely demanding schedules, but the idea is to start shutting down about two to three hours in advance of your head actually hitting the pillow. You want to avoid eating or drinking large quantities of anything, because your insides will be wide awake for processing/digestion/intoxication when you’re trying to make yourself sleep.

The same goes for exercise: if you get your internal oven fired up too close to bedtime, your brain won’t get the relaxing signals it needs to, well, relax.

4. Power down.

The hardest part of turning off early is literally turning off. Electronic devices, that is. I still struggle here because sometimes bedtime is upon me but some wild Twitter beef has the timeline lit and I still have my phone in my hand. Well, our TV screens, computer monitors, laptops, and smartphones all emit electronic blue light, which our brains perceive as daytime light, which suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin.

Ooops. So basically unless we power everything down at nightfall to keep our marvelous technology in line with how our brains are hardwired, we’re shooting ourselves in the proverbial sleep feet. It’s unrealistic for most of us to do so, but it helps to know it’s an issue, and to try and power down well in advance of bedtime, if not completely by sundown.

And people are already working on ways to help and hack this problem, because it is a problem that’s here to stay. But we need to sleep.

5. Practice rituals.

Imagine the time before Edison came through with the lightbulb. Sure, there were candles and fireplaces and lanterns and such, but none of those could light up a whole building or a city block or Times Square. For a very long time, humans rose with the light and slept with the dark. Now, as you read these words on your magic box, think about how far from that we’ve gotten.

Bring some ritual back into your life. Personally, I wanted to avoid sleeping pills, so this is what helped me most. Bed became a place for sleep only. Aside from adult activities that occur when sleeping with someone (literally and figuratively), there was no more eating, studying, working, playing video games…nothing else.

Some people can read in bed, but I needed extra help to teach myself to sleep. The idea is to harness the power of our brains and the fact that our default setting is to sleep at night. Rituals—a bath or shower, lotions or powders with calming scents, even a scented candle, wrapping your hair, prayer, meditation, that goodnight text to your boo—provide signposts for our brains that sleep is coming and we’re down for the cause: body, mind, and spirit.

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