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Better Sleep, No Pills Required

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Mmmmmm, sleep. So delicious, yet so elusive for many of us. If you're one of the millions of Americans suffering from insomnia, it may be tempting to pop a sleeping pill to get your nightly shut-eye. But some of the side effects of these drugs are downright scary. For example, Ambien warns patients that they may talk, eat and even have sex in their sleep after taking the hypnotic drug. Who wants to explain away that one-night stand? While side effects aren't usually quite that drastic, sleeping pills do commonly cause grogginess, making it difficult to wake up and stay alert throughout the day.

The good news is that whether you occasionally toss and turn or you have chronic insomnia, there are plenty of things you can do about that don't require any medicine. If you're not falling asleep soon after your head hits the pillow, try these tactics: 

Create a relaxing environment.

Skip the nightlight and keep your bedroom dark, quiet and on the cooler side. Invest in dark, sturdy curtains to block out light from outdoors, especially if you tend to wake up in the early morning and can't get back to sleep. Shut your door to block out unwanted noises, and run a fan or a white noise CD for soothing sounds. Hide your clocks; there's no need to make yourself anxious counting the sleepless minutes. 

Eat your tryptophan.

Your body uses this amino acid to create sleep-inducing serotonin, especially when you eat it with a carbohydrate. Dairy has plenty of tryptophane, so try low-fat cheese with a few whole-grain crackers for a nighttime snack. Other high-tryptophane foods include soy protein, spinach and eggs. Don't pig out though—large meals before bed can keep you awake.

Skip the booze.

Even though alcohol makes you drowsy, it disrupts your sleep cycle for poor quality rest. 

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Cut out afternoon caffeine.

You probably know better than to sip coffee just before bed, but caffeine can affect you for up to eight hours. 

Relaxing bedtime routine.

Take time to relax before turning out the lights with yoga, a warm bath or meditation. Don't watch TV, play video games or get involved in complex discussions. These activities all stimulate your brain, making you too amped to sleep.

Bed is for... bed stuff.

Reserve your bed for two activities: sleeping and sex. Don't read, talk on the phone or catch up on work between the sheets. You want your brain to associate bed with rest.

Relax your muscles before bed.

Lie on the couch or floor, and contract the muscles in your feet as hard as you can for eight seconds. Release, and move on to every muscle group in your body, all the way up to your face.

Go under the needle.

Accupuncture may cure insomnia, although more research is needed to confirm this benefit. 

If you try these techniques and still can't seem to turn your brain off at night, it's time to see a doctor. There could be a treatable medical condition keeping you up, like anxiety or depression. Whatever the reason, it's important to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Sleep is when your body repairs itself, and your brain works out complex problems.

image:? helen n.

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