Better Sleep by Labor Day

WebMD tells you how to combat insomnia during the lazy, hazy days of summer -- and beyond.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
7 min read

Imagine night upon night, day upon day, with no sleep. That's the nightmare that takes over the life of the crafty L.A. detective played by Al Pacino in the 2002 thriller Insomnia. In the movie, Pacino is dispatched to a small Alaskan town to help the locals solve the murder of a teenaged girl. It's summer, and the sun never sets. When even taping the shades to keep out the midnight sun fails to bring the cop a wink of shut-eye, Pacino's thought processes and sleuthing skills rapidly deteriorate.

While few of us live so far north that the sun never sets, longer days are a fact of life in summer -- and they can wreak havoc with our sleep patterns. So, too, can a change in routine, such as having the kids home from school or setting out on that long planned family vacation. Bouts of blazing heat and sticky humidity are a sure recipe for sleepless nights spent tossing and turning. And if your energetic youngster doesn't wake you up at the crack of dawn, chirping birds may jolt you awake.

How widespread are sleep problems from Memorial Day to Labor Day? Very, says Maurice Ohayon, MD, a sleep expert at Stanford University who has been surveying the prevalence of sleep disorderssleep disorders in the U.S. since 1990. His latest, as-yet unpublished study shows that about one in four Californians and New Yorkers suffer from insomnia during summer. In Texas, 17% of residents don't get a good night's rest. That compares to about 10% of people in all three states during the rest of the year, he tells WebMD.

Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to combat summertime sleep deprivation, Ohayon and other specialists say. In fact, their tips, including a new four-week program to better sleep by WebMD's "Sleep Expert" Michael J. Breus, PhD, can help you to rest better all year round.

1. Long Days
"When the sun doesn't set until hours after you're used to in the rest of the year, it arouses you and makes it that much more difficult to fall asleep," says Meir Kryger, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and a member of the National Sleep Foundation's Board of Directors.

"Invest in blinds that the sun can't get through," Kryger advises. Available at many hardware and home improvement stores, the blinds are an inexpensive way to ensure you get your zzz's, he says.

2. Heat and Humidity
The ideal temperature range for sleeping is 68 degrees to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, Kryger says. "It's difficult to fall asleep if it's much hotter."

The solution: Ensure you have a good air conditioner and sufficient ventilation in the bedroom, Breus says. "Often a small, inexpensive unit can cool the room," Kryger adds. "Measure the room before you shop and buy just what you need."

3. Vacation
While people tend to use the first few days of a holiday to catch up on lost sleep, they soon start staying up into the wee hours, Ohayon says. "Without a regular work schedule, you start sleeping when you want and eating as much as you want," he explains. Late evenings are often accompanied by a few too many nightcaps, a midnight pepperoni pizza, or long talks over caffeinated cappuccino – all of which can make matters worse. Long naps during the day can add further insult to injury.

"Respect your own cycle of eating and sleeping," he advises. "Seven hours [of sleep] is good; more than nine hours is actually bad." Adds Kryger, "You do not want to feel too full before bed. HeartburnHeartburn or acid refluxacid reflux can both keep you from falling asleep and wake you from sleep."

Kryger bemoans the fact that many people don't deal with accumulated sleep debt during their summer vacations. "A holiday is the perfect time to sleep in and catch up on lost sleep as well as to learn and practice good sleep habits that can help year round," he says.

Some sleep woes, like those associated with tireless toddlers who jump into your bed at sunrise, can hit any time of year. In his new book, Good Night: The Sleep Doctor's 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health, Breus tells you how to get sound sleep, night after night, no matter what the season.

The program is divided into two parts, the first of which discusses key culprits to disordered sleep that you can do something about right here, right now, Breus tells WebMD. Each section offers quizzes to identify problems and action plans to solve them.

Culprit 1: Anxiety
"Anxiety can prevent sleep and even if you get sleep, it may not be quality sleep," he says. After you hit the sack, try counting backwards from 300 by 3's, he advises. "This forces you to focus so you can't think about things that make you anxious."

Culprit 2: Caffeine
"Drink responsibly," Breus urges, which translates to less than 300 milligrams of caffeine or 3.5 to 4 cups of "regular" brewed coffee a day. Keep in mind that soft drinks, chocolate, and even some medications contain hidden caffeine. And not all cups of coffee are created equal: A grande Starbucks coffee packs a whooping 550-milligram jolt, for example.

Culprit 3: Being a Woman
"Women, in particular, experience an enormous array of fluctuating hormones throughout their lives -- from puberty to menopausemenopause -- that can affect sleep patterns," he says.

The program suggests action plans for each stage of life. "If night sweats are a big issue in menopause, for example, you can stay cool by keeping a damp cloth and an extra set of clothes near the bed," Breus says. In fact, this strategy can help men and women alike when a summertime heat wave strikes.

Culprit 4: Children or Bed Partner
"If you have a young child, not a night goes by in which sleep is not disrupted," he says. An easy solution is to have one parent on call each evening, allowing the other to get his or her zzz's. If your bed partner snores or likes to read into the wee hours, try earplugs or eyeshades. And if snoringsnoring persists, try getting your mate to a physician who can get at the root of the problem, he says.

Culprit 5: Business Travel
"Business travel demands high performance and stressstress, hectic schedules, heavy meals, and late nights -- all a recipe for poor sleep," Breus writes. He offers strategies for coping, from yoga exercises you can do in your hotel room to airplane seat selection (sitting in the middle of the plane will provide a less bumpy ride).

Part one of the program culminates with the bedroom makeover, which covers everything from silk sheets (add more to the price than the comfort level) to pillow talk (avoid stiff pillows). The section on gadgets, such as white noise machines and relaxation CDs that offer soothing sounds, is very popular, he adds.

If your sleep is still disturbed after completing the first part of the program, march on to part two: boot camp.

"Night by night, the 28-day hard-core regimented program walks you through what to do, from what time to go to bed to what to eat," Breus says. Throughout the program, you'll keep a sleep diary to record your choices and note the progress you make.

As you would imagine, week one covers the basics. On night one, for example, you'll start to figure out the right bedtime and wake time for you.

On night two, you'll develop a bedtime routine. "Key to this is a 'power-down' hour, in which activities such as using the computer and reading work material are prohibited. One trick so you don't forget to 'power down' is to set your alarm clock for one hour before you go to bed," he says.

On night three, you'll evaluate daytime habits and routines, such as alcohol and caffeine consumption, that can affect sleep, while night four calls for another look at the bedroom environment. Night five offers stretches and relaxation techniques you can use during your 'power-down' hour, while night six focuses on food. Meals that are high in carbs and low to medium in protein are good for sleep; heavy spices are a big loser at dinnertime.

Night seven covers the right time to exercise. A typical myth buster: Exercise at the end of the day is a bad idea. "This is not necessarily true, Breus says. "For many, exercise provides the perfect preamble for sleep."

During week two, you'll evaluate what you have done during week one -- what works, what doesn't.

"Week three and four are for ingraining good habits," Breus says. The big action items during week three: Pinpointing the relaxation techniques that work best for you and practicing them on a regular basis and keeping a worry journal. "Any anxieties -- problems and solutions -- are written out, so you don't have to worry about them during the night," he explains.

During week four you'll identify anything that is still disturbing your sleep. "If you still haven't had much luck in achieving sound sleep, it's time to look more seriously for other sources of problems such as herbal supplements that have 'hidden' caffeine," Breus says.

If this sounds like a lot of work just to get a little extra shut-eye, consider the rewards, he adds. "Better sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. It's a prescription for rejuvenating your mind and body, improving your sex life, increasing your energy reserves and vitality, and helping you lose weight and keep it off."