Putting Together the Pieces of the Puzzle: How to Get a Great Night’s Sleep

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By Erin Pittman

There aren’t too many things powerful enough to affect every single area of your life. Attitude, finances and your mother may come to mind. But this time we’re actually talking about sleep. The quality of your sleep can really make or break your day.

Didn’t sleep well last night? Staying focused in that three-hour webinar on the latest standard operating procedures is likely going to be brutal. Slept like a queen for eight straight hours? Bet your four-mile run this morning was a breeze. You know some days it takes three cups of coffee to get your body moving,
and other days you pop out of bed greeting the day like you’re the lead in a Broadway musical. If you’d rather that lead be more Annie than Mrs. Hannigan or Sandy than Rizzo, improving the quality and duration of your sleep may just be the ticket.

Our Publisher, Rebecca Barnes, is no stranger to insomnia — so much so that she created the 3 a.m. club.

“Years ago, I started having trouble sleeping and found myself up in the middle of the night. I would post roll calls for the 3 a.m. club on social media. And lo and behold, all these friends would also be awake and ‘attending.’ It’s been a long-running joke in my circle,” she said.

Insomnia is a widespread, puzzling issue affecting millions of Americans.

Sleep Basics

Most adults need an average of seven hours of sleep each night. But it’s not just about the length of time you spend in bed, it’s also about the quality of that sleep. You’re aiming for uninterrupted sleep that occurs on a regular schedule. (You don’t have to rush yourself with the same urgency you usher your kids into bed so you can stream the latest episode of Squid Game. But aim for roughly the same half-hour window each night.)

Why is sleep duration and quality so important? Both for your mental and physical health. (Remember the mother comment? It touches everything!) Quality sleep helps balance your mood and emotions. Poor sleep can lead to increased anxiety and depression. Physically, focusing on sleep hygiene helps you maintain a healthy weight, avoid diseases, keep your immune system strong, reduce your risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and balance your hormones. And even if you’re not truly interested in that webinar on standard operating procedures, you’ll find it much easier to stay alert and focused with a good night’s sleep.

Sleep Hindrances

Putting together the pieces of your sleep puzzle first means discovering what’s hindering your snooze fest in the first place. Some of the most common sleep disturbances include:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Snoring
  • External stimulation
  • Disruption of circadian rhythms
  • Caffeine
  • Inability to settle your mind or body
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol
  • Temperature
  • Eating too much before bed
  • Napping during the day

Sleep Apnea and Snoring

CPAP, sleep disorders

“Sleep disorders can have various symptoms that can manifest in day or night. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, nonrestorative sleep at night or daytime sleepiness, poor memory, poor concentration and moodiness in daytime are just some of these symptoms,” said Behnam Goudarzi, M.D., FCCP, FAASM, DABSM, Medical Director of the Sentara Sleep Disorders Center of Woodbridge.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Those with sleep apnea may snore loudly, wake up with a dry mouth, gasp for air while asleep, be excessively tired and have difficulty focusing during the day, have a hard time staying asleep and experience increased irritability.

“Snoring is a very common sign of a very common sleep disorder, obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. At times, we suspect sleep disorders from comorbidities. For example, about 2/3 of patients, who had a heart attack have OSA and on the other hand, significant OSA increases chance of heart attack or stroke 3 times. OSA is one of the most common disorders that can affect other organ systems and, in a way, it can be rather dangerous,” Goudarzi said.

Not everyone with this disorder snores. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, speak to your doctor about a sleep study. According to Dr. Goudarzi, if left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can affect other organ systems. Doctors can prescribe medications and equipment to treat sleep disorders.

External Disruptions

Drowning out external stimulation to allow your mind and body to relax is essential for a good night’s sleep. Invest in a sound machine, cell phone app, fan or air purifier for white noise. Blackout curtains and eye masks are great options for blocking light. Experts recommend cooler temps for sleeping, as well, so
save yourself some money on energy while also getting better sleep. Turn that thermostat down to the mid to upper 60s for the best snoozing temps. And check out our Health and Wellness section for more tips from our experts.

Internal Choices

Our daily choices can greatly affect the quality and duration of our nightly rest. Are you guzzling caffeine to make it through the workday? Sneaking in a nap on your lunch break now that you work from home and are only a few steps from the couch? It’s time to bust those bad habits!

First, if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, limit your caffeine intake and try to keep it to before noon. No matter your age, caffeine can have an effect on your ability to drift off to dreamland. (Some of you may just now be learning why grandma was always so insistent on decaf at restaurants.)

Second, our bodies have a natural rhythm. Tapping into that circadian rhythm (a.k.a. your internal body clock) and living in harmony with it will make our sleep patterns come more naturally. And you guessed it … daily naps for average adults aren’t a part of that natural flow. Instead, think of rising and going to bed with the sun … though maybe not quite at 5:30 when the sun is currently setting. If you’re a night owl who stays
up past midnight, turn in a little earlier each night until you’re getting those seven to eight hours each night. Then make it a habit.

“One should avoid heavy meals and drinking close to bedtime, avoid exercise late at night and avoid smoking and alcoholic drinks close to bedtime,” said Goudarzi.

Just as you aim for regular bedtimes and wake-up times, try to set regular mealtimes. Avoid eating large meals at least two hours before you go to sleep. And while you may think an alcoholic drink or two may help you fall asleep, they will typically have you up and running to the restroom a few hours later. Don’t
count on alcohol for a solid night of rest. It’s better to avoid alcohol before bed, as well.

Sleep Helpers

sleep, calming

We’ve defined many sleep hindrances, but what about things to help? “A warm bath and a bedtime routine can be helpful, as well as avoidance of lights like TV and computer/cellphone screens at bedtime,” said Goudarzi.

Adjust Your Screen Time

Information about how screentime disrupts sleep is popping up everywhere. Electronic devices emit blue light, which has been shown to reduce or delay the production of melatonin, a hormone that plays a key role in sleep. This can have an especially strong impact on children. One might say “Can’t I simply supplement with melatonin?” but what is actually happening goes back to disrupting that natural circadian rhythm, of which melatonin is only one key part.

It’s best to cut the screens an hour before you intend to go to sleep. Read a book, practice yoga, listen to music or meditate instead. If you absolutely cannot tear yourself from your device, use blue light blocking glasses and use the blue light reducing setting on your phone, tablet or computer.

Settle Your Mind and Body

yoga in bed, sleep

The pace at which we live our lives can make it very difficult to settle ourselves down each night. No sooner does your head hit the pillow than you remember 12 things you forgot to take care of. Try these tips for relaxing mind and body before bed:

  • Keep a notebook and pen beside your bed. When those thoughts pop up as you try to fall asleep, quickly jot them down to take care of tomorrow. Knowing you won’t forget them will put your mind at ease and allow you to relax and nod off.
  • Practice restorative yoga. Check out our Destinations section for locations in Prince William to take a class online or in person. Niecia Bullock of Rooted Yoga in Woodbridge offers a few of her favorite poses you can try out tonight to relax body and mind. Yoga poses can also relieve pain and symptoms from conditions such as restless leg syndrome.
  • Meditate. Download an app like Calm or Headspace and explore their sleep sections. You’ll find music, sleep stories, meditations and soothing sounds to help you unwind from the day, as well as meditations specifically designed to reduce anxiety and stress, and aid a number of other specific needs. You can also pop your headphones in and use these tools if you find yourself ready to attend 3 a.m. club with Rebecca! While she’d love to hear from you, she’d love to hear you got a good night’s rest even more.
  • Take time to unwind. This may mean a trip to the spa. (You’ll also find some great spots to try in our Destinations section.) This could mean knitting, taking a walk after work, fishing, catching up with a friend or snuggling with your dog. Carve out time for you, doing something you WANT to do to help
    yourself unwind. Life should include pleasure and fun!


Thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day has been found to positively impact sleep. Aerobics, walking and jogging are all great options. Most experts recommend not working out within one to two hours of heading to bed, as moderate exercise releases endorphins and increases heart rate, both of which tend to keep you awake. However, some recent studies indicate this may not be the case for everyone. Experiment with workout times and intensities to determine what works best for you.

Soak Up the Sun

Get out in the sunshine — yes even in the winter. Here we go with those body rhythms again. Let your body know when the sun is rising, shining and setting, and soak in its energy. Take a walk at lunch or after breakfast. Stand outside while you take a call. Soaking in those rays will help your body regulate hormones
and produce plenty of vitamin D, a key role player in numerous bodily functions and — yep, you guessed it — sleep, too!

Evaluate Your Mattress and Pillow

sleep, sleeping man

If you’re waking with aches and pains, it could be that it’s time for a new mattress or pillow. Memory foam, hybrid, Purple®, Sleep Number®, the options are endless — as are the price points. From a couple hundred dollars on Amazon to thousands in specialty stores, there is a mattress out there for everyone.
The same goes for pillows. You can reduce neck, back and jaw pain by choosing the right pillow. The options can be overwhelming, but start by thinking about which position you most often sleep in. Are you a side, back or stomach sleeper?

Next think about support level. Do you like softer, plush pillows or firmer memory foam? Do an online search for options that fit your criteria. There are even thinner options for shorter people and thicker options for those with longer necks.

And there you have it: the pieces to put together your sleep puzzle. You don’t have to implement it all at once. Try one new thing or take away one sleep-inhibiting habit each week until you find yourself sleeping like a baby. May 2022 be your most restful and successful one yet!

Erin Pittman (epittman@princewilliamliving.com) is Editor in Chief of Prince William Living. She loves dogs, kids, books and all of those things piled in her lap on the couch.


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