Some of us are walking zombies, if the latest sleep statistics are to be believed: More than 20 percent of Americans are sleep deprived, and 1,500 road fatalities a year are attributed to falling asleep at the wheel. We’d feel and function a whole lot better if we could just get more Zzzz’s.

    Easier said than done. Dr. Raman Malhotra, co-director of SLUCare’s Sleep Disorders Center, says one of our biggest failings is trying to adjust our sleep schedule to the rest of our lives, instead of the other way around. We have a lot more control over our bedtimes than we exercise. “We can tape that late movie or pass on Leno. The body doesn’t like 10 hours of sleep one night and 6 the next,” Malhotra says.

    Our sleep routine, what we do the 30 minutes before we turn in, also has a lot to do with quality sleep. Malhotra says sleep is not enhanced by using that time to pay bills, start an argument on an important topic, watch disturbing news on TV, or start our overwhelming to-do list for the next day. Do those things earlier in the evening and save that last half-hour for a calming routine. Read something relaxing, have a light snack, brush your teeth and wash your face.

        The setting for sleep should be a dark, quiet, cool room and a good mattress. If you are waking up with a sore back, it might be time to get a new bed. Bedmates with different schedules also can be disruptive.

    “If you take naps, make sure they are no longer than 30 minutes and in the middle of the day, rather than in the evening,” Malhotra advises. “Otherwise, normal sleep patterns are again disrupted. Drinking alcohol or coffee, or smoking close to bedtime, also disturbs normal sleep patterns because caffeine, nicotine and alcohol act as stimulants,” he adds. If you have problems sleeping, ask your doctor if you should see a specialist.

    Dr. Beth Ann Ward, assistant director of clinical services for the Washington University Multidisciplinary Sleep Center, says quality sleep won’t happen if you don’t spend the time in bed. “Allow at least eight hours for sleep,” she says. “When you are in bed, make sure it is free of distractions.” That means no TV, computers, smart phones, and no pets in the bed or the room. “Pets are extremely disruptive to sleep,” Ward says. “I had one patient come in who shared a queen-size bed with her husband, one 150-pound dog and a Jack Russell terrier. Small wonder she wasn’t sleeping well.”

    Shift workers have an extra set of variables working against quality sleep, she adds. They should turn the phone off, wear eye shades and keep set times for sleeping to help their body’s internal clock adjust.

    Ward says regular exercise really helps sleep quality, but not before bedtime. It’s too stimulating. “Some people tell me they can have coffee before they go to bed and never have trouble falling asleep, but it tends to disrupt sleep later on and cause early awakening,” she explains. The same is true of alcohol. Both affect the sleep architecture, and there is some evidence that they decrease the slow-wave and REM phases, both of which are needed for restorative sleep.  

    And there’s the vicious cycle many of us fall into: feeling pressure to get to sleep, which only drives sleep away. Ward suggests turning the clock away; every time you look at it you feel the pressure of having less time to sleep, she says. If you can’t get to sleep, practice relaxation techniques, or get up and do a relaxing activity in another room, keeping lights as low as possible.

    If you have trouble shutting your mind down, ask what you are worried about. Several hours before going to bed, make a list of what’s bothering you and a plan for dealing with it. Then put it aside. “If negative thoughts or anxieties are keeping you awake, behavioral therapists can teach you relaxation techniques and cognitive therapies to relax the mind,” Ward suggests.