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A free, four-step routine can help you get more sleep every night

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Sleep is really, really good for you — and, if you don't get enough, studies have shown that you will probably be less productive: Sleep-deprived workers cost companies anywhere from $60 billion to $136 billion a year, with overall economic losses estimated at up to $411 billion annually.

Unfortunately, Americans are getting less sleep than even a few years ago, according to a study published in scientific journal Sleep earlier this year looking at government data collected from 2004-2017. One-third of people report that they are sleeping fewer than six hours per night on average, researchers found.

Before you shell out for sleep aids like supplements or a weighted blanket, consider ways to give yourself a chance at a better night's rest that don't cost anything at all. Try this free, four-step, doctor-approved routine to help you improve your sleep hygiene.

Set a sleep schedule and stick to it

Staying out late on the weekends can throw off your sleep for the whole week. "Sleep is a rhythm," says Dr. Frank Lipman, founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City — and if you're not consistent, you might find it harder to get to sleep and to wake up on time.

If you sleep from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays, for example, sleeping from 3 a.m. to noon on the weekend will throw off your sleep routine. On the flip side, trying to catch up on sleep during the weekend can throw off your circadian rhythm.

"Try to keep the weekend schedule looking a lot like this workday schedule," says Dr. Douglas Kirsch, medical director of sleep medicine for Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Three hours before bed: Avoid alcohol

You might think it'll help you relax, but drinking before you go to bed isn't a good idea. "It helps people fall asleep, but then they wake up at one or two in the morning when the body is breaking down the alcohol," Lipman says.

Interrupted sleep causes you to be in a worse mood the next day compared to getting fewer hours of uninterrupted sleep, according to a 2015 study by the National Sleep Foundation. So skip the nightcap. Experts recommend giving yourself at least three hours between your last drink and the time you get into bed.

In the end, environment and pattern probably play a larger role in how people sleep than they recognize, and changing it doesn't cost much.
Dr. Douglas Kirsch
Medical director for Atrium Health

An hour and a half before bed: Take a hot bath or shower

Cooler environments are more ideal than warmer ones for maximizing sleep, Lipman says. Your body temperature drops after you get out of a hot bath or shower, helping create that cooling effect. He also suggests keeping your bedroom at 68 degrees or cooler to get more restful slumber.

A research paper in Sleep Medicine Reviews earlier this year estimated that showering or bathing one to two hours before bed creates the optimal timeline for better sleep.

An hour before bed: Eliminate 'junk light'

Lipman says "junk light" is partly to blame for Americans' sleepless nights. Light from your phone, television, and tablet — pretty much anything with a screen — falls into that category.

Exposure to that kind of light triggers your brain into being awake the same way daylight can, according to a 2013 study, by inhibiting your body's ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep, Lipman explains.

So if you're turning on "The Office" as you attempt to doze off, you're actually interfering with your body's ability to get tired. Experts recommend turning off screens at least 30 minutes before bed and, ideally, closer to an hour beforehand.

"In the end, environment and pattern probably play a larger role in how people sleep than they recognize, and changing it doesn't cost much," Kirsch says. "But it's very challenging to do. It's kind of like talking to people about their diet. People know they need to change their diet but find it hard to do so. People don't like to change, but if they don't change things don't improve."

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