After a string of restless nights sunk into the couch until 4 a.m., watching a marathon of TiVo'd "West Wing" episodes, I began to believe Jed Bartlet really was president and that he needed my advice on issues. I was creeping into Crazyville and the tube wasn't to blame -- I needed sleep. "We are all getting less and less," says Alon Avidan, director of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at the University of Michigan Medical Center. "In D.C. you have all these young professionals with demanding schedules and they can't do it all, so they take time away from their sleep." What's more, with daylight saving time ending this weekend, your body's going to be even further out of whack. So how to get those seven to eight hours of z's? Follow these tips:
MAKE OVER YOUR BEDROOM. First, transform your boudoir into a sanctuary for sleeping (and loving) only. Ditch the TV, wild posters and clutter, and treat yourself to plush linens, candles and other serenity-inspiring, hotel-like goodies. Get over fear of the dark and invest in quality window coverings; darkness brings on REM, aka rapid-eye-movement sleep (the good, deep kind, when dreaming occurs). Noise problems? Get ambient CDs, and let the ocean or forest chirps block out those car alarms and loud neighbors.
RISE AND SHINE LIKE CLOCKWORK. "Unlike the popular belief, you can't 'catch up on sleep' the next day -- you need to pay it back over time," Avidan says. To decrease your shut-eye debt, stick to a schedule; reset your internal clock by waking and going to bed at the same time every day, including weekends. Skip naps, and don't hit the snooze button. Getting more direct sunlight during the day also helps set your clock. Try keeping a sleep diary for two weeks to document when you fell asleep and woke up. This can help you pinpoint which bad habits you need to break.
WIND DOWN, NOT UP. Exercise helps you sleep, but not if it's three hours or less before bed -- that just makes you wired. And a fully leaded cup of coffee can hinder sleep up to six hours later. If you're a troubled sleeper, alcohol is a no-no, too: Though it makes you droopy, it also brings on vivid, wakening dreams and staves off REM.
PREPARE MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY. Before you hit the sack, jot down your to-do list and put those items to bed, too. If you want to read to tire your eyes, avoid scary books or the news, which can send you into a negative tailspin. Before bed, bathe or put on soft pj's. And actually do count sheep (or your heartbeat or the oodles of cute shoes you've been dying to buy) if it helps you focus on your breathing -- this kind of mini-meditation calms and quiets the mind.
STAY OUT OF BED. If you can't fall asleep for 30 minutes, get up; otherwise, you'll associate your bedroom with discomfort, anxiety and, well, loss of sleep. Go to another area of your home and relax by reading a boring book or eating a light snack. When you're drowsy, crawl under the covers. If you start ruminating, drag yourself out of bed and repeat.
SEEK HELP. Snoring, grinding your teeth, headaches or excessive sleepiness during the day could all be signs of a more serious condition. So if these sound familiar, see a doctor or sleep specialist (the National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org, keeps a list of sleep resources and referrals). Or, send your bed mate to an expert if he's keeping you up sawing logs or going to the bathroom every hour. For about $100, a consultation might reveal that you need more oxygen while sleeping or have a medical disorder (the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, www.aasmnet.org, lists clinics nationwide). Pros can offer treatments to get you sweet dreaming again.