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Why Are You Always Tired? Five Questions for Sleep Expert Rebecca Robbins

Forget love and money. What people desire most in this go-go world is a good night's sleep. Nobody knows this better than Rebecca S. Robbins, a sleep researcher at Cornell University. As the co-author of Sleep for Success! and sleep consultant to New York City's Benjamin Hotel, Robbins is more than qualified to talk about what it takes to secure a restful snooze. Here, she shares her best tips on sleep, bed, and beyond.


1) Everyone has different sleep needs and different sleep rhythms. How do you know you're going to sleep at the right time? And getting enough shut-eye?

That is exactly right! We all have individual sleep needs and rhythms, and there is variation over the life cycle as well. For instance, children need as much sleep as they can get, while teenagers actually need close to nine hours. On the other hand, adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. There is some genetic variation in individual sleep need, whereby some adults need closer to seven hours, but only a very small portion -- below 1 percent of the population -- needs less than seven hours of sleep. The best way to find out how much sleep your body needs is to allow your body to wake up naturally during a vacation, and keep track of the hours you spend in bed. If you begin your vacation particularly sleep deprived, this may take a few days, but the body will adjust and return to its natural sleep need.


In addition to having different sleep needs, we also all have a different circadian rhythm. Some people are larks, preferring to fall asleep early and wake up early, while others are owls, preferring to stay up later at night and sleep in. Being aware of what type of circadian cycle you have can help you structure your day to match your personal rhythm. Of course, this can be easier said than done. Someone I know arranged to come into his office at 11am and leave the office in the evening due to a preference for a later bedtime and morning workout. If your work schedule conflicts with your circadian preference, speak to your boss to see if you can change your hours -- or give them a copy of my book!


Consistency of sleep routine is critical. That is, keeping the same bedtime and rising time Monday through Monday, including the weekends. If you have a late night, at the very least, wake up within one hour of your usual bedtime and take a power nap in the afternoon if you are tired during the day. A consistent pattern of bed and rising times will allow you to maintain your circadian rhythm, improve the quality of your sleep, and make it easier to fall asleep at night.

Rebecca Robbins

2) What's the number one mistake people make in their bedtime routine?

There are three things, in fact, that interfere with our sleep: stress, stimulants, and computer screens. Stress is the No. 1 cause of insomnia. I always encourage people to practice yoga and meditation -- two stress-reduction techniques that, when practiced routinely, can dramatically improve sleep. There are a lot of great resources online for relaxation. One app that I adore can be found on They offer audio-guided visualization and meditation.

Another big mistake we are all guilty of is stimulants like coffee, caffeinated soda, and alcohol. Caffeine interferes with sleep because it has a half-life, so consuming coffee, chocolate, and tea has cumulative effects -- these substances cause our heart to race and keep us awake tossing and turning at night. Best to avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. for optimal rest.


Finally, hopping on our computer before bed is a huge mistake nearly all of us are guilty of making. Research at Google found that 70 percent of Americans use computers close to bedtime, but these devices emit blue daylight spectrum light. Our circadian rhythm is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a region of the brain right behind the eyes. Therefore, bright blue sunlight is what causes us to wake up in the morning, and the absence of this light is what triggers us to fall asleep.


Computer use before bed can have a similar alerting mechanism in our bodies as the sun. Although turning the brightness down on these devices can help, they also are stress inducing, so avoid computers an hour and a half before bedtime, and consider starting a pre-bed routine.


3) What should you do if you find yourself tossing and turning for the better part of an hour?

Sometimes we stress ourselves out if we do not fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow. But if you fall asleep instantly, that is actually a sign of sleep deprivation, because the well-rested person takes about 15 minutes to fall asleep, so have patience. However, if you toss and turn for more than 15 minutes, the best strategy is to get up, get out of bed, keep the lights low, and do more of your pre-bed routine activities like reading, light housework, or meditating. Avoid the temptation to get up and hop on your email or computer.


4) What's the ideal sleep environment?

The best bedroom is a sanctuary to sleep! Not an auxiliary office, or household command center. Three simple keys to a great sleep sanctuary are quiet, dark, and cool. Your bedroom should be as quiet as possible, no beeping devices or outside sound. Noise of sixty decibels is enough to wake us up and disturb sleep. If you live in a city and find yourself waking up from noise, consider purchasing an air purifier that provides background noise, or a pair of noise cancelling earplugs -– these are a must bring on any trip I take.


Second, the bedroom must be dark, and by dark I mean pitch black. Our eyelids are the thinnest piece of skin on our bodies so that the light from an alarm clock or even a cable box is enough to get into our eyelids and disrupt our sleep. Tonight after the sun sets turn off all the lights in your bedroom and if there is any source of light, cover it with tape or a hand towel until your room is completely dark and purchase blackout curtains if any light seeps in through your blinds.


Finally, the best sleeping temperature is actually a chilly 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool bedroom temperatures are associated with a faster sleep on set and better sleep quality whereas warm environments can cause sweating, unpleasant dreams, and poor sleep quality. Further, if a warm shower is part of your bedtime routine, research suggests that going from a warm shower to a cool bedroom can ease sleep onset, helping you fall faster into a deep sleep, so turn the thermostat down for best rest.


5) What's the one product everyone should invest in for good sleep?

Pillows are one place where anyone can dramatically improve their sleep experience and bedroom environment on almost any budget. Each of us spends most of our time during the night in one of three positions: on our stomach, on our back, or on our side. What type of sleeper are you? If you wake up on your side, that is often a good hint that you are a side sleeper, and conversely if you wake up on your stomach or back you are a stomach or back sleeper respectively.


Another great way to find your sleeper type is to ask a spouse, family member, or loved one who may have seen you sleeping at one time or another where they believe you spend the most time at night. Approximately half of the population is made up of side sleepers, while about 20 percent are stomach and 30 percent are back sleepers. Each sleeper type needs a different type of pillow. Side sleepers need more support to keep their head, neck, and spinal chord in one straight line. On the other hand, back and stomach sleepers need a much less “fill power,” or in other words, they simply need a flatter pillow so their spine and neck are not out of alignment.