Everyone knows that sleep is important for your health, but too often in our busy lives, we end up not getting enough sleep. You probably already know some things you can do to get better sleep, but hopefully this comprehensive overview of sleep strategies can give you a few more ideas to improve your sleep quality. In general, people need 7-9 hours of sleep at night. Even if you’re a go-getter, rest and recovery are essential to being effective. Not only does sleep help your brain function and improve memory, it also helps your body recover and repair itself from working so hard while awake. Sleep is like a secret weapon that helps you make better decisions, solve problems, be more creative, be more productive, heal injuries, and learn new things faster. People who chronically get less sleep tend to have bad moods, think less clearly, gain weight, have a higher risk of disease like heart attacks or strokes, and have fewer immune cells to fight off infections.
Basic Sleep Science
To understand how to sleep better, you first need to understand the basics of circadian rhythm and melatonin production. Circadian rhythm controls your sleep-wake cycle through various body mechanisms, including the release of the hormone melatonin, which helps you go to sleep. The amount of melatonin in your body rises and falls; it is usually highest in the middle of the night while you sleep and lowest in the morning/daytime while you’re awake. The production of melatonin is affected by exposure to daylight during the day and darkness at night, linking your body’s circadian rhythm to the external cycle of day and night. Your sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm can get out of sync with the actual time of day when you’re jet-lagged or working the night shift. This makes it hard to fall asleep when going to bed and to stay awake when working.
If you’re interested in learning about the different types of sleep and the sleep cycle, keep reading. If not, you can skip to the next section called “Tips for Better Sleep.”
There are 2 different types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. The first 3 stages of sleep are all non-REM, and the 4th stage is REM sleep. During the night, you cycle through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep. The time you spend in each stage of sleep varies, but you tend to spend more time in stage 2 light sleep (non-REM sleep) through most of the night, transitioning to more time spent in REM sleep toward morning. An example of a sleep cycle goes like this:
Stage 1: Transition from being awake to sleeping. This period of very light sleep lasts several minutes, and your muscles start to relax, sometimes twitching occasionally. Brain wave activity starts to slow.
Stage 2: Light sleep. Your muscles relax even further, your heartbeat and breathing slow down, your eye movements stop, and your body temperature drops. Brain wave activity is slow.
Stage 3: Deep sleep. This is the time when your body repairs itself from injuries or toxins that have built up during the day. The time you spend in this stage is longer in the first half of the night. Brain wave activity is even slower.
Stage 4: REM sleep, first occurring after about 90 minutes of sleep. Your eyes move side-to-side rapidly behind closed eyelids. Brain wave activity is similar to when you’re awake. This is the stage where most of your dreaming occurs. Your muscles are temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams.
It’s normal to wake up during the night. Most people actually wake up many times during the night but aren’t aware of it because they quickly fall back asleep again. Another interesting fact about sleep is that both non-REM and REM sleep seem to be important for consolidating memories and processing emotions.
Tips For Better Sleep
There are many factors that can affect your ability to sleep, and I have grouped the most important factors into 4 categories: circadian rhythm, sleep environment, timing of food/drink, and calming the mind.
Strategies to help regulate circadian rhythm
- Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends. Many people have fluctuating bed-times and wake-up times especially between weekdays and weekends. This makes it difficult for your circadian rhythm to stay on a regular schedule. It’s actually better to go to sleep and wake up within 30 minutes to 1 hour of your previous day’s sleep/wake time. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day helps your body to function well when you’re supposed to be awake and feel tired when you’re supposed to sleep.
- Expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. The part of your brain that regulates sleep is directly linked to the amount of light that you see with your eyes. Exposure to light prevents melatonin from being released, which is a good thing when you want to be awake during the day.
- Avoid blue light after sunset, or at least 90 minutes before going to bed. Blue light is the type of light that the sun, digital devices (computer/phone/TV screens), and fluorescent/LED lights produce. As explained above, blue light suppresses melatonin production. At night, though, you want your melatonin levels to rise so that you’ll actually feel sleepy by bedtime. If you avoid looking at digital screens or turning on bright lights at least 90 minutes before bedtime, your body will have a chance to get melatonin levels high enough to make you feel sleepy.
Strategies to help with sleep environment
- Build a strong association between your bedroom and sleep. If you tend to watch TV, do work, or email while in bed, it can make it harder for you to sleep because your mind associates your bed with other activities besides sleep. It’s best to do all those other activities outside in the living room or office and leave the bedroom just for sleeping.
- Block out noise. Street noise and neighbors can keep you up when you need your sleep. Consider wearing earplugs to keep out the noise and sleep more soundly.
- Block out light. Consider blackout curtains or wearing an eye mask to sleep if there’s too much light when you’re trying to sleep.
- Keep bedroom temperature comfortable. Your core body temperature needs to drop about 2 degrees Fahrenheit for you to have good quality sleep. This means that for many people, sleeping in a cool room around 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal. If you’re too hot or too cold, you’re more likely to have trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Wear loose clothing. Wearing loose clothing (including underwear and socks) to bed helps regulate the temperature throughout your body while you sleep. If one part of your body is too hot or too cold, it can wake you up.
Strategies for right timing of food/drink
- Avoid caffeine after 2 pm. It takes most people about 12-14 hours to completely break down and eliminate caffeine from the body. This means that if you have a late afternoon coffee, there’s still some caffeine in your system when you go to bed at 11 pm, making it hard to fall asleep. So if you’re feeling like you need a boost of energy in the afternoon but still want to be able to sleep well at night, it’s best to avoid caffeine and do something else like exercise instead.
- Avoid alcohol at least 3 hours before going to bed. One beer or one glass of wine will take the body 1-3 hours to process completely for most people. If you have multiple drinks, it takes several more hours for alcohol to be eliminated. Although alcohol can make you feel sleepy, it actually causes bad quality sleep and wakes you up at night. Alcohol can also disrupt REM sleep, which affects how your memories are processed.
- Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before bed. If you’re prone to acid reflux, eating (and staying upright) at least 2 hours before going to bed can prevent indigestion or heartburn from keeping you awake.
Strategies for calming your mind
- Relax an hour before bed. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode. Doing something calming an hour before going to sleep like reading, meditating, or listening to calming music can help you feel tired enough to sleep.
- Manage stress. It’s hard to fall asleep when you’re stressed out or anxious. Do what you can to take care of the things within your control about your situation during the day. Then at night, try to do relaxing activities so that you can sleep and recharge for tomorrow. Contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation, and journaling can be helpful. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation where you systematically tense then relax all the muscle groups of your body are also great relaxation techniques. Listening to music, chatting with friends, taking a walk, getting rid of clutter in your home, and doing an enjoyable activity can all help to reduce stress.
What about all those mattress commercials?
The sleep tips discussed above give a broad overview of the most important factors to consider with improving sleep. This doesn’t mean that a comfortable mattress and pillow are not important. It just means that developing better sleep hygiene habits with improving your circadian rhythm, sleep environment, timing of food/drink, and state of mind are more likely to give you better results. Going out to buy a fancy mattress or pillow is an expensive option that may or may not help. For example, if your circadian rhythm is out of sync, you still may not be able to fall asleep no matter how comfortable your mattress is. If you’re able to put all the sleep strategies into practice but you’re still having trouble sleeping, it may be time to look into getting a special mattress.
Take Home Messages
If you’re interested in improving your sleep, take a look at the “Tips For Better Sleep” section and identify the areas you could work on. Then, just pick one thing you’re willing to put into practice and start with that. Once you’re able to consistently maintain that change, you can add another one. For more guidance on making lasting lifestyle changes, check out these tips for creating good habits.
Lastly, keep in mind that everybody is different. Although it’s recommended that you get 7-9 hours of sleep at night, some people might do just fine on 6 hours of sleep a night. If you feel worse when you get 7 or more hours of sleep, listen to what your body needs. What matters most is that you’re getting enough good quality sleep to allow your body to rebuild and perform at its best. Better sleep will give you the foundation for a better life.
National Sleep Foundation. “Sleep Tips.” https://www.thensf.org/sleep-tips/
National Institutes of Health. “Understanding Sleep.” https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/understanding-Sleep
Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep. New York: Scribner, 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34466963-why-we-sleep
Stevenson, Shawn. Sleep Smarter. New York: Rodale Books, 2016. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26114128-sleep-smarter
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National Institutes of Health. “Molecular ties between lack of sleep and weight gain.” NIH Research Matters. 22 March 2016. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/molecular-ties-between-lack-sleep-weight-gain
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