Sleep is a vital aspect of our lives. If we didn’t learn that from our parents growing up, then we surely learned it firsthand when we did not get enough of it as adults.
But if sleep is so important, why does it seem like people are never sleeping as well or as much as they would like to? It may be the bustle of modern life, the city lights that never go out, our individual habits, or a host of other factors. It seems like the deck is stacked against us getting enough sleep.
Luckily, there are equally as many individual behaviors that we can change in order to optimize our sleep and take back control of our nights. The tips below are all evidence-based strategies to improve your sleep. Not all of them will work for everyone, so play around with these habits until you create your own optimal sleep strategy.
1. Stick to a Sleep Schedule
With so many demands on our time and attention, it may seem difficult to routinely go to sleep and wake up at precisely the same time every day. However, adhering to a fixed sleep schedule can be one of the best ways to improve your sleep.
Studies have demonstrated that a wider variety in sleep schedule and sleep duration are linked to poorer sleep quality and well-being. Routine sleep and wake times reinforce the sleep-wake cycle and create stronger associations inside your brain. When the end of the day rolls around, your brain will already know what the plan of action is: sleep!
2. Pay Attention to What You Put into Your Body
The oft-repeated aphorism “You are what you eat” also applies when it comes to the quality of your sleep. What you eat, drink, or otherwise consume can impact your sleep dramatically. Caffeine, for example, stimulates your nervous system and produces the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol engages your fight-or-flight response, so drinking caffeine right before bed might be one of the worst things you can do for your sleep. Eating large or heavy meals before bedtime can lead to worse sleep as well because these meals impose a difficult load on your digestive system. Additionally, going to bed hungry or after consuming substances such as nicotine or alcohol can negatively affect your sleep quality. If you want good sleep, make sure you pay attention to your eating and drinking habits.
3. Exercise Daily
You may find that you consistently sleep the best when you have “run yourself ragged.” Indeed, research shows this is literally the case: Engaging in physical activity during the day improves your sleep quality in several important ways. Indirectly, exercise can help individuals maintain a healthy body weight, which is associated with a lower risk of obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep-related disorders. Directly, daily exercise can decrease your sleep onset time (the time that it takes you to fall asleep) and reduce the need for sleep medications in some individuals.
Meditation is being touted as the panacea for all of our earthly ailments these days, and for good reason: Meditation has been found to benefit our mental and physical health in myriad ways. When it comes to sleep, meditating before bed can inspire a calm, relaxed mind that is free from stress and worries. A nightly meditation routine can also signal to your brain that it is time to sleep once you have completed your practice.
5. Avoid Rumination
Many people often find themselves unable to sleep because of mind-racing. Worry and rumination before bedtime can induce a spiral that makes it difficult to fall asleep.
Fortunately, there are some steps that individuals can take to calm their racing minds and fall asleep.
- Get up from bed when you find yourself in this situation; continuing to lie in bed will likely just increase your frustration and make it impossible to sleep.
- Engaging in relaxing activities, such as reading, painting, walking, or meditating, can help you reduce your worry and rumination.
- Formal interventions like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can help you reduce your worrying and rumination at night.
6. Invest in Your Sleep
There are few things as frustrating as trying to fall asleep on an uncomfortable bed. When all you want to do is sleep, it seems as though an uncomfy mattress is doing everything in its power to keep you awake. Investing in a quality mattress and comfortable pillows, sheets, and other sleep gear can really upgrade your sleep game. High-quality sleep gear can make your bed more comfortable and inviting and provide your body with the right amount of support. If you are consistently struggling with falling asleep or waking up with aches and pains, consider investing in your sleep gear.
7. Get Enough Sleep
This tip is certainly the most obvious, but arguably the most important. Many people may not know how many hours of sleep they should be getting for optimal mental and physical health. Generally, the younger you are, the more sleep you need. For example, it is recommended that school-age children sleep nine to 11 hours a night, while adults should get seven to nine.
However, a number of factors may influence how much sleep you need. People under lots of stress and those that frequently engage in intense exercise likely need more sleep than the average person. Make sure that you listen to your body and get enough sleep to consistently feel healthy and energized.
8. Pay Attention to Light
The human circadian system—i.e., our internal clock—is heavily influenced by our exposure to light throughout the day. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you are being exposed to light at the right times during the day. The circadian clock is the most sensitive to light one hour after waking, two hours before your typical bedtime, and during sleep. Getting early exposure to sunlight in the morning can help normalize your circadian rhythm and signal that it is time to begin the day.
Conversely, it is important to avoid exposure to bright lights and electronics before bed, because these lights signal to your brain that you should be awake. Keeping your exposure to light as minimal as possible before bed lets your body know that it is time for sleep. Additionally, the stimulation of electronics and bright lights can cause a release of the stress hormone cortisol and make you jittery before bedtime. Cortisol activates your fight-or-flight response (which gears you up for immediate action), so you should avoid bright lights and electronics before bed whenever possible.
9. Make Your Bed a Safe Haven
Sleep experts suggest that you reserve the sanctity of your bed for a few specific activities. Generally, it is recommended that you only use your bed for sleep and sex. This helps create a strong association in your brain between your bed and these activities, which makes it easier for you to fall asleep when you crash into bed at the end of the night.
Unfortunately, many people consistently struggle to get enough sleep. They toss and turn all night, either struggling to fall asleep or unable to remain asleep. Luckily, there are many ways that people can improve the quality and duration of their Z’s. We covered many of them in this article, but this list is by no means comprehensive. If you struggle with your sleep, please experiment with these science-backed suggestions for optimizing sleep. Mix and match them until you have created your own optimal sleep system. Take back your nights so that you can do more and live better during your waking hours.
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.