How to Sleep Better
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Everywhere I go I am asked: “Do you have any tips on how to sleep better?”
Many American adults don’t get enough sleep, and even those that do often don’t get the good sleep they need to feel rested in the morning. Either way, you wake up feeling exhausted, sluggish, and just awful.
So how well do you sleep at night?
If you’re one of the millions of adults that don’t get the healthy sleep you need, then there are some easy changes you can make to your bedtime routine to fix that.
Before we get into my recommendations for how to sleep better and improve sleep quality though, let’s take a look at why you may not be sleeping well.
Why You May Be Sleep-Deprived
According to the journal Sleep, approximately one-third of American adults don’t get the sleep they need. Sleep issues can be caused by any number of reasons. Some of the reasons you may be getting insufficient sleep can include:
Sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, shift work sleep disorder, or insomnia
Stress from work or home
Poor sleep hygiene
Health conditions such as chronic pain or GERD
Circadian rhythm disorders
Signs of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation can take a serious toll on your body and mind. Some signs that you’re not getting enough sleep are:
Lethargy or lack of energy
Anxiety or irritability
Reduced focus and attention span
Insufficient sleep and growing sleep debt can not only make you feel disoriented, foggy, and out of sorts, but it can even put you at increased risk of accidents and injury. So naturally one of the best ways to keep yourself safe and alert is to get enough good quality sleep.
5 Simple Changes for Better Sleep Quality
Sometimes sleep difficulties are inevitable, but they don’t have to control your life. Consider incorporating these healthy sleep habits into your bedtime routine to make sleep deprivation a thing of the past.
1. Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Of all the sleep tips you could ever read or hear about, the most important one to follow is to stick to one consistent sleep schedule. This means following the same bedtime each night and waking up at the same time each day. It’s important to do this even on days where you’re not on a strict schedule, like the weekend.
When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync and all of your other bodily functions will work more smoothly, including your sleep. It may be a tricky habit to get into especially if you currently have an irregular sleep schedule, but it’ll get easier the more you stick with it. And you’ll feel better during the day too.
Not sure when you should go to bed each night? Check out my Sleep Calculator. It’ll use your wake-up time as a basis to calculate your ideal bedtime.
2. Eliminate All Caffeine Starting at 2 PM
I know what you are thinking: Is he serious? How can stopping my caffeine intake at 2:00 p.m. help me sleep better?
It’s simple! Caffeine is a stimulant, and consuming it too close to bedtime will prevent you from either falling asleep or having good quality sleep.
Caffeine has what’s called a “half-life” of about 8 hours— which means that its level is reduced, but still somewhat effective in your system after this time. A study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine also found that consuming caffeine within six hours of your bedtime can reduce total sleep time by up to 41 minutes.
That can be a pretty significant sleep loss, so it’s important to ditch the caffeine or drink caffeine-free versions of those beverages once 2:00 rolls around.
3. No Alcohol Within 3 Hours of Bedtime
Alcohol is the number one most used sleep aid in the world. In fact, a whopping 20 to 30 percent of insomnia patients report using alcohol as a sleep aid! Of them, 67 percent have said it helped them sleep better.
However, the reality is that alcohol is not the answer to getting better sleep. There is a big difference between going to sleep and passing out. While alcohol’s sedative properties can make you sleepy, it can also detract from a good night’s sleep in the following ways:
Alcohol prevents you from reaching the deep sleep stages where the most restful sleep occurs
Alcohol relaxes the muscles in your airway, which can lead to snoring
Alcohol can dehydrate you, which can make you more thirsty
Alcohol awakens you in the middle of the night— usually to go to the bathroom
Having a few drinks before bedtime will increase your Stage 1 and 2 NREM sleep and reduce your REM sleep. Getting enough REM sleep is vital for achieving the deep sleep that comes with Stage 3 and 4 NREM sleep.
Too little REM sleep can be devastating for the brain and body, since it also helps you organize and store your memories. In addition to that, REM sleep is the sleep stage where the most calories are burned. Alcohol is filled with empty calories, so drinking is never a good idea when you’re trying to sleep better or lose weight.
Alcohol consumption can even interfere with the sleep benefits you get from exercising. Speaking of exercise…
Moderate physical activity is key to a healthy body, as well as for healthy rest. It keeps muscles and bones strong and maintains good cardiovascular health. Many of my sleep patients who don’t exercise regularly and lead inactive or sedentary lives are missing out on an excellent sleep remedy.
Data suggests that not only will exercising during the day will help you fall asleep more quickly and plunge you into longer, deeper sleep, but it also helps your body produce growth hormones. These hormones help your body repair and revitalize itself during the night as you sleep.
Many of my patients report that they sleep better with regular exercise and that they feel more alert and rejuvenated the following day. The best part is that you don’t need to do anything too intense to reap the benefits of exercise.
If you’re still working on finding an exercise routine that works for you, consider trying some of these lower-impact exercises that can help you look, feel, and sleep better:
Walking for 30 minutes a day— it’s even better with your partner, your dog, or both
Riding your bicycle
However, it’s important to stop exercising four hours before you go to bed. Too much physical activity at or around bedtime can actually hinder your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
5. Get 15 Minutes of Sunlight Every Morning
Getting some sun first thing in the morning is one of the best ways to wake yourself up in the morning. It can even help you sleep better too.
Getting outside in the sun for 15 minutes each morning helps your brain’s melatonin production slow down and prepare you for the day. Melatonin, commonly known as the sleep hormone, is produced in response to light exposure, mostly from the sun. Less melatonin is produced when the sun rises to help you wake up, and more is produced when it sets to help you sleep.
Your internal body clock— your circadian rhythm— runs on a 24-hour schedule and functions best when you are exposed to a regular pattern of light and dark. Changes in light and dark exposure can cause disruptions in your circadian rhythm and negatively impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, unlike our cave-dwelling ancestors who rose with the sun and retired with the moon, most of us let the demands of everyday life dictate the times for sleeping and rising. Millions of people today force their bodies to adjust to artificial sleep schedules, negatively affecting both their sleep and their health.
You can also ruin your sleep and hinder your body’s melatonin production by using your electronic devices too close to bedtime. To avoid this, make sure you stop using your smartphone, computer, tablet, or TV 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime, or at minimum use blue light blocking glasses to help your brain produce more melatonin.
You Don’t Have to Live With Poor Sleep
By following these five steps on how to sleep better, you will put yourself on the road to improved rest and greater health. However, if you’re still struggling to get the sleep you need at night, I recommend checking out my How to Sleep Better Course.
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, you shouldn’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get the rejuvenating rest you need. Sometimes the difference between poor sleep and restful sleep really is just a few healthy lifestyle changes. Give some of these a try and see how much better they can make you feel!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor