Poor sleep has been linked with negative effects on hormone levels, physical performance, and brain function. It has also been linked to obesity and an increased risk of diseases. Good quality sleep, alternatively, can help you maintain a healthy weight, avoid disease, and improve your health. Below are ten evidence-based tips to help you get a good night's rest.
While you might not be able to do every sleep-smart strategy at once (especially if you have small children), remember, it's not all-or-nothing when it comes to better sleep! Even small changes in your sleep hygiene can help you build healthier sleep habits.
1. Create a relaxing bedroom environment
Ever had one of those days where you finally flop into bed, totally exhausted, but still can't sleep? It could due to a poor sleeping environment. A relaxing bedroom environment and a comfortable bed have been shown to improve the quality and duration of your sleep.
Below are some tips to optimize your bedroom for sleep:
- Switch off the lights: Exposure to light at night can interrupt your circadian rhythm. Use a sleep mask or blackout blinds to block sources of light that could interrupt your sleep.
- Turn off or tune out noise: Make your bedroom as quiet as possible. If you live in a noisy area, or can't avoid noise in your room or house around bedtime, consider using earplugs or headphones. You can also drown out the noise with a white noise machine or a fan. One study into the sleep habits of new parents found that 50% of participants reported improved sleep quality when sources of noise were lowered.
- Set a healthy temperature: Try to keep your bedroom at an ideal temperature for sleeping. Research supports sleeping in a cooler room that is 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).
- Invest in a quality mattress and bedding: Your sheets and bedding should be comfortable to touch and lie amongst, and your mattress should be comfortable and provide support to your spine. A poor-quality mattress has been associated with increased lower back pain. One study found that a new mattress improved sleep quality by 60%. It is recommended that you replace your bedding every few years.
2. Keep a regular sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can improve your sleep. This is because it can help to set your circadian rhythm to a regular cycle.
Some studies have shown that irregular sleep cycles can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that signals your brain to sleep. Research has also shown that those who slept later on weekends reported poorer sleep overall.
While it's hard to stick to the same sleep/wake schedules every day (who can say no to the occasional sleep-in?), even a little more consistency can make a difference.
Here are some tips for keeping a sleep schedule:
- Set a fixed waking up time: Try to keep a habit of waking up at the same time each day, even on weekends or if you slept late the previous night.
- Allocate time for sleeping: The recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult is around 7-9 hours, so set aside at least 8 hours for sleeping. Try to limit the difference in sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends by no more than one hour.
- Adjust your sleep schedule gradually: If you need to adjust your sleep schedule for travel or work, try to do so gradually. Make little-by-little adjustments of 1-2 hours per night. This will allow your body to gradually adapt to the new schedule.
3. Increase bright light exposure during the day
Exposure to natural sunlight during the day helps improve the quality of your sleep at night.
While you might never think about how your body knows when to sleep and when to wake, this very clever process is influenced by your internal body clock, also known as your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are our body's 24-hour cycles that steer our essential functions and processes, one of which includes the sleep-wake cycle.
Light plays an important role in regulating our circadian rhythm, influencing when we sleep and wake. Light also has an effect on the body's production of the sleep-producing hormone melatonin. Research suggests that being exposed to more quality light in the morning, between the hours of 8 am and noon, can help you to fall asleep more quickly at night and experience fewer sleep disturbances.
One study showed that two hours of bright light exposure increased the amount of sleep by two hours. Another study showed that exposure to bright light in the morning resulted in better sleep and lower levels of stress and depression.
If you are unable to get enough natural bright light exposure, consider using artificial light sources.
4. Reduce light exposure in the evening
While preparing for better sleep during the day requires light, good quality sleep at night requires darkness.
Night-time light exposure has been shown to reduce sleep quality. This is due to the effect of light on circadian rhythm, as the brain is tricked into thinking it is still daytime. Studies have found that blue light is the most disruptive type of light, which is bad news for people who like to scroll through their phone or check their emails before bed.
Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce blue light exposure at night:
- Avoid watching television or using a laptop 2-3 hours before you plan to sleep.
- Use computer apps such as f.lux that remove blue light.
- Download smartphone apps that remove blue light from the screen
- Wear glasses that block out blue light in the evening
5. Avoid caffeine late in the day
Despite what the slogan on your coffee mug might say, the body doesn't need caffeine to function. Even so, moderate caffeine intake is not associated with any recognized health risks, which is good news for lovers of coffee and chocolate.
However, caffeine can stimulate your nervous system and make it difficult to fall asleep. Caffeine can stay elevated in your blood for up to 8 hours. Research has also shown consuming coffee up to 6 hours before sleeping can worsen sleep quality.
It's best to avoid consuming coffee, chocolate, or other sources of caffeine after 2 or 3 pm in the afternoon. If you regularly drink coffee in the evening, try switching to decaffeinated versions of your favorite brew.
6. Try hypnosis for sleep
If you struggle to fall asleep, try listening to a relaxing hypnotherapy recording. Hypnotherapy involves listening to verbal cues to guide you into a deep, concentrated state of relaxation. This relaxed state has been shown to make it easier to fall asleep than focusing on sleep.
Hypnotherapists may use different approaches to produce a relaxed state, such as:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery
- Hypnotic language, using phrases such as 'relax,' 'deep' and 'easy.'
There is some evidence that hypnosis can help to improve sleep. One large meta-study of over 500 participants showed hypnotherapy shortened the time taken to fall asleep compared to the control group, but not to a sham intervention.
Want to try hypnosis for sleep? There's no need to invite a licensed hypnotist to sit at your bedside; high-quality sleep hypnosis apps are available to download on your smartphone.
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7. Avoid long naps during the day
Napping interferes with your circadian rhythm (your body clock that regulates your sleep/wake cycles) and may cause you to struggle to sleep at night. Try to limit nap time to a maximum of 30 minutes during the day and avoid napping later in the day.
That being said, some research suggests people who regularly nap may not experience disrupted sleep at night, so experiment and see how napping affects the quality of your sleep.
8. Don't eat or drink late in the evening
As anyone who's gone too hard on Christmas dinner knows, what you eat and drink in the evening can impact your sleep.
Consuming a large meal close to bedtime can reduce sleep quality. This is because a late-night meal may impact the release of hormones such as HGH and melatonin.
However, it is important not to go to bed hungry. Rather than overly restricting your meals, it's wise to eat a reasonable portion and choose ingredients that won't negatively affect your sleep. Although some foods can make it harder to drift off, one study showed that eating a high-carbohydrate meal 4 hours before bed helped people fall asleep faster.
While a 'nightcap' is normal for many people, alcohol can actually disrupt your sleep later in the night. Try to avoid drinking alcohol before bed, and if you're using a tipple to settle you for sleep, try and find a new wind-down routine that doesn't involve a drink.
9. Rule out sleep disorders
If you regularly experience poor sleep, an underlying health condition may be to blame. You should consult your doctor if you think you have a sleep disorder.
Insomnia, or the inability to sleep, or sleep well at night, is the most common sleep disorder. It can be caused by stress, jet lag, certain medications, or mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Another common sleep disorder is sleep apnoea, in which you temporarily stop breathing during your sleep, which may wake you up. Up to 25% of individuals experience sleep apnoea in their lives. Another possible cause of sleep problems are circadian rhythm disorders. This is a condition common in shift workers, whereby sleep times are out of alignment.
Your doctor can help identify a sleep disorder, refer you to a sleep specialist, or recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications such as:
- Doxepine (Silenor): a tricyclic antidepressant used to treat insomnia.
- Trazodone (Desryl): an antidepressant that acts on serotonin receptors to treat insomnia and major depression.
- Benzodiazepines: are sedatives that slow the body's function to improve sleep quality and include temazepam (Restoril). However, these drugs may become addictive, so should be used with care.
10. Exercise – but not before bed
Research has also shown that exercise was more effective than sleeping pills for treating people with insomnia. The total sleep time increased, and time taken to fall asleep was reduced in the group that exercised.
However, exercising too late in the day may cause sleep problems. This is because exercise may increase alertness and produces stimulatory hormones such as epinephrine. That being said, a few studies have shown the opposite—that late-night exercise did not cause sleep problems.
The Wrap Up
Sleep is important for health and longevity. Poor sleep has been associated with a range of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. There are several things you can do to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, such as getting exposure light in the daytime, keeping your room dark at night, and trying hypnotherapy programs designed to aid sleep. If you’re struggling with sleep, talk to your doctor to rule out a possible sleep disorder. It’s a good idea for everyone to make sleep hygiene a top priority to ensure good health.