Good sleep is essential. Those who consistently get high-quality sleep are rewarded with enhanced mental and physical health, better concentration, improved autoimmune response, and a host of other benefits. The rewards of consistently good sleep are so great that if they were to be used to advertise a health care product, people would think that it’s exaggerated.
Despite all the terrific advantages that come with quality sleep, many people have a hard time enjoying a good night’s rest. They lay awake unable to fall asleep, or waken multiple times throughout the night, or simply never drift off into a restorative deep slumber. Waking up each morning then becomes a trial. Just getting out of bed can take Herculean effort, and the first ten minutes spent stumbling around the house looks like a warm-up for Night of the Living Dead.
If this describes you, fear not, there is much you can do to get your sleep mojo back. And if you already sleep well but would like to sleep even better, the same advice just may level up your REM game as well.
The following eight suggestions can be tried individually or in combination (selecting two, three, or all of them to use at once). In whatever way you decide to approach it, use common sense and consult with your physician if you’re uncertain about how best to implement any of these recommendations.
1. Early Sunlight
Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, recommends getting early morning sunlight as a means of improving your sleep quality. The reason this is helpful is that the “master circadian clock” (suprachiasmatic nucleus) located just above the roof of your mouth uses sunlight to synchronize the release of the hormone melatonin (from the pineal gland) later in the evening.
Melatonin, in turn, helps create a sense of drowsiness and prepares you for sleep.
But how does a brain structure (the suprachiasmatic nucleus) receive sunlight? It is, after all, buried within the skull. The answer is that photosensitive retinal ganglion cells located largely in the bottom portion of the retina connect to the master circadian clock (the suprachiasmatic nucleus). When these retinal receptors are stimulated by early sunlight, they send signals to the master circadian clock.
It’s basically like a morning wake-up call at a five-star resort—a sweet voice letting you know it’s time to get things started for the day. The circadian clock, in turn, begins to go through a checklist of biological “To-Dos” (release cortisol, change internal temperature settings, adjust downstream circadian clocks, etc.). One item on the checklist is sending a signal to let the adrenals know to release melatonin in approximately 12 to 14 hours.
To make the most of this process, it is a good idea to spend five to ten minutes out in the early morning light (no sunglasses preferred). During the first few hours of daylight, the sun is low on the horizon, and the specific frequency of light that occurs during this time is ideal for stimulating the photoreceptive retinal ganglion cells.
There’s no need to look at the sun (in fact, that would be counterproductive as it would eventually cause a loss of vision, so let’s not go overboard). Just get out in the early light, stimulate the circadian clock, and then move on with your day.
2. Bedtime Routines
Habits make for improved performance. Great musicians, surgeons, athletes, actors, and others rely on habits to perform at their best.
The professional boxer, for example, who has trained himself to reflexively slip under an opponent’s right cross and counter with a left hook to the midsection, followed by a left hook to the head, cannot think through every step of this response. Through rigorous repetition, it has become automated—a habit. He created this helpful automated response through a routine—by intentionally practicing each step of this counterattack again and again until he no longer needed to consciously guide the process.
Your evening routine has the same sort of impact on your sleep. If your routine is a mash-up of animated phone calls, a little TV, a splash of work, and a shower thrown in at the end on random nights, then your sleep will suffer.
To make the most of your evening routine, it should be kept consistent, and like a jumbo jet descending for a landing, everything should be geared toward hitting the tarmac called your bed. This means that in the two hours preceding bedtime, you should begin to unwind with relaxing activities. Turn off the computer, unplug from social media, turn on relaxing music, and avoid bright overhead lights.
Use the last 30 minutes to engage in those activities you find most inducive of sleep. This might be meditating, taking a shower, or planning your day.
When starting out, it is a good idea to try a routine for two to four weeks before changing it up. Routines take time to work, so you’ll need to give each iteration of a routine a little room to prove itself.
3. Get Dark and Chilly
For the best sleep, it’s a good idea to turn off all the lights in the bedroom. Yep, all of them, even that unique nightlight you got when traveling to The Gnome Reserve in West Putford, England. As a matter of fact, let’s leave no stone unturned and have you turn your digital alarm clock so it faces away from your bed.
The ideal for most people is to have the room entirely darkened and the temperature between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Lose the Caffeine and Alcohol
There are several stages of sleep (what some call sleep architecture). For our purposes, we can divide these between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. Although this is a broad generalization, within REM sleep, brain functioning is restored whereas, with non- REM sleep, your body is the focus of restoration (cells are replaced, injuries healed, etc.).
Caffeine consumption late in the day not only impairs one’s ability to fall asleep, but it very well may impair the quality of REM sleep that takes place as well. If that evening cup of coffee tastes so good that you just have to have it, I suggest you switch to decaffeinated when the clock reads 3:00 pm.
Interestingly, alcohol also appears to interfere with REM sleep. For many people, alcohol causes them to have lighter sleep, a shorter sleep, and often can also result in coming to a state of wakefulness throughout the night (even if they do not remember in the morning due to the amnesiac effect of alcohol).
As with caffeine, the key is to limit alcohol consumption. For most, a glass of wine in the evening is not going to significantly impact the quality of sleep obtained. But more than one glass may be too much. Be aware of how much caffeine and alcohol you consume, track how impacts your performance the following day, and then make informed decisions about your caffeine and alcohol intake.
5. Evening Exercise—In Moderation
There are a lot of opinions about exercising before bedtime. Some extol its virtues, others swear it will usher in an age of insomnia like the French greeting allied soldiers.
Some recent research suggests that there is little truth to each of these claims—that is, high-intensity workouts that occur less than one hour before bedtime make it more difficult for people to fall asleep. People in this group also have diminished sleep quality.
On the other hand, non-high intensity workouts seem to have either no effect on sleep or in facilitating sleep onset and deeper sleep. Your mileage may vary, but these two different outcomes should be kept in mind if you want to experiment with fitting in one last workout before bedtime.
Meditation improves sleep. A meta-analytic study that examined 18 different meditation trials involving a total of 1,654 participants concluded that meditation (specifically mindfulness meditation) was equally effective at promoting sleep as standard evidence-based sleep treatments.
This is a remarkable claim because, unlike the formal sleep treatments, meditation requires no therapist/teacher, has no fees attached, and can be performed in several settings. What’s more, there are several other benefits that accrue from meditation.
Thus far, there is no good evidence regarding a dose/effect relationship between the amount of time spent meditating and the degree of benefits derived therein. But a good guideline is to spend ten to twenty minutes a day meditating. Many guides and websites are available to get you started.
7. What You Sleep On Matters
Don’t be cheap, buy a good mattress and pillow. Mattress quality impacts sleep quality. No degree in physics is required to und understand that relationship.
But I hear you groaning “New mattresses are expensive.” My answer is, yes, that’s often true. But there is no evidence that one type of mattress produces better sleep than another type. So, the field is wide open to finding a mattress that fits both your budget and your sleep.
The key is to test drive a mattress for a couple of weeks to see how it works for you. Find a store that allows you to do this, and return the mattress if you are not satisfied.
Can this be a bit expensive? A little, but well within most people’s budget. Don’t tell me you cannot afford it. I know you are spending way too much for shoes that are not even comfortable (but they make a fashion statement, right?) or that Tommy John underwear you think is worth 35 dollars a pair just to provide a little comfort for your backside.
Trust me, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck with a good mattress and pillow. Will the expense be worth it? Let’s put it in context.
Most people buy a new mattress every ten years and expect to spend about 1,100 dollars. That comes out to 110 dollars per year or about 30 cents a day.
Now, compare those numbers with what the average consumer in the US spends on coffee each year: 1000 dollars. That comes to roughly 2.75 cents a day. Think about it. The annual drain on your wallet taken for the coffee that is intended to keep you awake because you had a subpar sleep on your dingy old mattress is about nine times as much as you would spend to replace your mattress. Over the course of the lifetime of your 1100.00-dollar mattress, you will have spent 10,000.00 dollars on coffee.
For crying out loud, reduce your coffee budget for a year and get a good mattress (go big and buy some nice sheets and a quality pillow).
8. Schedule Your Worries
Many people find that they are, in some sense, too busy throughout the day to spend much time being anxious about decisions and potential troubles that lay just over the horizon. So, when they lay down to sleep with the day’s hectic pace behind them, these concerns begin to crowd into their thoughts.
Staring at the ceiling, they wait for sleep. Instead, their mind turns to reviewing the problems that have not been given attention earlier in the day. These anxieties are like bill collectors that have patiently waited in line and now insist upon being let in to your home to discuss your debt.
All of this is a recipe for a poor night’s sleep. Not only does it cause you to stay awake later, but it will also cause you to have a less restful sleep.
The solution is to carve out time for your worries earlier in the day. Give them an appointment, put it on your schedule, and give them a fair hearing during that specific time of day. Also, keep a list of your top three or four concerns. These are the ones who get your time during your appointment. Others have to wait until one or more of these top concerns gets resolved.
When you know that you have time each day to figure out solutions to your most pressing problems, it is easier to put them aside at night when going to bed. You simply remind yourself that you already worked on that stress point today, and you have it on your schedule tomorrow. Eventually, you’ll work it out, but for now, you get to sleep.
Although you have no choice but to include sleep as a major part of how you spend your life, you do have a lot of influence on how to improve the quality of your sleep. By taking control and implementing one or more of the suggestions just described, you can drastically improve your sleep. The potential benefits of increased energy, sharper mental focus, brighter mood, and better health are just waiting for you to take the first step.
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Featured photo credit: Kinga Cichewicz via unsplash.com