11 ways to get better sleep

Are you usually tired when you wake up? Chances are you’re just not getting enough sleep while you sleep! The average American spends between 6-8 hours in bed sleeping, which is right in the range of what we need as adults to feel rested and recovered day to day. So why do so many of us average Americans feel so damn tired all the time? It’s because we’re sleeping, but we’re not really good at it! Sleep quality affects your mood, energy levels, productivity, and bodily functions just as much as simply sleeping the right number of hours. So, lets talk about what you can do to not only hit your Quantity, but also get the right Quality, when it comes to sack time.

1. Get yourself on a schedule

Your body and brain run on a Circadian rhythm, where you get cued for sleeping by the progress of light and darkness as the day progresses. When the darkness starts coming in, your body naturally releases melatonin from your pineal gland (a nifty little bit of stuff in the middle of your brain on top of your brain stem) that tells your brain that it’s about time we get to sleepin’. The problem is, when you start to get off schedule or onto a weird schedule (such as when you do shift work that rotates night/day) your melatonin response gets messy and your sleep starts to suffer. You’ll find it harder to get to sleep, even though you’re exhausted, and harder to stay asleep once you do. The best way to avoid this is to have a regular bed time and wake up schedule every day. Even on weekends or non-work days, stick to your schedule. If you’re normally in bed by 9:00 PM and up by 5:00 AM during your work week, then you should maintain that same schedule within about an hour either way on the weekends.

If a normal schedule is impossible, you might consider a supplement like Nature Made Melatonin Tablets (that’s the one I use when my schedule gets wonky and it does seem to help).

2. Naps are good…until they’re not

You here about napping all the time. Didn’t sleep well? Take a midday nap! Can’t get to bed on time? Nap around lunch! In some cases, a 20-30 minute nap is a good way to make up some of the sleep debt you incur as you miss hours during the night. The downside is that napping for the wrong reasons can actually make your night-time sleep habits even worse, causing more issues than you’re fixing. For instance, if it’s just a case of hitting the sack too late the night before, a nap midday can help get you refreshed. If you find that you consistently have trouble falling asleep every night, then it might be because you’re napping too much during the day, and your sleep cycle is slowly changing into something weird. In these cases, avoid your daily naps and spend 7-10 days working on normalizing your schedule so that you primarily (or only) sleep at night.

3. Just say “no” to late night screen time

Remember how we said your Circadian rhythm is dependent heavily on light and dark cycles? Well the fun fact about this is that the amount of time we spend looking at illuminated screens like TV’s, phones, tablets, etc. can start to have a negative impact on ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. These artificial light sources bore directly into your retina and have the ability to trick your brain into thinking it’s “awake” time rather than “asleep” time, even if the rest of the room is pitch black. I would argue that the effect these devices have on your sleep cycle is even worse when everything else is dark, because then your eyes are focused completely on the little light source. Try to avoid “screen time” within two hours of bedtime, if you can, or at the very least within the last 30-45 minutes before you plan to go to sleep.

4. Get more sun during the day

If you’re like most of America, you work inside and are subject to those wonderful (I need a sarcasm tag) lights that almost all offices have installed in the ceiling. Those things are terrible for your eyesight and light/dark cycle because they’re unnatural light. Imagine the effect a bright phone screen in your face has at 2:00 AM when you’re not expecting it, then multiply that by 8 hours of constant contact with your delicate little eyeballs. I know of at least five people that have developed chronic, recurrent migraines from working in that kind of environment (and I’m one of them, too).

The cure to these artificial lights is to get more regular natural light. The good ol’ sun is the best, most cost efficient way of getting a good dose of natural light and Vitamin D all at once. For my part, I’ve found that 10 minutes of natural light for every one hour of work time helped stem the migraines to almost non-existence. Another option is to grab yourself a natural light box. Fair point, I’ve never personally used these, but I’ve had two prior coworkers that liked this one: Sphere Gadget Technologies Lightphoria

5. Exercise at the right times

Exercise is awesome. I own a gym, so I may be biased on that point, but it seems pretty legitimate from what I’ve heard. The great thing about working out is you get the release of a cascade of healthful hormones like GH, adrenaline, endorphins, and others. This is where you get that “pumped” feeling after a great session. The downside about working out right before bed is that you still get all those pumping hormones flooding your system, which can make it hard to sleep. If at all possible, try to get your workout in at least two hours before you plan to go to sleep, if you workout at night. The better option is to workout either in the morning shortly after waking (like before work at some excellent local gym with 6:00 AM class times) or midday around lunch. If you have to workout at night and close to bed time, then try to hit the other major points on this list (avoiding screen time, relaxing, no caffeine/alcohol) so that your body can come down from the workout high more effectively.

6. Avoid high fat or big meals right before bed

In particular, fatty foods take a lot of energy for the stomach to digest, so you may find yourself sleeping poorly as your gastrointestinal track goes haywire with digestion overnight. Smaller meals that provide more protein, a smaller amount of slow digesting carbs, and little fat are a good way to go if you have to eat late. An example would be a low-fat turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with mustard, lettuce, and tomato. Likewise, big meals that are low in fat may still keep you up as your digestive cycle does it’s thing, so limit yourself to less than 400 calories in any late-evening/late-night snack.

7. Alcohol & caffeine are not your friends

It’s generally pretty well known that stimulants like caffeine are a bad call before heading to bed. They gear your body and brain up for action, helping make you more alert in one sense, but they don’t actually “cure” being tired, so you’re still likely to make mistakes in judgement, motor function, and thought. On caffeine, you’re just going to make them more quickly! This boost keeps you awake past the point where you would normally be sleeping, and even those with a decent tolerance can expect to experience some insomnia if they caffeinate too late in the day.

On the other end of the spectrum, alcohol may actually improve your ability to fall asleep since it’s a physical and mental depressant. The problem here, though, is your quality of sleep suffers. An alcohol-induced sleep is often shallow and fitful physically, and your brain doesn’t properly move through the elements of sleep as it would sans liquor. This interruption to the sleep cycle means you’ll get the Quantity of bedtime you want, but the Quality will usually be pretty terrible.

8. Learn how to breathe and relax at bed time

Whether you believe in the power of meditation or not, studies have shown that learning to breathe and physically relax in an effective manner (which is what meditation is at it’s heart) also has cognitive benefits. Those who routinely practice meditation or mindful breathing report better/more stable mood, clearer thought processes, and an overall larger feeling of contentment (especially in the time right after the meditative sessions). So how can that help you?

Focusing your mind on one action (breathing) helps you not only relax your body, which is usually a bundle of tense nerves by the end of the day, but also relax your mind with the simple act of thinking about only one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Many people report a racing mind, too many concerns from the day, too many worries about the next day, etc. as reasons why they can’t sleep. You can use focused breathing to systematically block out those distractions, quiet your mind, and bring yourself into a state ready to sleep.

9. Treat your bed like a “reserved” place

Do you have a computer, tablet, TV, fridge, phone, pool table, ice hockey rink, or other distractions in the same space as your bed? Do you live in a studio apartment? If the answers were “yes” to one of the first things and “no” to the studio bit, then you need to get some of that junk out of your bedroom! The bed and it’s accompanying room should be treated like a reserved, special place where you’re either sleeping or having sex. Why? Because those are the activities most associated with relaxation and recovery from stress, and the bed is the best place for both from a comfort standpoint. (Hey, what you do in the privacy of your own kitchen or laundry room is not my business; I’m just speaking academically.)

The point is: when you bring work or entertainment like TV into your bedroom, chances are you’re going to end up doing that stuff while lounging in bed, and that builds a bad association in your mind between the bed and being too awake. Reserve the bed for the stuff that is most ably done in said bed, and leave the TV, internet browsing, and work for other rooms in the house.

10. Learn to fall back asleep quickly

Do you sometimes wake up at odd hours of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep? The good news is, you’re not the only one and there are ways to help teach you to fall asleep again.

First, many people wake up from dreams that then cause a racing mind. You start thinking about your day, your worries, or anything else at all other than getting back to sleep. The fix here: mindful breathing like in #8 above. If you find yourself too awake before your sleep cycle is over, spend time breathing and relaxing to help you fall back into sleep.

Second, you might find that you wake up hungry. If you periodically fail to eat a decent dinner, this may be pretty common for you. Avoid late night snacks like simple sugars or heavy fats, for the same reasons as we’ve already talked about. Have a small snack (200ish calories) of slow digesting carbs and protein to help fill the hunger and get back to sleep. That turkey sandwich from earlier would do nicely! (Man, now I really want a turkey sandwich…)

Lastly, if you just find yourself waking up too early because you’re no longer tired, check your daily schedule. Are you napping too much during the day and removing the need for longer sleep periods at night? If so, consider cutting down on – or cutting out – the day time naps. If you don’t nap and just keep finding that you only need 4-6 hours of sleep a night, then congratulations! Go find a fun hobby that you can do at 4:00 AM.

11. Temperature matters

The last thing we’re going to talk about today is temperature. The human body is designed to sleep best at temperatures in the mid-60’s Fahrenheit. This applies to adults, teens, and older children, but young kids (10- years) and older adults (60+ years) may find they need a slightly warmer room (around 70 Fahrenheit). Trying to sleep outside this range can cause issues falling asleep or staying that way over night. A good way to check for this issue is to note if you wake up significantly colder than you would expect (even with a blanket or significantly more covered in sweat for the weather. Adjust the temperature by a few degrees for 2-3 nights and look for improvement. Once you find the place were you feel most rested, roll with it!

Then again, if you find yourself in a situation where the main problem is your covers are stolen every night, might I suggest going with one of these as a fix? 🙂