Do you sleep well? If you said no, I’m not surprised. The majority of my clients say they aren’t sleeping well when they first come to see me.
Not sleeping well is surprisingly common. 40% of all American adults are sleep deprived and nearly 70% describe their sleep as insufficient.
And this is a big deal because sleep is truly one of the most important pillars to good health.
If you’re not sleeping well, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re feeling as good as you could be.
Your body does amazing things to keep itself healthy, but it doesn’t do them all during waking hours. Restoration and maintenance activities are reserved for nighttime sleep.
While you sleep, your body repairs tissue, synthesizes proteins, produces hormones and neurotransmitters, replenishes your immune system, and organizes and consolidates memories, to name just a few.
When you don’t sleep well, you’re at risk for a myriad of health conditions including depression, anxiety, reduced memory and cognitive performance, lowered sex drive, impaired immune function, and increased risk of heart attacks or strokes.
While poor sleep is common, it’s not normal and certainly doesn’t have to be your reality. The great news is that that you have much more control over the quality of your sleep than you might realize.
Below are my best tips, habits, and routines for you to learn and follow so you can finally start getting good quality, restorative sleep every night.
Use light to your advantage
Light is integrally connected to how you sleep.
Our bodies operate on a 24-hour sleep/wake cycle (called the Circadian Rhythm). Light is the main input to synchronize this biological clock to the solar day.
When we get bright light in the morning (i.e. sunlight), it tells our body that it’s time to wake up, get energized, and get going.
When we get less light or light that’s on the other end of the spectrum from sunlight (i.e. red light), it tells our body that the end of the day is coming, it’s time to wind it down and go to sleep.
When we were living less digital lives, this process ran pretty smoothly. The sun would set and we’d get sleepy and go to bed.
But as our world has become filled with artificial light and screens everywhere you look, our biological clocks get thrown off, causing sleep disturbances.
At night, when we should be winding down, we’re often staring at tv or phone screens that emit blue light, tricking our body’s into thinking it’s still daytime and not yet time to sleep.
When we don’t get the bright light we need in the morning, this affects our body’s ability to produce melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate our sleep. There’s no doubt this has an impact on sleep quality.
Getting bright, natural sunlight in your eyes in the morning is ideal.
In the perfect world, you’d take a walk outside in the morning, getting fresh air and sunshine, letting your body know it’s ready to start the day.
For some of us, that’s not always possible based on our jobs or where in the world we live (e.g. the UK or Seattle).
In that case, using artificial light is the next best thing.
Personally, I use a pair of light therapy glasses that flood your eyes with blue-green light, letting my body know it’s daytime.
When it’s winter, I wear these most mornings for 20 minutes before I get my day started. (Side note, these glasses are also really helpful for fighting jet lag).
Another option which is more affordable, though less portable, is a light therapy box.
It’s the same idea: it projects bright light at you, which can be helpful for waking up in the morning and for countering the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
At night, it’s best to try and avoid bright lights on the blue end of the spectrum.
That includes light from bright LED bulbs and fluorescent bulbs, tablets, phones, and laptops.
I try and stop looking at screens at least an hour before I go to bed. Replacing screen time with relaxing activities like reading or listening to soothing music can help your body understand it’s time to wind down.
On days when you can’t avoid looking at a screen late at night (e.g. big project due the next day or the season finale of Top Chef) then there are two things you can do to help cope with that blue light.
- Wear blue light blocking glasses. These glasses have orange or amber-tinted lenses which help filter out some of the blue light. Putting them on after the sun sets helps your body feel that it’s truly nighttime.
- Download an app like f.lux that runs in the background of your computer and automatically dims the screen depending on what time it is.
While blue light is not conducive to sleep, light on the other end of the spectrum, red light, actually is.
Try replacing lights in your bedroom with red spectrum lights, which filter out most blue light and are thought to help with melatonin production.
Limit your alcohol consumption
Alcohol is a commonly used sleep aid and can be helpful when it comes to falling asleep. But it actually has a negative impact on the quality of your sleep because it keeps you from reaching the deep stages of sleep, it dehydrates you, and it often awakens you in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
With alcohol, the research appears to show that the more you consume, the closer to bedtime, the greater the impact on your sleep will be.
So having a drink at happy hour rather than 3 after dinner can be helpful when it comes to you getting good quality sleep.
Consume caffeine at the right times
Avoiding caffeine too close to bed is one of the most common sleep tips, and for good reason - it’s one of the most effective changes you can make to get better sleep.
There are no two ways about it, caffeine is a stimulant and the more you drink, the more it will either prevent you from falling asleep or having good, deep sleep.
Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who can fall asleep right after chugging a giant americano, it’s likely that your quality of rest is still somewhat impacted.
Caffeine has a half-life of 8-10 hours (which means that its level is reduced but still somewhat effective in your system after this time). Because of this, I recommend avoiding all caffeine after lunch.
Keep your bedroom dark
Our bodies are incredibly sensitive to light and dark, and they use those cues to know when it’s time to rest, or when it’s time to wake up.
So if there’s light in your room at night, it can have negative consequences for your sleep quality.
Suggestions to darken your room:
- Make sure all lights are off, including lights from TVs, radios, computers, phones, clocks, or other electronics.
- Get blackout curtains if light from outside creeps in.
- Consider getting a sleeping mask, which can be helpful if you can’t make your room all the way dark, or if you’re traveling and sleeping somewhere you don’t have complete control of the environment.
Keep your bedroom cool
In general, the suggested bedroom temperature should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep.
When you get in bed, your body temperature decreases to initiate sleep, and cooling down your room can help facilitate this.
Sleeping at the recommended cool temperature can help you fall asleep more quickly, prevent certain types of insomnia, and even improve your metabolism.
Thermostat settings far lower or higher than what’s recommended could lead to restlessness and can also affect your quality of sleep.
Keep it quiet
Noise impacts sleep much more than we realize. Sounds that seem like no big deal during the day can end up disturbing your sleep at night.
Even if you don’t fully wake up, noises can rouse you slightly and affect sleep cycles.
There are quite a few potential sounds that can disturb sleep, like phone alerts, TVs, pets, other people, or appliances. Outside noises such as traffic, trains, planes, weather, or general city noise can impact your sleep as well.
And this impact shouldn’t be understated. A research review published in the medical journal “Noise & Health” states that studies show a link between nighttime environmental noise exposure and cardiovascular disease and that even low-level noises have the potential to negatively affect health due to sleep disturbance.
Suggestions for how to keep it quiet:
- Sleep with your windows closed.
- Consider investing in double-paned windows if you live in a particularly noisy area.
- Don’t run noisy appliances (e.g. dishwashers or washing machines) around bedtime.
- If your bedroom is near the kitchen, turn off your ice maker.
- If you keep your phone in your bedroom, turn it on airplane mode at night. If this isn’t possible, at least turn off noise-making notifications.
- Get a white noise machine to mask any sounds you don’t have control over.
- Consider using earplugs. I sleep with these every night. They’re especially helpful when traveling or when you’re sleeping next to someone who snores.
- Don’t let your pets sleep in your room. This can be a tough one for some people, but animals have different sleeping patterns than humans and often end up making more noise during the night than you bargained for.
- Turn your television off before you fall asleep. If you typically use something like music or tv to fall asleep, set a timer so it will turn off instead of running all night, eventually disturbing your sleep.
Stick to a schedule
Yes, you’re an adult, but who said adults shouldn’t have bedtimes?
Setting a regular schedule for sleeping helps your body (and your brain) get used to falling asleep and waking up at a fixed time each day.
Conditioning like this is an important part of achieving better and deeper sleep that will benefit your physical and emotional wellbeing.
A recent study of college students actually found a link between irregular sleeping patterns and worse academic performance.
Meaning that having a fixed sleep schedule can be just as important as how many hours you sleep each night.
When possible, try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends.
This is more helpful than skimping on sleep during the week and trying to make up for it when the weekend comes around.
Your body’s internal clock is set by the natural rhythms of day and night. If you make the effort to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, you're helping reinforce the body's natural response to these rhythms.
Don’t go to bed hungry
Surprisingly, how much and when you eat can impact your sleep.
If you don’t eat enough, it’s common to wake up during the night. Low blood sugar can cause us to wake up, and our bodies actually require energy to get through the night.
So if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night fairly often, you may want to try having a snack before bed to see if it helps.
Try something like a hardboiled egg, jerky, apple + almond butter, nuts, or yogurt/cheese if you tolerate dairy.
On the flip side, if you eat too much too close to bed, it can be hard to sleep too since you may be physically uncomfortable.
Play around and see if you can find what works for you. And don’t worry about all the food rules you’ve heard in the past about not eating before bed. Everyone’s different and it’s all about figuring out what’s optimal for your body.
Regulate your liquid intake
Water is another area where you want to find your specific sweet spot.
Not drinking enough water can affect the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which helps us sleep.
But drinking too much, too close to bedtime, can have you waking in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
Try front-loading your water consumption and tapering down as the day goes on.
Exercise at the right time
Research has documented the benefits of exercise to improving sleep patterns.
It can strengthen circadian rhythms, promoting daytime alertness and helping bring on sleepiness at night.
Exercise has been shown to improve sleep for people with sleep disorders, including insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.
A National Sleep Foundation poll found that people who exercise regularly were much more likely to report sleeping well on most nights than people who weren’t physically active.
Another interesting finding of this survey was that exercise at any time of day was good for sleep, including within 4 hours of bedtime.
It used to be a common recommendation to avoid exercise during the evening in order to prevent physical exertion from interfering with sleep.
Based on these results, the National Sleep Foundation has actually revised its recommendation and encourages normal sleepers to exercise at any time of day, provided that their exercise doesn’t interfere with their sleep.
However, if you have insomnia or other sleep disorders, it’s probably a good idea to continue to schedule exercise earlier in the day.
And again, everyone is different, so if you find evening exercise negatively impacts your sleep, try and complete it during the first half of the day and see how you feel.
There are plenty of reasons to meditate: it can help you become more focused, resilient to stress, happier, and improve immune system function.
A growing body of research is now showing that meditation can have a positive effect on sleep on as well.
Meditation helps our brains get into a more relaxed state, increases melatonin levels, and helps us get more REM sleep, which is the sleep stage that helps us consolidate memories. For more on the nitty-gritty, check out this article.
If you’re brand new to meditation, Headspace is an app that’s easy to use and great for beginners.
There’s also a great free app called Insight Timer with thousands of free meditations, many of which focus on sleep.
Use your bed for sleep (and sex) only
I know how fun it can be to watch movies and snack in bed. But unfortunately, this actually has negative consequences for your sleep (plus the crumbs, ugh).
When you use your bedroom for activities besides sleep (and sex), even walking into your bedroom causes your brain to wake up because it starts to associate being in that room with being mentally alert.
What we want is for your body and brain to recognize the bedroom as a place of rest (and intimacy).
So try to avoid using your bed and bedroom for studying, watching TV, working, eating, talking on the phone, scrolling through Instagram, or just hanging out.
Sleep and sex only.
By doing this, you’ll be strengthening the mental association between your bedroom and sleep, and you’ll most likely find you’re able to fall asleep more easily.
Check your meds
Surprisingly enough, some medications can interfere with sleep and even cause insomnia.
There’s a long list of meds with this possible side effect, including many SSRI's, beta blockers, asthma medications, and corticosteroids. A detailed list can be found here.
If you think anything you’re taking may be causing sleep issues, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your doctor.
Reduce your EMF exposure
Electromagnetic fields (or EMF’s) are produced by everything, including our bodies and the Earth.
We’ve always been exposed to EMFs, but with the advent of electricity and the ensuing technology, we’re now exposed to unprecedented levels of EMFs.
The safety of EMFs is still up for debate and I won’t get into that here, but I do want to talk about their effect on your sleep.
They don’t necessarily affect everyone, but studies suggest EMFs can have an impact on our ability to produce melatonin, which would interfere with sleep.
It may be worth trying to reduce EMF exposure in your bedroom by turning your phone off or putting it on airplane mode and unplugging any other appliances in your bedroom.
Take time to wind down
If you’re busy and constantly on the go, which let’s be honest, you probably are, it can be tough to relax before bed.
It’s very common for our brains to start buzzing as soon as we get in bed.
We often lay in bed thinking about the day we just had or mentally going through tomorrow’s to-do list.
The answer to this is building in a transition time between our busy days and a full night of sleep.
A dedication to slowing down at the end of the day and taking time to wind down before heading to bed can make it exponentially easier to slip into deep sleep much more quickly.
This pre-bed relaxation time can be structured however you want, but I would recommend it not involve TV or screens (see section above on light).
I would also recommend doing things that are purposefully relaxing instead of stressful or stimulating (like work or paying your bills).
Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause your body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness.
Some ideas for relaxing activities include:
- Restorative yoga (I like this routine)
- Stretching or foam rolling
- Taking an Epsom salt bath (I use these Epsom salts)
- This one is a 2 for 1 because the rise, then fall in body temperature from the bath promotes drowsiness and because Epsom salts provide your body with magnesium, which is an important mineral for relaxation.
- Listening to soothing music
- Lighting candles
- Writing in a journal (I use this one every day)
- Drawing or using coloring books
- Drinking sleepy time tea
Sleep has a direct impact on your quality of life, so hopefully, you find these tips helpful.
You may not need to implement all of them to get a good night’s sleep, but play around and see what works for you.