My previous post talked about the importance of sleep and how many hours should we sleep. now I want to focus on improving the quality of those hours in bed.
There’re lots of things that affect our sleep: our pre-bed time routine, our bedroom environment, how we wake up and what we do during the day.
Let’s start with, what I believe, is the most important one: our night time routine.
Set a routine
The first step to getting more and better sleep is to create a night time routine that tells your body that you are preparing to go to sleep. Over time, if you’re consistent, your body will start the process of gearing down automatically.
1. Keep a regular schedule.
Our bodies like regularity. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and night. It might be complicated sometimes, especially if you have a kid. (Tell me about it…I know 😉)
If you’re consistent, your body will know when to release calming hormones before bed, and stimulating hormones to help you wake up. You’ll feel sleepy when it’s time for bed and wake up more refreshed, often without needing an alarm.
2. Eat and drink appropriately (not too little, not too much)
Having a large meal immediately before bed can disrupt your ability to fall and stay asleep. Instead, eat a regular-sized (or even smallish) meal a few hours before bedtime.
A nice blend of protein, carbs and fats will help to keep you satiated, and might even improve your ability to fall asleep as your brain converts carbs to serotonin.
In addition, try to limit your fluids 2-3 hours before bedtime. Drinking too much liquid shortly before bed can result in frequent waking for bathroom breaks.
While total sleep time is important, uninterrupted sleep time is even better.
3. Keep alcohol and caffeine moderate.
Nothing new here, right?
Even though it seems like booze is relaxing, more than 1-2 drinks in the evening can interfere with deep sleep and so does caffeine.
So limit alcohol to the suggested amounts, and reduce caffeine after 2 pm.
Otherwise, although you may “sleep” for 7 hours, your sleep won’t be high quality, and you won’t get the recovery benefits.
Remember, genuinely restful and restorative sleep comes from deep sleep.
4. Do a brain dump.
We all do this, keeping at night thinking of things we need to do for tomorrow, take our children to school (in my case to kindy), send that email, publish that post, etc.
What I recommend is to write it down whatever you need to do in a piece of paper/ phone notes (I use a whiteboard) so you don’t need to use your brain to remember your to-do list and you can relax.
5. Turn off electronics.
Digital devices stimulate our brain with their light, noise, and mental demands.
Unplug from all screens TVs, computers, phones, tablets at least 30 minutes before bed.
If you must read your tablet/ phone, switch the screen to the black or dimmer background.
I also highly recommend using blue-light blocking glasses from dusk till you go to bed. It really helps with melatonin production.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that signals to your body it is time for sleep. It is produced as light levels decrease. Melatonin ensures deep sleep, and may also help regulate our metabolism. If we have too much light at night, we don’t get proper melatonin production.
6. Stretch / read / de-stress before bed.
What de-stresses you? Do that.
This could include:
- Gentle movement — such as stretching or yoga, or even a slow stroll around the block. Even 5-15 minutes can release tension and activate calm-down chemicals.
- Reading before bed — but make sure it’s not too engaging — otherwise you’ll be tempted to stay up until the wee hours.
- Meditation, deep breathing, or other simple relaxation exercises
7. Take a bath or shower.
Warm water before bed can help us relax and de-stress, which is key for falling asleep. If you like to bathe at night throw in some magnesium-based Epsom salts as magnesium is known to help with relaxation.
Some even swear by cold water in the evening. The logic is that cold water stimulates a strong parasympathetic nervous system response once the initial shock has passed.
Give it a try, and see which works better for you.
8. Go to bed before midnight.
According to some sleep experts, because of the way our natural circadian rhythms work, every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after.
I’m not sure if this is 100% true or not, or how can we measure this. But sleep experts have been repeating this for so long, it’s probably worth consideration.
In summary, we’re meant to go to sleep when it gets dark, and to wake when it gets light.
9. Sleep at least seven hours.
Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. 7 should be your baseline.
If you know you have to wake at 5:15 to get ready for work, then you should be in bed by 9:30 and asleep by 10.
Don’t stop what you’re doing at 9:29 and expect to be snoring by 9:30. Start moving in the direction of bed by 9:00.
Every piece of credible research demonstrates that you pay a big health (and productivity) price for consistently getting less than 7-9 hours.
Optimizing your sleep environment
Ensure that your sleeping environment is actually conducive to sleep. A few small adjustments can make a big difference here.
10. Keep the room as dark as possible.
Making your room as dark as possible will maximize your melatonin production.
So how can you limit light exposure?
- Dim lights at night. Install low-wattage bulbs in your bedroom, and keep things as dim as possible in the hour before your planned bedtime.
- Cover your windows well. Invest in some real block out curtains, it’s worth it.
- Use a motion-sensitive or dim night light if you need something to illuminate your midnight path to the bathroom.
- Put your phone in another room or flip it face down.
- Cover or dim the alarm clock, or look for one that illuminates only when touched.
11. Create a relaxing sleep area that is comfortable and free of clutter.
Your bedroom should be relatively organized and peaceful.
The sight of clothes strewn all over the floor or furniture, boxes or books toppling over, and tangled cords can make you feel stressed and interfere with your ability to relax.
Having a good a comfy mattress and pillow is essential. If you can, invest in a good quality mattress, it will make a huge difference and it will last for ages. You can find some good options at bedpost.
12. Set your room to an appropriate temperature.
Most people sleep better when it’s cool (around 18 to 20 degrees) others sleep better at a neutral temperature.
Find what works best for you and do your best to regulate your bedroom to that temperature each night.
13. Use white noise if needed.
If you live in an urban environment and you tend to pop awake at the slightest sound, then a steady source of white noise could really help.
Using some nature sounds on your phone, can be enough to drown out other noises and lull you to sleep.
An air purifier can also work well for this purpose, serving double duty by keeping your air cleaner as well.
How to wake up
Think of sleep as something that begins the moment you wake up. In other words, what you do during the day will affect what happens that night.
So let’s look at how to wake up.
14. Take advantage of natural rhythms.
Sleep occurs in multiple stages, alternating between deeper and lighter sleep. We sleep more and more lightly as the night goes on.
If we wake up at just the right moment in our lighter sleep stages, we’ll feel reasonably good and snap into alertness quickly.
But if we’re forced to wake up while in a deep sleep phase, we’ll feel groggy, disoriented, and sleepy — suffering from sleep inertia.
There are many gadgets and apps that will sense your sleep cycles and wake you up when you’re sleeping your lightest.
15. Wake up to light.
The human body is designed to get sleepy when it’s dark and to wake when it is light.
However, it is not always feasible to wake up with the sun, and this is especially true if you use light blocking shades to keep your room as dark as possible.
Solution: Use a dawn-simulating alarm clock.
Research shows that when people are slowly roused by gradually increasing light levels, they feel much more alert and relaxed than when they’re woken up by a sudden, blaring alarm.
There’re lots of options out there.
Increasing light has also been shown to raise cortisol in the morning (which is an important signal to your body to wake up), and to improve sleep quality. It can even decrease depressive symptoms in seasonal affective disorders.
16. Wake up to soft, slowly building noise.
Some apps will also gradually increase noise or music, so that you’re slowly lifted out of sleep rather than being suddenly whacked in the ear with one of those annoying default alarm sounds.
17. Get moving right away.
In other words, don’t snooze!
When your alarm goes off, one of the worst things you can do is hit snooze. Snoozing seems to increase sleep inertia.
Instead, once that alarm goes off, simply sit up and put your feet on the floor. Start shambling towards the bathroom, or anywhere else that isn’t your bed.
There is something magical about movement that seems to speed up the waking process.
During the day
18. Expose yourself to more light.
Whether you wake to a dawn-simulating alarm clock or not, continue to expose yourself to light as soon as possible after waking. This will stop melatonin production and increase your wakefulness.
Throughout the day, get as much light as you can. Run errands, walk your dog, or have lunch outside. Do as much as you can to get that sunshine.
The more bright natural light you can get during your normal waking time, the more your body will know to gear down at your normal sleeping time.
19. Exercise regularly.
Exercising regularly helps normalize circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function.
However, save the intense exercise for during the day if possible — a weights or interval workout in the evening can rev us up and make it tougher to get to sleep.
Its not easy to put all these suggestions into action, so start with one small change each day, or each week.
Remember, it takes time to create a habit (more than 21 days as we used to believe). Be patient with yourself and in a couple months you will start feeling the difference.