Have you had a difficult time drifting off to dreamland lately because **gestures vaguely at the world**? Who could blame you.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many of us had a hard time getting to sleep or woke up still tired, despite our best attempt at getting a full eight hours.
If you’re wondering how to sleep better, the good news is there are ways to optimize your resting life. You can get better quality rest with less time, and sometimes all the time in the world won’t help (or might even hinder) getting good sleep.
“When it comes to sleep time, quality matters. Quantity matters too, but quality is what we need for optimization,” said Shawn Stevenson, the nutrition and wellness expert behind the New York Times bestseller Better Sleep.
Quantity matters too, but quality is what we need for optimization.
But before we even go there, one caveat: Scientists actually kinda still don’t know what the hell sleep even is or exactly why we do it.
“We believe it’s the time when the body replenishes its neurotransmitters that get depleted throughout the day. It’s a time when our brains are doing the housekeeping, getting rid of unnecessary neuronal connections and solidifying new ones that are developing,” said neurologist Dr. Randall Wright, medical director for brain wellness at Houston Methodist.
It may remain a mysterious phenomenon, but the benefits of quality rest are well established and pretty self-evident. When you’re not getting enough quality sleep, people most often report a wide range of cognitive difficulties like headaches, memory problems, inability to concentrate, mood issues, and even depression.
Scientists can say definitively that sleep is a depressed state of consciousness that produces cyclical phases of unique brainwave patterns: wakefulness, followed by drowsiness, then light sleep, deeper sleep (also known as low wave sleep), then finally REM (rapid eye movement), which is when we dream.
“So when we’re talking about optimizing our sleep, we’re talking about optimizing those brainwaves patterns,” said Stevenson. “Optimal sleep is about spending the needed amount of time in each phase of sleep and transitioning in and out of those stages effectively.”
The good news is that, despite the mysteries around sleep science, there are ample studies with evidence for how lifestyles and habits can improve or disrupt those stages. Both Stevenson and Wright have found that a majority of patients who come in with severe sleep issues can see a vast improvement with routine and habit changes.
“I’m a big fan of low-hanging fruits. Because people want change, but they don’t want to change that much,” said Stevenson. “And you don’t have to turn your life upside down to implement changes that get results.”
So here are some of the best sleep hacks to optimize for the best quality rest. Some might require more effort than others, but now more than ever, it’s important to put your health first.
Sleep optimization is based on your individual needs and obstacles
When it comes to improving sleep quality, there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions. Even the ones presented here will vary depending on the unique conditions of your lifestyle, body, and issues.
“Before we can answer the question of how to improve your sleep, the first question we need to ask is what’s keeping you from sleeping?” said Wright. General tips work, but to be most effective, “It’s a matter of understanding who you are, recognizing your biggest underlying problems, and then finding solutions.”
Three common categories of sleep difficulties Include: 1) Insomnia caused by psychogenic factors like anxiety, stress, a racing mind; 2) Physical pain like chronic neck and back issues; 3) A medical condition called sleep apnea that causes you to stop breathing during sleep, disrupting your cycles.
In the sections below, we’ll provide tips to help address each of these issues, along with general rules to follow.
How much sleep is enough?
You know that eight-hour minimum you’re always hearing about? It’s absolutely not that cut and dry. While six to eight hours fits most, the amount of rest you need changes depending on your age, physiology, activities, and physical and mental state.
If you’re exercising a lot, stressed, or sick, you’ll need more. But also, if you’re taking steps like the ones below to ensure better quality sleep, you may very well find yourself needing less. And yes, there is a thing as too much sleep, which typically throws off your whole sleep schedule.
What’s most important is to listen to your body, and take note of the amount of time you’re getting, your sleep habits, and the activities contribute to feeling well-rested or not.
Sticking to a regular sleep schedule can help everyone
This one’s the most demanding lifestyle change on our list, but it’ll also have a big impact on your sleep quality. Basically, our brains love routine and our internal biological clocks follow a circadian rhythm closely tied to the 24-hour cycle in nature.
For that reason, you should really try to get to bed at around the same time every night and wake up at about the same time every morning. (Yes, even on weekends.)
Do your best to sync your sleep with nature’s 24-hour cycle because daylight induces wakefulness hormones, while night light (or lack thereof) induces sleep-promoting hormones like melatonin.
I know, this may sound totally counter to your way of life (especially for night owls like myself). But while young students who pull all-nighters have brains that can handle this disruption better, the older we get, the more severe cognitive difficulties can come from messing with a regular sleep schedule.
If your job requires a nocturnal schedule, though, try to find ways to mimic that 24-hour light cycle: get blackout curtains for sleeping during the daytime, and maybe even a sunrise alarm clock for waking up at night.
The importance of getting the right kind of light throughout the day is very real. Which brings us to the most dreaded of sleep quality facts.
Seriously, your screens are poison (but there’s hope)
Listen, we get it. We’re all addicted to our phones, we love watching TV before bed, and starring at a computer screen all hours of the day is basically ubiquitous to modern life. But we regret to confirm that blasting the blue light emitted from these devices into your face after sundown is like poison for quality sleep (not to mention your vision) with the potential for serious repercussions.
Changing such an embedded behavior is a big ask, though. So try mitigating the damage with these tools and tricks:
Be careful with night modes, which might actually be making things worse
Blue light filtering glasses (some suggestions here)
Instead of relying on falling asleep to the TV or scrolling through social media as a pre-bed ritual, try to listen to a podcast, relaxing music, guided sleep meditation, or read a boring book. Make sure none of these are too interesting.
Easier do’s and don’ts
Phew, OK, the tough ones are pretty much out of the way. So now let’s focus on some easier changes and misconceptions:
Alcohol: Do not believe in the myth of the nightcap. Alcohol before bed might make you sleepy initially but, actually, once you metabolize it two to three hours later, it stimulates arousal in the brain that makes you wake up. You might not even consciously notice waking up, but your body sure will when it feels like hell the next day.
Caffeine: As Stevenson said, “I’m a fan of caffeine. But I also am a fan of a caffeine curfew.” So keep your morning coffee or afternoon soda. But pay close attention to the time you drink it, because even having caffeine six hours before bed can cause a measurable loss in sleep quality. That’s because of its long half-life. Your body on average takes five to eight hours to digest 100-200 milligrams of caffeine. So if you’re planning to go to bed by 10 or 11 p.m., that means your caffeine cut off time should be late in the afternoon.
Exercise: Physical activity can do wonders for your sleep quality, if you’re exercising at the right time. The misconception that late-night workouts help you pass out is totally off-base, since exercise tends to raise your cortisol levels and suppress sleep-inducing melatonin. On the other hand, morning exercisers were found to spend more time in that important low eave deep sleep stage, and also to have more efficient sleep cycles.
Temperature: An often overlooked factor to sleep quality is body temperature. Our sleep is so synced with nature that, in the same way temperatures outside drop at night, our body temperature also wants to drop at night. The optimal room temperature for sleep (and this will sound very low) is generally around 62-68 degrees. A few ways to achieve that include: setting a thermostat, turning off the heater, opening a window, not wearing heavy pajamas, getting cooling bedsheets or comforters. Also, maybe even take a warm shower before bed, so when you enter your cooled bedroom your body knows to start releasing those sleep hormones and neurotransmitter enzymes.
Environment: Physical conditions like temperature aren’t the only way to set the right environment for sleep. Another underrated factor is ensuring you feel safe in your bed, particularly for the anxious insomnia-prone. That can mean many things, like using calming essential oils or having a partner or pet share the bed. Also, try to restrict activities in the bedroom to sleep, relaxation, and sex. You don’t want your brain to associate the bedroom with anything negative. If you do end up finding it easier to fall asleep someplace other than in your bedroom, do it: Fall asleep on the couch first (for example), then transition into the bedroom. If you wake up in the middle of the night and again can’t sleep, leave the bedroom and do a boring or relaxing activity (read an uninteresting textbook, listen to music, etc), then go back when you get drowsy.
Know what to invest in to achieve better quality sleep
The sleep industry is booming right now, with all sorts of devices, apps, and mattress tech claiming to help you sleep better. According to our experts, some of those might actually be worthwhile investments. But as with all our advice, the main thing is to find what works for your specific needs.
For those with chronic neck and back pain, finding a better mattress with the right firmness, topper, or pillow to suit the type of sleeper (side, stomach, back) you are could fix it. Those with more anxiety and stress-related insomnia should instead look into wearables like the Ebb (which aims to keep you in that deep, low wave sleep longer), Dreamlight Sleep Mask, or Muse S smart meditation headband. You may even want to try and weighted blanket. Just do your research, because there’s tons of different types best for different purposes. For sleep apnea sufferers, as we’ve mentioned you should talk to an expert.
Now apps are a bit trickier. While they can for sure be a budget-conscious alternative to more expensive tech, the mileage varies on their effectiveness. Sleep trackers can provide good basic raw data and at least get you thinking more about quality over quantity. But the raw data (which itself can be flawed) is pretty useless in the common layperson’s hands, who can come away with the wrong interpretation. Apps meant to soothe or calm your mind with sound are always worth a shot, though!
Sleep challenges to watch out for during the pandemic.
This all sounds fine and well under normal circumstances, but some of this advice can feel nearly impossible to follow due to the life-disruptions and stress brought on by the pandemic.
When you’re getting bombarded by apocalyptic news alerts and statistics, on top of mortal fear breathing down your neck — well, if you haven’t developed at least a little anxious insomnia, you’re probably not taking this seriously enough.
Unfortunately, there is even less of a one-size-fits-all answer for the sleep problems coming out of these new realities. But here are a few unique obstacles that may come up and ways to try and offset them:
School and work closures will surely throw off your usual sleep routine since we have even less structure in our day-to-day. Do your best to implement curfews (on yourself and the kids) that maintain a healthy sleep schedule. Avoid the temptation to sleep in super late or stay up all night because you can. And for parents, the benefits of morning exercise prior to homeschooling can help get them to bed faster and at the right time (so you can too).
The desire to binge-watch comfort content is more than understandable, and also totally OK. It’d be great to turn some of that binge-watching time into physical activity too, though, using it as background noise during at-home workout sessions in the morning (here’s a list of free ones).
Now more than ever it is imperative to stick to a screentime curfew. That’s not just because of the blue light factor. With the onslaught of anxiety-inducing developments, continuing to scroll through social media or the news before bed is almost guaranteed to cause a mental spiral with health consequences that none of us can afford right now.
Another new challenge for bedroom screentime is that many of us are now working from home. If at all possible, separate your work-from-home space from the bedroom (though we understand that’s a luxury), even if it’s just with a divider. Avoid working from your bed, instead electing the couch as a comfy working spot. Both this and the curfew on news and social media will help avoid bringing all those stressors into the bedroom with you.
Above all, remember to be kind and patient with yourself. Insomniacs — no matter what the reason for their sleeplessness — can get into a cycle of panic because their stress doesn’t let them sleep. Then they get more stressed from not being able to sleep. If that’s you, make the goal to simply relax and breathe rather than putting pressure on yourself to sleep.
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