Sleep doesn’t come easily for a lot of people. If you know the struggle, here are some helpful tips backed by science.
A good night’s sleep is deeply restorative.
When you’re asleep, your body gets a chance to refresh and heal itself: Your brain can sort and process the day’s experiences and information. Your liver gets to work cleaning up the place. Your digestive and nervous systems get a chance to chill. And your immune system can fight off any infections or inflammation.
When you don’t get enough sleep, it can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems, including diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life.
The good news is there are several things you can do to help improve your sleep quality.
Exercising during your nonworking hours may be one of the best things you can do for better sleep. Even a single bout of exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly, wake up fewer times, and increase slow-wave sleep (deep sleep).
If you’ve ever gone hiking for the day and crashed into bed that night, you’ve experienced this firsthand.
For some people, exercising too late in the day can actually interfere with sleep. This is because exercising increases your core body temperature, which may delay sleep and lead to waking up more in the night. The general recommendation is to finish your workout at least 2 hours before bedtime.
Lighting plays a significant role in getting a good night’s sleep. Our bodies have natural circadian rhythms that are part of the body’s internal clock. The most well-known circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle.
When we get too little light during the day or too much light at night, it can throw off the “master clock” in our brains that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
One study found that nursing home residents slept better after installing LED lights designed to mimic the 24-hour natural light cycle.
Of the 63 nursing home residents, 35 had been diagnosed with dementia, which is associated with mental health problems such as depression, agitation, anxiety, and delusions. All of these symptoms can lead to sleep disturbances.
The study found that residents with the new LED lighting technology experienced about half the sleep disturbances than those still living with the regular lighting fixtures.
Another study found that people exposed to more light in the morning (8 a.m. to noon) fell asleep more quickly at night and had fewer sleep disturbances than those exposed to less light. More daylight exposure was also tied to less depression.
Limit TV and phone use at night
It’s also believed that the blue light emitted from electronic devices can interfere with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
A small study analyzed the biological effects of reading an e-book on an iPad compared to reading a printed book in the hours just before bedtime.
The findings show that when participants read from an iPad, they took longer to fall asleep, had reduced melatonin secretion, and spent less time in an important phase of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. They also said that they felt more sleepy the following morning than when they read from a printed book.
Having a regular bedtime schedule may help improve sleep. This includes going to bed and waking around the same time every day.
Sleep experts recommend setting your alarm clock for the same time every day — and if possible, try not to sleep in on the weekends. This will help reinforce the circadian rhythm and help your body get tired around the same time every night.
A healthy bedtime routine should also focus on calming your mind before bed. For example, some people enjoy reading a book before bed as it helps take their minds off their troubles. As mentioned, it’s better to read books in print (not on a screen) as the phone light can affect your brain’s ability to switch into sleep mode.
There are several natural supplements that may help improve sleep for some people.
Supplements aren’t without the risk of side effects or interaction with prescription meds and recreational substances, including alcohol. You’ll want to notify your healthcare team before trying supplements, including a psychiatrist, if you have one, and your doctor. Though supplements may be naturally occurring elements, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate those sold on shelves.
Here are some supplements and their reported benefits that you might want to research further:
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an important calming neurotransmitter in the brain. Many supplements, like valerian and theanine, act on GABA receptors. You can also buy straight GABA supplements.
GABA helps get your body into a state of relaxation which may help you fall asleep.
Valerian root has been used in traditional medicine since the first century A.D. Many people take valerian supplements for insomnia or anxiety. It is believed that valerian root acts on GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in the brain.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in high amounts in green tea. It is commonly taken in supplement form by people who want to reduce anxiety, stress or improve sleep.
Melatonin is a natural hormone released by the pineal gland in response to darkness. It plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle.
Melatonin is a common supplement often used for insomnia or jet lag. Some literature reviews on this hormone have been mixed or
It’s important to remember that melatonin is a hormone, so if you have hormone imbalances and are interested, consider talking first with your healthcare team.
CBD (cannabidiol) is derived directly from the hemp plant, and by itself, it doesn’t cause a high. It’s commonly used for insomnia, anxiety, pain, and inflammation.
You can buy CBD in several forms — from oils and tinctures to gummies to topical creams.
Sleep problems are often rooted in anxiety and stress. Starting a meditation practice is a great way to deal with this. Meditation works by training the brain and body to relax — essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
One of the most popular and well-studied forms of meditation is mindfulness meditation.
This involves focusing on your breathing and bringing your mind’s attention to the present moment. When your mind wanders, you can gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
Caffeine is a stimulant found in many beverages, including coffee, tea, soft drinks, and pre-workout mixes.
Caffeine keeps us awake by blocking adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that helps us feel drowsy and ready for bed. Adenosine builds up as we go about our day. The longer we’re awake, the more it accumulates and the sleepier we become.
Consuming caffeine before bed stops the drowsy feeling and promotes a wakeful state of mind. This is certainly helpful if you’re driving on a long road trip and need to stay awake, but not if you’re planning on going to bed within a few hours.
The stimulant can also worsen symptoms in several mental health conditions.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine, skip the iced tea at dinner and opt for an herbal tea instead.
Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your overall health and well-being. Poor sleep is linked to decreased quality of life, low resilience to stress, mood disorders, and memory problems.
If you’re having trouble getting sufficient sleep, these six tips can help. It pays to be very protective of your sleep — your body and brain will thank you.