If you’re desperately trying to improve the quality of your sleep, you’re not alone. Read on and discover eight proven tips for better, deeper sleep.
Perhaps anxiety is keeping you awake, you struggle to sleep through the night without waking up, or perhaps you find yourself sleeping more than ever while still feeling exhausted. Sleep may be natural, but it can be surprisingly complicated. What’s worse? Sleep issues are more prevalent than ever before.
The American Psychological Association says “…researchers around the world have documented a surge in sleep disorders, with 2 in 3 Americans reporting they are now sleeping either more or less than desired.” Luckily, if you’re one of these people, there are several ways to improve the quality of your sleep for deeper rest, stronger immunity, and improved physical and cognitive performance.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Sleep is essential for your body and mind to recharge. In all honesty, however, that’s a grand oversimplification. Your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle) is the cycle that dictates when you feel tired and when you feel energized and alert. In order to accomplish that, however, a complex series of chemicals are released and broken down during that cycle.
Adenosine, for example, increases throughout the day and is then broken down during sleep. This particular chemical is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that interacts with different receptors and causes drowsiness. It also tells your body to rest and rebuild energy reserves when you haven’t eaten enough food.
Additionally, it’s believed that caffeine interacts with similar receptors and “blocks” adenosine. While this helps you feel more alert, it also makes it harder for your body to break down adenosine at night. This leads to feeling groggy in the morning, which causes many to consume even more caffeine. Sound familiar?
Clearly, sleep is important and our habits quickly affect the quality of our sleep and overall energy. Here are a few other reasons why good sleep is essential:
- We use less energy while sleeping, so it’s much easier for the body to repair muscles, synthesize proteins, grow tissues, release hormones, etc.
- During sleep, the brain clears out damaging molecules associated with neurodegeneration. This improves brain function (alertness, attention, mood, etc.) while you’re awake.
- Your brain also uses this time to transfer short-term memories into long-term memories, erasing or forgetting unnecessary information, and basically cleans house so your brain is more organized. This is why we often become forgetful after missing too much sleep.
- Lack of sleep has been associated with increased risk for certain diseases and conditions (metabolic disorders, high blood pressure, stroke, poor mental health, and more).
- While we sleep, hunger hormones are doing important work. Ghrelin (a hormone that increases appetite) decreases during sleep. However, lack of sleep can increase ghrelin levels and suppress leptin (a hormone that helps you feel full after eating). If you’ve felt ravenous after pulling an all-nighter, that’s why!
- During sleep, your immune system releases cytokines which are necessary to fight off infections, manage inflammation, or handle stress. Without enough sleep, your immune system doesn’t produce as many cytokines and it also reduces infection-fighting antibodies and cells. Basically, sleep is essential for a healthy immune system.
- Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase pain sensitivity.
So, what’s the first step towards getting better, deeper sleep?
First, Pay Attention to Your Current Sleep Habits
We highly recommend keeping track of your current sleep habits. This will give you a better understanding of how much sleep you’re currently getting and what could be influencing the quality of your sleep.
Take note of your evening activities, bedroom environment, diet, caffeine intake, etc. The more information you have, the easier it will be for you to notice trends. After a night of rough sleep, you can then ask questions to determine what might be contributing to your sleep issues.
For example, do you experience particularly poor sleep when you watch the news at night? Are you restless on days that you don’t do cardio? So many variables can influence sleep, so it’s important to understand your habits.
Many smartwatches include sleep monitoring features that track the length and quality of your sleep. This is a great starting point for assessing the quality of your sleep over a long period of time. Plus, as you make changes, you’ll be able to track progress and see how much you’ve improved.
8 Tips to Naturally Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
Once you’ve taken a good look at your current sleep habits, it’s time to make some much-needed adjustments. Adults tend to need 7 to 8 hours of sleep, however, children and teenagers usually need more.
Depending on what’s causing your sleep issues, you may only need a few small changes. On the other hand, maybe you need to completely change up your routine. Whatever the case, take your time and be patient.
1. Pay Attention to Light Exposure
One of the most powerful influences on your circadian rhythm is light exposure. As natural light wanes throughout the day, your body releases a hormone called melatonin which makes you drowsy and helps you fall asleep. Once the sun comes back up, your body releases a different hormone (cortisol) to increase energy and alertness.
Unfortunately, your brain isn’t that great at differentiating between sunlight and artificial light. When your eyes are exposed to light (sunlight, blue light, or other artificial lights), the hypothalamus tells your brain it’s daytime. So, if you’re looking at a bright phone, computer screen, television, or sitting under a fluorescent light in the evenings, it could make it harder for your brain to understand it’s time for bed.
Consider dimming the lights, putting your phone away, and/or turning off the television at least thirty minutes before you intend to sleep.
2. Try to Maintain A Regular Sleep Schedule
We know you’re probably tired of hearing this one. We also know sometimes it’s impossible to fall asleep and wake up at the exact same time. However, your circadian rhythm desperately needs consistency!
Just think about it—it’s called your circadian “rhythm”. Not your circadian “once in a while.” This rhythm is a pattern that aligns itself with daylight and with your habits. While getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night is important, consistency is arguably even more important.
For example, an ER nurse that works the night shift might get phenomenal sleep. However, they probably sleep while others are wide awake. Whatever the case, so long as their sleep pattern is consistent, their brain knows when it’s time to release melatonin and cortisol. So, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule so you can “train” your brain for better sleep.
3. Avoid Long Daytime Naps
It hurts us to write this one, but if you’re already struggling to fall asleep or sleep through the night, then daytime naps could be making things worse. Specifically, long daytime naps can disrupt your circadian rhythm.
Admittedly, short naps that don’t exceed thirty minutes have been shown to increase cognitive function in some studies. This is particularly true if you already regularly take a short nap during the day. If it’s a normal occurrence for you, then your internal clock has most likely already adapted.
Long daytime naps that aren’t part of your normal routine, however, may make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep that evening. If you find yourself nodding off at noon, consider a thirty-minute power nap. Just make sure you set an alarm and then immediately get up and grab some sunshine.
4. Create a Relaxing Sleep Environment
While some people can fall asleep at any time and any place, most of us need a relaxing environment. The Sleep Foundation even says, “…people simply sleep better when their bedroom is optimized for light and noise levels, temperature, and comfort. And since sleep quality and duration are directly tied to other aspects of human health, a bedroom environment that promotes sleep can also improve how you feel while you’re awake.”
While everyone has different preferences, there are a few items you’ll want to pay special attention to:
- Light Exposure. We’ve already covered this a bit, but consider whether or not you need light-blocking curtains. Conversely, you may prefer open curtains to let in the morning light. It just depends on your sleep schedule, so do what works best for you.
- Noise. While you may think you need the television on in the background, studies show this kind of noise can influence cortisol levels and promote feelings of grogginess in the morning. If you really need sound, opt for a fan or some type of white noise machine.
- Temperature. Some individuals are warmer at night than others, but most adults tend to experience a drop in body temperature while sleeping. A lower core temperature helps us fall asleep, which is why most individuals enjoy a cooler bedroom. Individual preference plays a big role, but somewhere between 60 and 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 22.0 degrees Celsius) will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
- Bedroom Comfort. This includes everything from the quality of your mattress and pillows to the cleanliness of your room. In one study, a new mattress reduced back pain, shoulder pain, back stiffness, and it also improved the overall quality of sleep for participants by 60%. There are many schools of thought about the “best” mattress and pillow set-up, so we recommend doing your research.
5. Make Nutritional Changes to Promote Better, Deeper Sleep
Obviously, this includes caffeine intake, but it also involves when you eat and what you eat.
First things first, if you’re already trapped in the endless caffeine cycle, start by limiting your caffeine intake several hours before you intend to sleep. In one study, those who had caffeine even six hours before bed had significantly lower sleep quality. Additionally, drinking alcohol in the evenings may alter melatonin production and lead to sleep disturbances.
When it comes to food, there are several variables to consider. Generally, it’s recommended not to eat late at night. First, your digestion slows at night so you’re more likely to feel bloated and uncomfortable. Your body will also be busy converting food into energy, so extra food in your system is more likely to be stored as fat. However, going to bed hungry can also negatively influence sleep by causing your blood sugar to drop. If you need an evening snack, try to eat something healthy before you begin winding down for the evening.
Additionally, certain foods may cause sleep issues. For example, chocolate actually contains a small amount of caffeine. Spicy foods with high amounts of capsaicin can increase your body temperature and disrupt natural thermoregulation. Too much sugar in the evenings can cause a blood sugar crash while you’re asleep that activates your body’s stress response. When that happens, cortisol levels can increase and make it difficult to stay asleep.
On the other hand, some foods help promote sleep. Almonds, for example, have lots of magnesium which helps muscles relax and keeps blood sugar regulated. Cherries actually contain a small amount of melatonin and could be an excellent sweet treat after dinner. There are so many ways that diet influences overall wellness, so it may be a good idea to consult a nutritionist if you believe that’s what’s causing sleep issues.
6. Practice Stress-Relieving Activities
Modern living is riddled with stress-inducing activities, and some of that stress is easier to handle than others. Maybe you’re stressed about trying to balance work and family time. Perhaps your morning commute puts you on edge. A study from 2018 showed that just thinking about checking your email after work hours can cause anxiety. Plus, with so many of us working from home now, those work/home lines are more blurred than ever.
Basically, finding ways to relieve stress has never been more important. Not only will you just feel better, lowering your stress is good for your heart, immune system, and can improve sleep.
Everyone is different, so you may want to get creative. Evening yoga can be a great way to relax your body and unwind your mind. However, self-care activities like a warm bath can also help release dopamine and serotonin. Whether it’s reading a novel before bed or writing in your journal, try to incorporate some type of stress-relieving activity into your evening.
7. Time Your Exercise Right For Better Sleep
If restlessness is making it hard for you to wind down, you may want to look at your exercise habits.
In general, exercise is associated with a higher quality of sleep. Studies have even shown that individuals with insomnia have better sleep when they engage in moderate aerobic physical activity. Another study found that exercise helped adults fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. So, if you don’t currently have an exercise routine, consider engaging in some type of light to moderate physical activity during the day.
The other item to consider is when you’re exercising. If you already have an exercise routine, consider switching up the timing. Exercising in the evenings can be too stimulating for some, while others find it helps relieve stress. Studies have been mostly inconclusive in this regard, so play around with it and do what works best for you.
8. Use a Nutritional Supplement
If your sleep schedule needs a complete overhaul, a high-quality nutritional supplement may be just what you need to get back on track. For those who have a difficult time falling asleep, a melatonin supplement will help convince your brain and body that it’s time for sleep. In one study, taking melatonin helped half of the participants fall asleep faster and they experienced a 15% improvement in the quality of their sleep.
Depending on why you’re having trouble sleeping, however, you might need something different. Those with arthritis who have a hard time getting comfortable may benefit from a high-quality Omega-3 supplement. Everyone’s needs are different, so you may want to consult with your doctor before starting any new nutritional supplements.
Get the Rest You Deserve
You deserve to rest. It doesn’t matter what job you have, how hard you’ve worked, or how much sleep you’re actually getting. If your body and mind are tired, then you deserve restorative sleep to help you feel refreshed and ready to take on the day. Try some of our proven tips for better, deeper sleep and start feeling more like yourself.
Everybody is different, but everybody deserves health and wellness.
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