Sleep is the easiest, most effortless thing in the world.
Until it isn't.
Anyone who's ever struggled to fall asleep knows how frustrating it can be and how miserable it can make you feel. Especially when you don't sleep well night after night.
If that's you, it's time to take action.
Good sleep is important for overall health. Lack of quality sleep has been linked to everything from Type 2 diabetes to hormone imbalances to plain old weight gain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are even calling insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.
And yet we tend to act as if sleep is bestowed upon us, or cruelly denied, at the whims of a magical sleep fairy.
We can't force sleep on ourselves. But we can create the ideal conditions for a long, restful night's sleep, and a comfortable morning wake up.
Some call it "sleep hacking" -- a series of small actions that will help you improve your quality and duration of sleep.
To this end, here are five ways to help engineer the perfect night's sleep.
1. Perfect the art of waking up
If there's a secret to hacking sleep, it's this: A good night's sleep doesn't start the moment you rest your head on the pillow. It starts the moment you wake up.
And if you're jumping out of bed, already in "fight or flight" mode, you're setting a stressful tone for the day. Instead, try this:
Wake up according to your natural rhythms.
Sleep occurs in multiple stages, alternating between deeper and lighter sleep. If we wake up at just the right moment in our lighter sleep stages, we can feel better and more alert right from the start. (And far less groggy and disoriented.)
There are many gadgets and apps that propose to sense your sleep cycles and wake you up when you're sleeping the lightest. Do a little research and see what works best for you.
Expose yourself to natural light as soon as possible.
As soon as you're up, open the blinds. Even better, go for a brisk walk outside. Natural light will help stop melatonin production and increase your wakefulness. (Getting moving helps us wake up, too.)
You can even try a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which slowly lights up the room, reaching maximum brightness at your wake time. These can help you wake up feeling more alert and relaxed.
2. Establish healthy daytime habits
What you do during the day affects how well you sleep at night. Some small adjustments to your daily routine can dramatically affect how soundly you sleep at night. For example:
Get as much natural light as you can.
Even if you're stuck in an office all day, try to sneak outside for at least 5-10 minutes. Run errands at lunch or eat outside. Park your car further from your work entrance. Do whatever you can to score extra seconds of 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 night.
Exercise during the day.
As if you needed another reason to exercise: Regular exercise can help normalize circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function.
In other words: It can help you sleep.
Save the high intensity exercise for during the day, though; an intense evening workout can actually make it tougher to wind down.
Keep alcohol and caffeine moderate.
Even though it seems like booze is relaxing, more than 1-2 drinks in the evening can interfere with deep, quality sleep.
So can caffeine after 2 p.m. -- its stimulating effects can linger longer than you'd think.
Even if you can fall asleep with alcohol or caffeine in your system, your sleep may be subtly disrupted, meaning you won't get all the good recovery benefits you need.
3. Create a sleep routine
You can't expect your brain to suddenly "turn off" at night. Your body needs transition time and environmental cues to wind down. Fortunately, a consistent sleep routine can teach your body to automatically gear down for sleep.
Keep a regular schedule.
Our bodies like regularity. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and night. If you're consistent, your body will know when to release calming hormones before bed, and stimulating hormones to help you wake up.
In other words, more sleepiness at bedtime, and less icky grogginess in the morning.
Turn off electronics.
Our brain produces melatonin as light levels decrease. Melatonin ensures deep sleep, and may also help regulate our metabolism. If we have too much light at night (including the kind from electronics), we don't get proper melatonin production.
Employ a little self discipline and unplug from all screens -- TVs, computers, phones, tablets -- at least 30 minutes before bed.
De-stress before bed.
Do whatever calms you. This may be gentle yoga, meditation, reading some light fiction, or having an Epsom salt bath.
If you still find your mind buzzing, take a few minutes to write out a list of whatever's bothering you. Get those concerns, creative ideas or nagging to-do list items out of your head and onto paper. Then put them aside for tomorrow.
4. Create a restful sleep space
Is your sleeping environment actually conducive to sleep? It should be dark, quiet and cool. Here's how to optimize your sleep space:
Make your bedroom as dark as possible.
Just as light helps you wake up in the morning, it can interfere with your sleep at night. So cover your windows well (consider upgrading your shades to black-out curtains).
Remember, blue light from electronics counts, too. Put your mobile phone in another room or flip it face down, and cover or dim the alarm clock.
You might also try a sleep mask: It's an easy, inexpensive way to keep out the light.
Keep your space quiet.
If your environment is noisy and you're sensitive to sound, you may want to try white noise. You can install a white noise app, play some nature sounds on your smart phone, or even just turn on a fan or air filter. This can drown out other noises and lull you to sleep.
Regulate your bedroom temperature.
Most people sleep better when it's cool (around 67 degrees F); 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.
To get more sleep, sleep more. Seems obvious, doesn't it? But it's probably the most important tip of all.
Sleep at least seven hours.
How many of us complain about feeling sleep deprived, yet fail to get to bed early enough?
Most experts suggest we need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. So seven should be your minimum.
Think through your sleep game plan. For example, 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 10:00.
And to factor in transition time (aka your sleep routine), you'll need to start winding down by 9:00.
What you can do today
In this article, I've given you a lot of ways you can improve your sleep. You can incorporate any or all of these suggestions to:
- wake up better
- choose daytime habits that will support sleep at night
- establish a sleep routine
- create a good sleep space
- sleep 7-9 hours per night
If any of this feels daunting, start with just one of these ideas. Give it a shot, see how it works, and gradually try out more of these tips with an observational mindset.
Like all fitness and nutrition practices, getting a good sleep is about what finding what works best for you.
Want help finding the best exercise, eating, and lifestyle advice for you? Download our free starter kits for men and women:
About the author
John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox.
Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.
In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
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