If you’re anything like me, going to bed at a decent hour, waking up on time, and feeling well-rested throughout the day is about as achievable as solving a Rubik’s cube while blindfolded. That’s something other people do, we think, but not us. But in trying to find a way to help myself sleep better, I found three tips that I think might also be of use to all of us.
Stick to a sleep schedule
When we sleep, we are constantly shifting between REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep in which we actually rest and recharge. NREM sleep is not as restorative, and studies show our sleep habits affect how much we get of each type of sleep. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, “Repeatedly missing a night’s sleep, an irregular sleep schedule, or frequent disturbance of sleep can result in a redistribution of sleep stages, for instance, prolonged and deeper periods of slow-wave NREM sleep.” Longer periods of NREM sleep mean shorter periods of REM sleep, which lead to that groggy feeling in the mornings.
One way we can start training our bodies to sleep better is to create a sleep schedule and stick to it. If you need to get up at 6 a.m. and you want to have seven hours of sleep, then you know your bedtime has to be 11 p.m. If you’re a night owl like me, going to bed “early” seems like a huge waste of time—after all, you’re only just starting to feel productive after dinner. But the more you go to sleep earlier, the easier it will become. Setting an alarm for bedtime is a good way to remind yourself of when you need to go to bed. Also, commit to avoiding the snooze button in the mornings. When the wake-up alarm rings, get up.
A traditional 8-hour sleep schedule isn’t your only option. There are many more sleep patterns out there. One of the most popular ones, famously used in Spain, is “biphasic” sleep, which consists of a core sleep period and a mid-afternoon nap or siesta. And then there’s “polyphasic” sleep, which can be a core sleep period and several shorter periods of sleep throughout the day or multiple short sleep periods and no core sleep. Proponents of polyphasic sleep say they have more time in a single day to get things done since they only really need a few hours of sleep taken in 20 or 30-minute chunks. I know it sounds a little extreme, but depending on what your daily schedule looks like, adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule might work for you.
A 2013 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who regularly exercise are more likely to report having slept well every night than people who don’t do physical activities. Some of the effects are straightforward: exercise tires you out and you are more likely to sleep better when you are tired than when you are not.
However, the study also points out that, often, bad sleep is caused by health issues, such as sleep apnea, diabetes, and obesity. Exercising regularly is part of the prescribed treatment for these conditions, and as they improve, the quality of sleep improves.
Max Hirshkowitz, Ph.D., the chair of the poll task force, says the exercise doesn’t need to be of any particular type. “If you are inactive, adding a 10-minute walk every day could improve your likelihood of a good night’s sleep.” Then, as you get used to the exercise, you can increase the intensity of the activity, which will help you sleep even better. Indeed, people who described their exercise as “vigorous” reported better sleep than other exercisers. It seems like the more exercise you do, the better you sleep.
Exercise can also help relieve stress and anxiety, which are other causes of bad sleep. So, take Dr. Hirshkowitz’s advice and start out slow. A walk in the mornings before work or in the evenings after dinner could help you sleep like a baby.
Prepare your sleep environment
The bedroom is, arguably, the most important room of the house. It’s where you unwind after a long day, where you drift off to dreamland and wake up to the soft sound of birdsongs… or, well, that’s what it’s like in the movies. In reality, bedrooms often double as offices, dining rooms, and nurseries. If you have a family, perhaps your room is where everyone else hangs out. This buzz of activity is hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep, right?
One way to start getting a better sleep is to strengthen the association that the bedroom is for sleeping (and intimacy). That means no watching TV in bed, no eating, no working, nothing, nada, zilch! What you’re aiming for is almost a Pavlovian response—as soon as you go into your bedroom, you should feel the urge to sleep.
In addition to limiting the activities that go on in your bedroom, there are things you can do to make your room even more welcoming and soothing. Temperature is sometimes a big part of why we don’t get a good night’s sleep. If you feel too hot or too cold, adjust your room’s temperature, change the bedding, or switch up your sleep clothes. It used to be said that sleeping in a cold room was best, but really, it’s whatever feels best for you.
Most people report that sleeping in darkness helps them sleep better. Our circadian rhythm (the biological clock that makes us be awake during the day and asleep at night) is largely affected by light. There’s a complicated biochemical explanation, but the crux of it is this: sleeping in the dark helps our brains realize it is nighttime and sleep time. This is another reason why looking at your phone or laptop in bed is a bad idea: the blue light emitted by the screen inhibits the chemical in our brains that makes us feel sleepy. Consider buying heavy curtains for your windows or wearing a sleep mask.
Finally, pay special attention to what you’re sleeping on. While changing your sleep schedule, exercise habits, and bedroom environment can help you sleep better, an uncomfortable mattress and pillow will make it absolutely impossible to get a good night’s sleep. You should change your pillows every six months or so, though it depends on the material. As for the mattress, if you purchased it more than 10 years ago, you may be starting to feel the signs that your mattress is not what it used to be. For an innerspring mattress, it may feel like the springs are poking your body. For a foam mattress, the surface that used to spring back into shape quickly may be taking longer. A sag in the middle of the bed, where you most often rest, is also an indicator that you should get a new mattress. If all this sounds familiar, especially if you’ve felt a difference in the quality of your sleep, you should consider buying a new mattress. Check out our Top 10 Mattresses page to find the best companies that sell mattresses online. Sweet dreams!