I think we can all agree that not getting enough sleep is terrible. We feel cranky, tired, and don’t want to do the things we love. Yet prioritizing or even recognizing the importance of sleep is not something most of us do. While nutrition and exercise are known keys to health and wellness, sleep is often talked about far less but has HUGE implications for health and wellness. Matthew Walker, a rockstar sleep scientist who is one of the foremost experts on sleep and how it impacts human health and disease, says that every major organ, physiological system, and every process that takes place in the brain is either enhanced or impaired by the amount of sleep you get. In fact, according to Walker, getting insufficient sleep for just one week can impact blood sugar levels so dramatically that you can be classified as pre-diabetic. Poor sleep has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke, depression, lower testosterone, reproductive issues, inflammatory bowel diseases, and obesity.
On the flip side, good sleep positively impacts problem solving skills, memory, athletic performance, creativity, heart health, metabolism, and weight. If that isn’t enough, good sleep is associated with longer life spans and overall quality of life. So, yeah, sleep is important. The sweet spot with sleep is 7-9 hours, no more or less. Here are some tips to help you create healthy sleep habits so that you get better overall sleep and improve your health, wellness, and life.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule
While it may be a tough one for some folks, the single biggest thing you can do for your sleep is go to bed and wake up at the same time every day - even on weekends. Luckily there is a pretty big window for your brain and body to get all of the non-REM and REM sleep needed to properly function - anywhere from 8pm to 12am. Since some people tend to go to bed earlier or later, depending on their genetic makeup, the most important thing is to try to get 7-9 hours of sleep which is really optimal for the body to do the healing and regeneration it needs. It’s also important to be consistent with your bedtime (and wake up time) so your body can fall into a natural rhythm. The more you deviate from that consistent schedule - by staying up late or sleeping in - the harder it is to regulate your circadian rhythm and get the proper sleep you need.
2. Get natural light in the morning
Exposure to natural sunlight in the morning is one of the biggest ways you can impact sleep at night. That’s right - your morning habits can impact your sleep habits. The exposure to sunlight helps regulate your body's circadian rhythm (aka your body's internal clock). Aim to get at least 30 minutes of sun exposure in the morning unless you have a lot of trouble falling asleep at night - in that case aim for an hour of sunlight exposure in the morning. Also turn down the lights at night, if possible (use a dimmer, choose warm lamp lighting, salt lamps, or any other amber lighting). It can make a big difference.
3. Eat for good sleep
Incorporate protein, healthy fats and a serving of root vegetables, like sweet potatoes at dinner. Sweet potatoes are sleep-promoting complex carbs, are easy on the digestive system, and contain muscle-relaxing potassium. If you are hungry close to going to sleep, eat a small snack that helps promote sleep: 1-2 ounces of nuts (like almonds) contain melatonin, as do cherries; kiwi is another great fruit for sleep because it contains serotonin (which aids REM sleep and the natural sleep cycle), as well as bananas, which contain tryptophan and magnesium which are both sleep-inducing and muscle-relaxing. Avoid processed carbohydrates, particularly sugar and packaged foods, throughout your day. These can lead to hormonal roller coasters and negatively impact sleep (especially REM sleep).
4. Exercise (but not before bed)
There is a lot of research that shows people who exercise regularly sleep better and, interestingly, the correlation goes both ways. Those who sleep better are more likely to exercise the next day and perform better. It makes sense - not getting enough sleep makes us tired, cranky, and less likely to want to exercise. Sleep gives your energy levels a boost, as well as improves your fitness capacity and performance, so it’s a win-win to engage in exercise and healthy sleep habits. But exercising too close to bed (within 2-3 hours of bedtime) isn’t great because your body temperature can stay elevated post exercise for 1-2 hours, making it harder for your body to lower its core temperature in time for sleep.
5. Avoid caffeine past 1pm (and other stimulants)
Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant that can negatively impact sleep even if consumed 6 hours before bed; in fact, Matthew Walker suggests that it can take up to 8 hours to wear off in your body so drinking a cup of coffee (or energy drink) in the afternoon can negatively impact your ability to fall asleep at night. It’s important to point out that nicotine is also a stimulant so smoking or consuming any nicotine products can negatively impact sleep as well.
6. Don’t nap past 3pm
Naps can be a great way to catch up on sleep (especially short naps mid-day), but doing it too late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night. This causes you to get less sleep than needed and may often result in needing a nap the next day. See the cycle it creates? If you are having trouble falling asleep at night, try to avoid naps altogether until you fall into more of a regular nighttime sleep routine. Then aim for a post-lunch, short (20-30 minutes) siesta to re-energize you. Anything longer can send you into a deeper sleep and make you more groggy upon waking up. And anything later than 3pm can start to impact your night sleep.
7. Limit alcohol consumption (especially before bed)
While a small alcoholic beverage can help your body relax, drinking too much alcohol can really impact your sleep. Alcohol is a sedative which, contrary to popular belief, is not sleep-inducing; it’s sedating. Sedation is very different from sleep and doesn’t allow your body to fall into natural sleep cycles. It also negatively impacts your REM dream sleep which is a really important part of your sleep cycle. Going to bed drunk can often result in waking up in the middle of the night once the alcohol has worn off. If you do consume alcohol, try a glass of red wine with dinner; the antioxidant, resveratrol makes it healthier than other liquors. The food will balance out the sugar in the wine so that your sleep will not be hindered.
8. Make it cooler
Your body needs to drop its core temperature by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit in order to signal to itself it’s time to sleep. While the ideal temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees Fahrenheit, make sure the temperature of the room is no more than 68 degrees, otherwise your body temperature may be too warm which can affect sleep. Wear loose fitting clothes or better yet, sleep in as little clothes as possible.
9. Take a bath
Taking a bath with epsom salts is a great way to promote relaxation and better sleep. Epsom salts contain magnesium, a mineral that naturally relaxes the muscles and calms the mind, and research shows it can be absorbed by the skin (aka via a bath). Taking a warm bath also raises your core body temperature which immediately drops when you get out of the bath. This drop in core body temperature can help signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep.
10. Ditch the technology
Using your phone, tablet, or even watching TV before bed can distract you from quieting your mind and readying your body for sleep. The blue light from screens inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep, as well as throws your circadian rhythm off. They also inhibit your REM sleep - including delaying the onset of REM as well as how long you spend in REM - which is critical for bodily processes, healthy functioning, and alertness in the morning. The more devices you use at night, the worse the negative effect on sleep. They can also wake you from a slumber (with texts, alerts, or notifications). If you tend to struggle with sleep and find yourself staring at the clock on your phone, turn it over so you can’t see it. Try to stop using technology at least an hour before bed (2 hours is ideal but can be hard for some people). At the very minimum, stop 30 minutes before bed to give your body some time to wind down.
11. The bedroom is for sleeping (and sex) only
Make your bed a sanctuary for sleep (and sex) only. Leave the work for another room or at the office. Eat meals at the table and leave electronics for an entertainment space. If you can’t fall asleep (after about 20-30 minutes of trying), get up, leave your bedroom, and do something relaxing. Staying in bed awake can train your body to associate bed with not sleeping (which is the opposite of what you want) and can create anxiety that will only delay sleep further. Do not turn on the television or pick up your phone; instead choose something relaxing and less stimulating - like reading a book, relaxation breathing, or staring out the window at the moon. Just do whatever you need to relax your body and then try getting into bed again when you are ready.