We know that we need sleep. And yet many of us don’t get enough of it. About a third of Americans sleep less than 6 hours per night, according to a recent national survey documenting self-reported sleep duration among U.S. adults. This national trend is far from the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation for adults aged 18 to 64. Failing to meet this quota increases one’s risk for cognitive deficits, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and suicide.

“If you’re not getting good quality sleep and you are having a lot of awakenings, this can affect your memory and cognition the following day,” says Dr. Scott Turner, director of the Georgetown University Memory Disorders Program.

Sleep serves a house-keeping function in your brain. When you sleep, synchronized brain waves drive the flow of cleansing cerebrospinal fluid, removing waste products as well as proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. We know that when mice have these proteins put in their brains, they spread faster and farther when the animals are sleep-deprived,” says Joe Winer, a cognitive neuroscientist studying sleep at the University of California at Berkeley. He explains that scientists have been able to detect these same proteins circulating through the brains of sleep-deprived humans. “It seems that sleep is really important for clearing them out,” Winer says.

Insufficient sleep is bad news for your health. But you might be able to improve the length and quality of you sleep with fairly simple sleep hygiene practices!

If sleeping more is one of your New Year’s resolutions, we’ve got you covered. We have come up with a 31-day sleep challenge that incorporates many of the behavior changes that science says can help you get more and better sleep. If you rarely feel that you have slept well, don’t despair. Try the challenges we present below to figure out what works for you. Your goal should be to start small and gradually increase the time you spend asleep at night.

Do you often sleep poorly or have trouble falling asleep? Start by eliminating bad sleep habits, such as eating or drinking too close to bedtime or doing things in the bedroom that don’t belong there, such as watching TV or working.

If you occasionally feel well-rested and want to increase your number of good nights, find a way to better manage your stress (we have a 31-day challenge for that, too!). Worrying excessively might be the reason for your lack of consistent sleep. Also try to develop a relaxing bed-time routine, such as taking a warm bath before bed or practicing yoga and gentle stretching.

If you sleep well most of the time, you could still benefit from practicing good sleep hygiene habits such as limiting your caffeine intake to the morning hours, developing a consistent schedule for sleeping and practicing meditation.

The challenges below incorporate simple, science-based practices that can help you get better sleep.

Need more help? You can chat with sleep expert Joe Winer about your sleep questions by clicking the Connect icon in the lower right-hand corner of this blog post!

Sleep tip – Establish a safe, relaxing, calming space for sleep.

31 Daily Challenges for Better Sleep in 2020

Download a visual calendar of the following challenges here.

1. (Jan 1) A New Year’s Resolution: Consistent sleep!

Today, make a resolution to keep a more consistent sleep-wake schedule. That means going to bed and waking up around the same time every day – yes, even on weekends and holidays!

One bad habit that keeps us from getting quality sleep is failing to maintain a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking up. Sleeping in on weekends might seem like a good fix for poor quality sleep during the week. But it can be problematic.

“The problem is that your brain doesn’t really care what day of the week it is,” says Joe Winer, a cognitive neuroscientist studying sleep at the University of California at Berkeley. Making up for lost sleep during the weekend can disturb your natural circadian rhythm (a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours) and lead you to get less sleep later in the week. 

Winer explains that keeping a regular schedule throughout is good for your internal clock and will make it easier for you to get back into the swing of things after a weekend or a holiday.

2. (Jan 2) Enjoy the morning sun.

This morning, spend 20 minutes outside to infuse your brain with daylight. If it is dark or raining, enjoy some bright light indoors.

Every night, as you prepare to sleep, your body ramps up its production of the sleep hormone melatonin. But your body stops making melatonin as soon as it detects bright light and realizes that it’s daytime, which tells your brain that it’s time to wake up. 

Bright light essentially resets the timer on your body’s cyclical (or rather, circadian) production of melatonin. When you get exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light earlier in the morning, your body starts to produce melatonin earlier in the evening, which helps you to fall asleep faster. (Early to rise, early to get some sunlight… early to bed!) 

Not getting some bright light exposure in the morning may delay your circadian rhythm, or cause it to fall out of sync with the actual time of day, leading to delayed sleep onset at night. So to fall asleep more easily – go outside and enjoy the sunshine this morning and tomorrow morning!

Wake up and get some sun today to sleep better tonight!

3. (Jan 3) Fast to Sleep: Stop eating 3 to 4 hours before bedtime!

Allowing your gut to rest for a few hours before you fall asleep can help you to sleep better. 

A study showed that eating foods high in fat 30 to 60 min before bedtime negatively influenced sleep quality and reduced REM sleep, the part of the sleep cycle that helps consolidate your memories. 

The relationship between food and sleep is also bidirectional: Late night meals make you sleep less, and sleeping less often causes you to consume more calories, especially at night. A separate study, where people completed a week’s worth of food logs and wore wrist wearables to track their activity and sleep, showed that late sleepers (people who woke up at or after 9:30 am) had shorter sleep duration and consumed more calories at dinner. Their calories included more fast food and fewer fruits and veggies. Late sleepers also had a higher BMI, which in turn was associated with shorter sleep duration and higher food consumption after 8 pm.

So fast before bedtime to sleep better and stay healthier this year!

4. (Jan 4) Slow Your Roll: Keep your caffeine to a morning cup.

If you are having trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night, too much caffeine may be the culprit. Try to limit your caffeine intake to an early morning cup of coffee or a can of caffeinated soda or energy drink – at least 12 hours before you plan to go to sleep.

A group of 9 healthy men who consumed 200 mg of caffeine (2 cups of coffee) at 7 am took longer to fall asleep that night, even though their levels of caffeine had dropped to less than a fifth of what they were 16 hours earlier. Even if you’re able to fall asleep after drinking a cup of coffee, your sleep “won’t be as deep as it would have been and not as refreshing,” says sleep expert Joe Winer. Some ideas for caffeine substitutes: Herbal tea or a morning run — preferably outside —  to naturally boost your energy!

If you are someone who can’t live without your morning coffee, drink it early in the day and avoid drinking it midday or especially in the evening. You can also try decaf coffee or darker roasts with less caffeine. 

5. (Jan 5) Don’t be a bedtime screen zombie.

Avoid looking at any screens at least 1 hour before bed.

Blue light from screens overstimulates your brain and delays the onset of sleep. Sleep expert Joe Winer explains that blue wavelength light from screens can activate your internal clock and make your brain think that it’s daytime. Phones and other screens can also increase your stress levels.

“If you’re texting with friends or scrolling through stressful information in the news, that can make you feel anxious and make it a lot harder to fall asleep,” Winer says. “The light combined with the social component [of phones] tells your brain that it needs to be awake and alert.”

6. (Jan 6) Happy Places: When you’re in bed ready to fall asleep, imagine yourself on a beautiful walk.

A study showed that patients with insomnia who were told to picture a pleasant and relaxing scene fell asleep faster compared to those who received no instruction. This type of mental imagery keeps you from worrying or thinking negatively before you fall asleep. 

If picturing yourself on a walk is not your thing, you can also get creative and come up with other imagery! What do you like to think about when you’re falling asleep? (Avoid thinking about your next day’s to-do list!)

7. (Jan 7) Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation  recommends that adults obtain 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. 

Like Golidlocks, you shouldn’t get too little or too much sleep, but just the right amount, or 7-9 hours. Short (under 6 hours) and long (over 9 hours) durations of sleep raised the risk for a heart attack in a recent study. These higher risks were not tied to sleep problems like insomnia or known cardiovascular risks like smoking, body composition or exercise habits. This means that simply sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours on a regular basis is enough to increase the risk of a heart attack. On the other hand, sleeping between 6-9 hours reduced the risk of heart disease in people with known genetic risk factors. 

8. (Jan 8) Bath Time: Take a warm bath 1-2 hours before bed.

An hour or two before bed, enjoy a warm bath – perhaps with your favorite bath bomb, soothing lavender or eucalyptus essential oils, or muscle-relaxing epsom salts. 

A recent meta-analysis shows that a 10-minute warm bath might help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep, although not for the reasons that you might think. To fall asleep, your core body temperature needs to drop by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm bath helps your body to release heat by bringing your blood to your palms and feet!

9. (Jan 9 ) Meditate!

Today try to meditate for at least 10 minutes. If you’ve never meditated before, get started with mindful breathing. Focus on and even count your breaths, letting your mind explore all the sensations of your breath – at your nostrils, in the expanding of  your chest, in the tension and relaxation of your muscles. If your mind wanders to other thoughts or worries, bring it gently back to your breath.

Mediation during the day or even before bed improves sleep, sleep expert Joe Winer explains. He says that meditation can help you clear your thoughts and leave the stress of the day behind. Meditation, or taking a warm bath, can be a way to wind down before bed. “Having sort of a nightly ritual to clear your mind has been shown to be really helpful,” Winer said.

10. (Jan 10) Exercise!

Good quality sleep makes you more likely to exercise and eat healthy. On the other hand, exercise helps you to sleep better by physically tiring you out and relieving anxiety. 

Although the benefits of exercise for getting good quality sleep are well known, exercise can be overstimulating for your brain if you work out too close to bedtime. Vigorous physical activity — defined as being unable to hold a conversation during exercise —  within one hour before bedtime appears to have a detrimental impact on sleep. Earlier evening exercise does not impact sleep quality.

Exercise during the day to help yourself get better sleep. but give yourself more than an hour between your workout and bedtime. 

11. (Jan 10) Keep your bedroom dark and cool (65 F).

Increases in nighttime temperatures worsen sleep quality, according to a recent study. Core body temperature drops in preparation for sleep and remains low throughout the night, ensuring that you stay asleep. Keep a cool bedroom to prevent high temperatures from waking you up. 

Turn down your thermostat before you go to bed, keep a fan by your bed and keep your window shades closed.

12. (Jan 12) Eat a light dinner.

To improve your sleep, try to eat your high-energy dense foods and larger meals during the day, when the sun is out (or before 7pm in the winter).

In healthy people, higher energy intake at lunch is associated with a lower risk of weight gain. In fact, eating late influences the success of weight-loss therapy in obesity. Because energy expenditure is lower at night, it is advised to avoid consuming high-energy dense foods later in the evening and limit night-time snacking close to sleeping time.

During sleep, digestion becomes slower. Because fat takes longer to digest, you should limit high fat meals to at least two hours before bedtime to avoid discomfort and disrupted sleep.

13. (Jan 13) Refrain From drinking alcohol.

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not help you sleep. According to the National Sleep Association, after an evening of drinking we tend to wake up more often during the night and the quality of our sleep suffers. This is because when you drink at night your liver and kidneys work hard to remove the alcohol while you sleep. A 2013 study showed that a group of light social drinkers aged 18-21 had reduced REM sleep and woke up more often during the night when they consumed alcohol before bed. 

To maximize your sleep quality, limit yourself to one or fewer alcoholic drinks at night.

14. (Jan 14) Make a worry (later) list.

If you can’t help worrying and planning for the next day when you’re trying to sleep, start setting aside a few minutes one or two hours before bedtime. Use this time to write down the things that are on your mind so that you can put them “on hold” until tomorrow. You don’t need much detail – just enough so that you can remember. Add a note to yourself about what the next step is, or some different options if you’re trying to make a decision. Items on tomorrow’s to-do list and things you are worrying about can go on this list. This can help you to put your worries on hold until tomorrow.

Your brain does not work so great late at night, so you’re not likely to be as productive as during the day. Instead, allow yourself time to sleep so that you can return to the problems tomorrow when you’re refreshed.

15. (Jan 15) Relax Your Joints: Practice yoga or gentle stretching before bed.

Studies have shown that practicing yoga improves sleep quality in older adults and in women suffering from type 2 diabetes. Yoga has also been shown to increase sleep duration and reduce fatigue in men and women suffering from insomnia.

Learn how to get started with yoga here.

16. (Jan 16) Get Some Sun: Take a work break outside in the sunlight.

Infusing your brain with daylight in the middle of the work day can help you to beat any drowsiness you might feel during the day.  When you get exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, your body starts producing melatonin earlier at night, which helps you fall asleep faster. 

17. (Jan 17) Bathroom Break: Stop drinking fluids 1-2 hours before bedtime.

This might save you multiple bathroom trips during the night and will keep you from losing precious sleep time. Stay hydrated during the day, especially if you are fasting! But try to stop drinking fluids an hour before bed.

Young woman practicing yoga outdoors
Practice being fully present in the moment, with mindful awareness of your breath and reactions, at least a few minutes each day.

18. (Jan 18) Body Scan Exercise.

Practice this popular meditation exercise to help you sleep tonight. Finding a comfortable supine position (on your back) and lying completely still, bring your attention to your breath and then sequentially to each area of your body:

  1. Bring your attention to the top of your head and notice what you feel. Notice your cheeks and mouth and simply focus on feeling them.
  2. Move on to your shoulders and back. Notice how they feel. Perhaps focus on releasing any tension, breathing gently.
  3. Take your attention slow down your arms. Don’t move them – just become aware of how they feel. Notice your elbows, forearms and hands and fingers, and any sensations you can feel in them.
  4. With focused attention, gently scan down your chest. Then notice how your stomach feels – perhaps you can soften and relax it.
  5. Finally, move your mind’s eye and your attention to your legs, knees, feet and toes. Relax your muscles and notice any sensations present in these areas.

You might not get all the way to the end of the body scan – because you might fall asleep! That’s ok. 

Some people have trouble at first bringing their full attention to areas of their body where they often feel pain or discomfort. Be patient and kind with yourself. If you feel any pain with this exercise, kindly let your body move and adjust until you feel comfortable again.

19. (Jan 19) Practice deep breathing.

Practice this breathing exercise to help you sleep tonight: 

Take a deep breath. As you inhale, picture the air traveling into your nose, through your entire body and back out again. Imagine it traveling through all of your muscles, all the way to your toes and fingers, before it comes back out again during your exhale.

Focusing on your breathing activates your parasympathetic system, calming you down and lowering your heart rate in preparation for sleep.

20. (Jan 20) Give yourself an hour to unwind before bedtime.

Set the mood for relaxation one hour before it’s time to sleep. Read a book under dim light, practice meditation, or take a warm bath. Try to not think about the things you have to do tomorrow and just take some time for self-care. This might help you turn your mind off and wake up more energized the next day.

21. (Jan 21) Keep your food intake limited to sunlight hours.

A master biological clock in your brain gives your body a natural circadian rhythm, regulating your wake-sleep activity and making you feel like it’s time to go to bed at night

Keeping your food intake limited to sunlight hours will help reinforce your natural circadian rhythm, as both sunlight but also food availability set your internal clocks. This is also called time-restricted eating – and it improves cellular recycling or autophagy!

22. (Jan 22) Consider avoiding melatonin supplements.

Melatonin is one of the most common sleep aids. It can help you to resynchronize your internal clock under jetlag conditions, but when you’re stable in your typical time zone the impact of melatonin on the quantity and the quality of your sleep is debatable. Melatonin is marketed as a supplement, so it’s not regulated the same way that prescription drugs are. According to a study that looked at 20 different brands, not all manufacturers of melatonin supplements report the correct dose on their labels. 

Consider changing your habits before resorting to sleep aids. Exercise, eat during sunlight hours and find a way to manage your stress.

23. (Jan 23) Only go to bed when you’re sleepy.

This technique is considered highly effective, even as a stand-alone therapy, for various sleep issues. Going to bed only when you feel tired will help you associate your bed with sleep rather than with the anxiety of not being able to fall asleep.

24. (Jan 24) Don’t read, work or watch TV in bed.

Eating, reading, watching TV or working in bed weakens the mental association between your bedroom and sleep. Exciting and intellectually demanding activities before bed can cause you to have a less restful night. Reading can still be a good way to relax before bed, just try to keep it outside of the bedroom and do it under dim light. You might also want to read something light and enjoyable, as opposed to something for work.

Make your bedroom a sacred place where you go to rest.

25. (Jan 25) Avoid napping.

Deciding whether napping is a good idea depends on the reason why your sleep quantity or quality is low. If you did not have an adequate opportunity for sleep last night, taking a nap today is a good idea. For example, if you have to stay up late or wake up early such that you only have 4 hours of sleep opportunity, taking a nap will help you regain some alertness the next day.

But if you had an adequate opportunity for sleep last night (say 8 hours during the night in a comfortable environment) but only slept 5 hours, then a nap may lead to more sleep problems tonight. The most common reasons for poor quality sleep, apart from external causes, usually apply to naps as well, and so naps are not likely to be refreshing.

26. (Jan 26) Comfort First: Ensure a comfortable bedroom environment.

Are your pillow and/or bed uncomfortable? Is there too much noise or light? Is your bedroom too hot or too warm? Insomnia symptoms are associated with uncomfortable pillows and noisy  bedrooms. Certain bed surfaces might work better in getting you proper sleep — Medium-firm beds improved sleep quality by 55% and reduced stress in a study of healthy subjects with minor sleep-related pain. 

27. (Jan 27) Practice the 15-minute Rule.

If you are in bed tossing and turning for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something unstimulating. Read a boring book or try to solve an impossible crossword puzzle. Come back to bed once you feel sleepy again.

28. (Jan 28) Inhale, Hold, Exhale.

Practice the 4-7-8 breathing method to help you sleep tonight.

  1. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Slowly breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds.
  4. Repeat this process until you fall asleep.

29. (Jan 29) Scent your bedroom with lavender.

Lavender might serve as a mild sedative to help you fall asleep. A study found that healthy sleepers who sniffed lavender oil for two minutes at three, 10-minute intervals before bedtime showed increased deep or slow-wave sleep (SWS) and  increased stage 2 (light) sleep. All subjects reported having higher energy the morning after. 

30. (Jan 30) Try forcing yourself to stay awake.

Although counterintuitive,  making yourself stay awake while you’re in bed might help you fall asleep faster. A study involving 34 sleep insomniacs who tried to stay awake in bed for 14 nights fell asleep quicker than participants who were told to fall asleep without any instructions. 

31. (Jan 31) Forget about your clock.

Keeping track of how long you have been in bed without being able to fall asleep will only increase your anxiety. Block the clock to help you relax at night.

 

The above is not medical advice. Prior to participating in any wellness challenge, you are encouraged to consult a qualified health professional.