You’ve put on your PJs and you’ve cuddled into bed, but hours later you’re still awake. For a lot of people, turning off the lights and getting under the covers is not enough to get a good night’s sleep.

The bad news is that your health suffers if you don’t get enough and proper rest. Study after study shows us the scary effects of not getting shut-eye: Increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, inability to consolidate memories, inability to remove waste from the brain, a compromised immune system, an increased risk of heart disease and an increased risk of depression and suicide.

The good news is that you can probably improve the length and quality of your sleep with fairly simple sleep hygiene practices!

To improve your chances of falling asleep, Joe Winer, a cognitive neuroscientist studying sleep at the University of California at Berkeley recommends that you eliminate poor habits that lead to bad sleep. These include having an irregular sleep schedule, consuming caffeine close to bedtime and drinking alcohol. 

Chat with Joe about your sleep questions today! Click the Connect icon in the lower righthand corner of this blog post!

Here are some simple practices that science says can help you get better sleep.

Develop a consistent sleep-wake schedule

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 Winer. 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. He explains that keeping a regular schedule throughout is good for your internal clock and will also help you hate Mondays a bit less.

Can’t fall asleep at bedtime? You might have a delayed circadian rhythm.

Spend 20 minutes outside during the morning 

Melatonin is produced at night in preparation for sleep. Your body stops making it as soon as it realizes it’s daytime, which tells your brain it’s time to wake up. In other words, bright light essentially resets the timer on your body’s production of melatonin. When you get exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, your body starts producing melatonin earlier in the evening, which helps you fall asleep sooner and faster. 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.

Avoid caffeine 12-14 hours before bed

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,” Winer explains. Some ideas for 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. 

Stop eating 3-4 hours before bedtime

A study showed that eating foods high in fat 30–60 min before bedtime negatively influenced sleep quality and reduced REM sleep— the part of the sleep cycle where  there is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional and autobiographical memory regions of the brain. The relationship between food and sleep is bidirectional: Late night meals make you sleep less, and sleeping less often causes you to consume more calories. 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.

Avoid caffeine for better sleep.

Avoid looking at screens 1 hour before bed

Blue light from screens overstimulates your brain and delays the onset of sleep. A study showed that one hour of iPad reading blocked the release of melatonin by 50% compared to 1 hour of reading a paper book in dim light. 

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,” he says. “The light combined with the social component [of phones] tells your brain that it needs to be awake and alert.”

Take a warm bath 1-2 hours before bed 

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 would think. To fall asleep, your core body temperature needs to drop by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm bath helps you release heat by bringing your blood to your palms and feet. 

Meditate for 10 minutes

Winer explains that some studies have shown that people report getting better sleep after meditating during the day or even before bed. 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,” says Winer. 

Get started with mindful breathing and meditation here.

Refrain from drinking alcohol

According to the National Sleep Association, after an evening of drinking we tend to wake up more often and we get little or no REM sleep. This is because when you drink at night your liver and kidneys work hard to remove the alcohol while you sleep. A 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. 

“Alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep because it’s a sedative,” Winer says. “But it has been shown to impact the quality of both REM sleep and slow wave sleep.” This makes waking up during the night a lot more likely and reduces the restorative power of sleep.

Exercise for better sleep.

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. However, earlier evening exercise does not impact sleep quality.

Exercise at any time but give yourself more than an hour between your workouts and going to bed. 

Keep a cool bedroom (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 interrupting your sleep.


Luisa Torres, PhD

I'm the science communication/social media specialist at LifeOmic. I am also the Editor in chief and manager of the LIFE Apps blogging community. I am a neuroscientist by training who has written for NPR's blogs 'Shots', 'Goats and Soda', and 'The Salt'. Check out my instagram page (@nailsciart) for stories about science using nail art.

LifeOmic® is the software company that leverages the cloud, machine learning and mobile devices to offer disruptive solutions to healthcare providers, researchers, health IT companies and patients.

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