If you’re on this page, then the past few nights (or more) probably haven’t been restful ones. We’ve all been there. Whether a stressful work week has your thoughts racing right before bed or a national news cycle has your doomscrolling until 3 a.m., or you’re up late thanks to artificial light or a sugary dessert, a lot of things can really mess with sleep-wake cues.
And you've probably heard advice about blue-light-blocking devices and organizing your bedroom so that it’s a sleep sanctuary, but if you aren’t organizing your day to give yourself ample time and space to relax during a set winddown routine, many of these adjustments won’t work. In fact, as you continue to lose sleep, certain other good habits may backslide.
“Sleep is the common denominator across all wellness disciplines,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Meaning if you’re not sleeping well, your nutrition, exercise, hormonal balance, and mental motivation can all go out the window, too.
To get good sleep, let’s start at the beginning of the day and look at what you can do to set yourself up for quality rest with a morning-to-night “how to sleep better” plan.
Tip #1: Stick to the Same Wakeup Time Every Day
“Notice I didn’t say bedtime,” says Breus. That’s because waking up at the same time each day is one of the foundational suggestions for how to sleep better.
Here’s why: “Our wakeup times are the anchor of our circadian rhythm,” Breus explained in a webinar for The Refresh Society, a membership-based wellness program. “If your brain knows what time to wake up, it knows how to go backward and figure out when to fall asleep. For most people, their sleep drive — feeling sleepy — won’t be a problem if they’ve got their rhythm stabilized.”
Hacks for a hassle-free morning:
- Prepare breakfast the night before for ease.
- Use curtains that allow some daylight to filter through.
- Move your alarm out of arm’s reach.
- Splash your face with cold water or take a cold shower.
Tip #2: Get 15 Minutes of Natural Morning Sunlight
Getting morning sunlight within the first hour of waking can help you sleep better at night. Breus recommends at least 15 minutes right after you wake up, as light is the driver of your sleep-wake cycle. Our bodies work on 24-hour circadian rhythms, so seeing the sunshine at the same time each day helps keep your internal clock in sync. (On cloudy or rainy days, filtered sunlight will still have an effect.)
Research shows that when your eyes take in daylight, it cues the body to produce less of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, and then increase production when it’s time for bed so you’re more ready to fall asleep (and you’ll sleep more soundly).
Tip #3: Start With Water Before Coffee
While dehydration can cause daytime sleepiness or fatigue, lack of sleep may also contribute to dehydration as well. If fatigue is your morning mood, Breus suggests heading over to the window with a water glass first, rather than a coffee mug.
“During the night, through breathing, we lose about a liter of water,” he says. He recommends drinking 20 ounces to rehydrate first thing, and of course hydrating throughout the day.
Tip #4: Exercise During the Day — Preferably Earlier
“The single best way to improve the quality of your sleep is with daily exercise,” says Breus. And that daily exercise doesn’t need to be complicated either. “I tell my patients, break it up: Do 20 pushups for five minutes, go for a walk around the block, take your dog out,” says Breus. “Moving every day will have a very positive effect on your sleep.”
Here are some additional tips to keep in mind for optimizing your exercise schedule:
- Focus on consistency rather than intensity. Moderate workouts like mowing the lawn or cleaning the house also count.
- Be patient with your progress as it can take months before the sleep benefits kick in.
- Don’t exercise too close to bedtime — try to get in that activity at least four hours before you plan to get to sleep. Build in time for your body to cool down, as that drop in temperature is part of a winddown routine. “That drop is what releases melatonin,” says Breus.
Tip #5: Quit Caffeine by 2 p.m.
Caffeine has an average half-life of five hours, but depending on the individual it can be anywhere from one and a half to nine hours. Elimination half-life means if you drink 200 milligrams of coffee, after six to eight hours, you’ll still have 100 mg in your system. “Though people have varying sensitivities to caffeine, it affects sleep quality for everyone,” says Breus.
What does that mean? When it comes to getting better sleep at night, the key is to quit coffee in the early afternoon, no later than 2 p.m.
Tip #5: Avoid Wine, Beer, or Cocktails Three Hours Before Bed
Unwinding with a nice glass of wine or a couple of beers is a nice way to end a tough day, but to prevent that from disrupting your sleep stages, you’ll want to control your sips.
“Alcohol almost obliterates [the slow-wave and NREM stage of] sleep,” says Breus. These stages can make up to 23% of your sleep, and when disrupted may cause more episodes of waking up at night. Not only that, because you’re spending more time in REM sleep (lighter sleep) you’re more easily awakened during the second half of the night.
If you do drink, consider having it three hours before bed and with a glass of water (for every drink). And you may want to keep it to less than four drinks. “After three drinks, the literature shows that people tend to get energized, rather than sleepy,” says Breus.
Tip #6: Eat a Balanced Diet
Ever stay up late only to find yourself extremely hungry and wide awake? “When your blood sugar is depleted, your brain says, ‘Uh-oh, we’re out of fuel,’ so it spikes cortisol, which wakes you up,” he says. This doesn’t mean you should head to bed on a full stomach, however. Instead, Breus recommends a 250-calorie snack about 30 minutes before you go to bed.
“Your snack should be 70% complex carbs, 30% protein — for example, an apple with some nut butter or a non-sugary cereal with almond milk,” Breus says. This ratio of complex carbs and protein is intended to help spike your serotonin, the calming hormone.
If you prefer not to eat, Breus recommends guava leaf tea. “It’s a little medicinal tasting,” he says, “but some of my patients have it 30 minutes before bed and it seems to help. You could also try a spoonful of raw honey.”
Other snacks to try at night:
- Turkey slices and cheese
- Yogurt, milk, or low-fat cheese
- Fruit, such as cherries, kiwis, or berries
Foods to avoid:
- Refined or high-carb foods such as chips, pizza, or fries
- Watermelon (too high in water content)
- Dark chocolate (has caffeine)
- Black beans (can cause gas pains)
Tip #7: Consider Magnesium Supplements
People with low magnesium levels often experience restless sleep, waking frequently during the night, says Breus. Magnesium plays a key role in many of our body’s functions, from regulating our stress-response system to supporting deeper, more restorative sleep by maintaining healthy GABA levels, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation.
If you want to know if you are magnesium deficient or could benefit from a supplement, talk to your doctor.
People who may benefit from magnesium supplements for sleep include:
- Older adults with insomnia: research shows magnesium supplements improve sleep in this group
- People with cardiovascular disease or diabetes and sleep deprivation: insulin resistance and magnesium loss may have be linked
- People with alcohol dependency: alcohol-dependent individuals have significantly lower magnesium levels
But if you aren’t magnesium deficient or prefer not to try a supplement, you may want to try sleep-time teas with chamomile.
Tip #8: Control Your Bedroom Environment
Dark, cool, and quiet — if the bed is your first love, this is how you should describe your bedroom. Grab good curtains and soft sheets, and check your thermostat. The general recommendation is a cool room temperature (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) to promote better sleep. “If your environment is too warm, you’re more likely to wake up,” Breus notes. Your core body temperature drops throughout the night, until about 3 a.m. when it goes back up. This rise in body temperature puts you in a slightly lighter phase of sleep, Breus says.
Other bedroom tips:
- Choose the right mattress for body alignment and support
- Invest in pillows that provide neck support
- Limit use of your bed to sleep and sex, not screens and social media
Tip #9: Engage in Relaxing and Mindful Activities Before Bed
The reason most people can’t sleep at night is because they can’t turn off their brain, says Breus.
Without any soothing distractions, your daytime errand list can become a source of nighttime insomnia. This is why many sleep researchers recommend journaling before bed. Research shows that writing down fears, negative feelings, or unfinished business (including to-do lists) encourages a more peaceful night’s sleep and may help people fall asleep 37% faster than those who don’t journal.
Other soothing activities to try before bed:
- Adult bedtime stories, which stimulate our relaxation response
- Winddown yoga or bedtime Pilates, which help with mindfulness and muscle aches
- A hot bath, one hour before bedtime, may help you fall asleep 10 minutes faster
Tip #10: Encourage Yourself to Fall Back Asleep
And those nights where you do end up waking up at 3 a.m.? Try to relax rather than getting frustrated or upset, which only causes more stress and gets your body too worked up to sleep.
“Flip the script,” says Breus. “Tell yourself ‘Great, I have three more hours of sleep.’” You can also tell yourself that you aren’t tired. This behavioral technique is called paradoxical intention, which is shown to help with insomnia and the performance anxiety around sleep.
If you really can’t sleep, focus on relaxing. “Just lying in a quiescent state, calmly with your eyes closed for an hour, is worth about 20 minutes of sleep from a restorative standpoint,” Breus says.
Extra Tips for How to Sleep Better
Starting from the moment you wake up until your head hits the pillow, there are many little habits that can affect your sleep. But not every habit affects people the same way. If you want to experiment a little more, here are a few more prescriptive tips for sleeping better:
- Wake up at the same time on the weekends to maintain your sleep-wake schedule.
- Spend time outside in the natural light as much as possible.
- Limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes only in the early afternoon.
- Use a sunlight lamp in the winter to help mimic daylight and maintain your sleep schedule.
- Limit sugar and refined carbs at night, as these can trigger energy spikes.
- Have your meals at least two hours before bedtime.
- Eliminate sounds with a white noise machine, earplugs, or a fan.
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