If you’re not thrilled with the quality or quantity of sleep you’re getting, you’re hardly alone.
A 2019 survey conducted by the Philips corporation of 11,006 adults in 12 countries around the world found that 40% of the participants reported that their sleep has gotten worse in the past five years, and only 10% said they sleep extremely well. Want to join that latter group? Use this A-to-Z guide for improving your sleep and you’ll be on your way.
A: Avoid sneaky stimulants. Caffeine is the biggie, and it lurks in coffee, chocolate, tea, soda — even coffee ice cream. It’s best to steer clear of these four to six hours before bedtime, says Dr. Holly Phillips, an internist in New York City and author of “The Exhaustion Breakthrough.” Similarly, the nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes can rev you up, so if you smoke, avoid doing so in the evenings.
B: Buy a weighted blanket. Or at least consider it. Why? Because new research suggests that in addition to helping with anxiety and some forms of insomnia, sleeping with a weighted blanket can help ease chronic pain, which can interfere with sleep.
C: Carve out time to unwind. Research has found that making an effort to decompress before turning in — by doing simple stretches, yoga, or mindfulness meditation, for example — can help you relax and take a smooth journey to the Land of Nod. Plus, having a “winding down time, physically and mentally, in the evening helps you catch cues that you feel sleepy,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a psychologist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist based in Durham, N.C.
D: Design a sleep sanctuary. Your bedroom should be dark and quiet, with a comfortable, supportive mattress and pillows. It should also be free of clutter, which can trigger anxiety and stress before bed. To eliminate unwanted light, consider installing blackout shades or heavy curtains. And try to drown out noise from neighbors, traffic, or other people under your roof; if you can’t, try masking it with a fan or white noise machine.
E: Expose yourself to bright light. If you get a dose of bright natural light in the morning as well as throughout the day, this can help stabilize your circadian rhythms, including your body’s sleep-wake cycle. If you can’t get outside or sit in a sunny window, consider getting a light box. A study in a January 2022 issue of Sleep Medicine found that when older adults with dementia were exposed to ambient light at 2,500 lux in the morning every day for four weeks, they experienced significant improvements in their sleep onset time, sleep efficiency, and overall sleep time, and decreases in their nighttime awakenings
F: Find help for your sleep troubles. If you’ve tried all the usual tricks and tips and you’re still struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep soundly, you may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I, for short). This form of therapy is aimed at changing sleep-related habits and misconceptions about snooze control that can perpetuate sleep troubles. Even internet-delivered CBT-I has been found to improve sleep in adults with insomnia.
G: Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. If you’re frustrated because you can’t fall asleep or get back to sleep after awakening during the night, go to another room to do a relaxing activity (under dim light) or listen to soft music, advises Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and author of “TThe Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.” Return to bed when you feel sleepy again. This way you won’t come to associate your bed with not sleeping.
H: Heat up your feet. A study in a 2018 issue of the Journal of Physical Anthropology found that when people wore socks to bed in a cool environment, they experienced a reduction in their sleep onset time and sleep awakenings, as well as increases in their total sleep time. The theory: Wearing socks to bed results in more evenly distributed heat throughout the body which enhances the propensity for sleep.
I: Improve air flow. Especially in warm weather, research shows that using a fan to keep the air circulating in your bedroom can reduce awakenings during sleep.
J: Jot down your worries. In the late afternoon, give yourself 20 to 30 minutes to worry your heart out. Open a notebook or journal and spend 10 to 15 minutes writing down what you’re worried about; then, jot down what you could do to address each problem. When the time is up, close the notebook and tell yourself you’re done worrying for the day. This way you won’t take your worries to bed with you.
K: Keep stressful activities out of the bedroom. Don’t answer work emails or pay bills while in bed or have difficult conversations with your partner in the bedroom. Make it a safe zone for sleep, cuddling, and sex — nothing else.
L: Lower the thermostat. The optimal temperature for sleep is between 65 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit: “This range tends to yield the most sleep continuity, efficiency [the ratio between how much time someone spends asleep to how much time the person spends in bed], and depth of sleep,” explains Winter. “Humans tend to sleep better in cooler temperatures, whereas heat is disruptive to sleep.” If you’re concerned about being cold during the night, place an extra blanket (or two) on the bed that you can pull on or off as needed.
M: Maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule. Try to keep your bedtime and awakening time consistent from day to day, so you can get the same eight-ish hours of sleep every night of the week. “An hour’s wiggle room isn’t a big deal but more than an hour can lead to social jetlag,” Wu warns. (Social jetlag reflects a misalignment between your body’s circadian rhythm and the timing of your daily sleep-wake patterns, based on your work, school, family, and social obligations.)
N: Nap judiciously. If your energy and attention are flagging in the afternoon, taking a 20- to 30-minute nap can be restorative, Winter says. But napping longer than that could interfere with your nighttime sleep.
O: Opt for a soporific snack. There’s no reason to go to bed hungry. Just be sure to have a light, healthy snack that will put you in the mood to snooze: Try having half a banana with almond butter (for a dose of sleep-supporting tryptophan and magnesium) or cheese and whole-grain crackers (which provides tryptophan, melatonin, and calcium). Don’t eat a large quantity before bed or you could set yourself up for indigestion and sleep difficulties.
P: Put sound on your side. If you have trouble falling asleep, consider playing music that helps you relax. Research has found that the use of soothing music at bedtime can help older people fall asleep more easily, reduce night-time awakenings, and improve overall sleep quality. Alternatively, listening to “pink noise”— such as the sound of falling rain or ocean waves — has been found to consolidate deep sleep for older people.
Q: Quit stressing about night-time awakenings. Sleep disruptions are common. “There is a certain level of normalcy to awakenings,” explains Winter. “For some people, awakening [during the night] creates its own panic and fear that creates a self-perpetuating problem. It becomes a form of performance anxiety.” Accept that it’s normal to awaken during the night. Shrug off these minor interruptions, and you may fall back to sleep more easily.
R: Reduce alcohol consumption in the evening. While having a glass of wine or a cocktail (or two) in the evening can be relaxing, alcohol can act as a stimulant that kicks in a few hours after you go to sleep, which can leave you susceptive to micro-arousals and poorer overall quality sleep, Phillips says. It's best to limit your intake to no more than one or two drinks per day, ideally with dinner. Don’t use alcohol to help you get drowsy so you can fall asleep, advises Phyllis Zee, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and director of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. That strategy is likely to backfire.
S: Set a digital curfew. Turn off all electronic devices — mobile phones, tablets, computers, and TVs — at least an hour before you plan to go to sleep, Wu advises. The blue light from these devices delays the release of melatonin, the hormone that cues your brain that it’s time to sleep. Plus, using these devices is typically stimulating, which doesn’t help set the stage for your brain to sleep. Research has found that imposing a 9 p.m. curfew on the use of electronic devices with screens improves the onset of sleep and total sleep duration for teenagers. And any blue light in the evenings can be detrimental to toddlers’ sleep.
T: Take a warm bath or shower before turning in. Research on youth soccer players showed that a bath or shower helped participants fall asleep faster and improved sleep efficiency because being drenched with warm water promotes thermoregulatory changes that advance sleep onset.
U: Use good scents. Inhaling the soothing aroma of lavender, bergamot and sandalwood, tangerine, or Damask rose essential oils before turning in for the night can reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality, according to research.
V: Visualize better dreams. If you’re prone to bad dreams or nightmares, try a technique called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), which you can do on your own: The idea is to choose a distressing dream, alter the narrative or outcome in some way, then rehearse the new dream in your mind several times per day while you’re awake, explains Dr. Barry Krakow, a sleep medicine specialist in private practice in Savannah, Ga., who developed a digital download of the technique for individual use. The technique has even been found to help improve the dreams of people with chronic nightmares related to post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault.
W: Wear lightweight pajamas. This will help optimize your body’s ability to cool itself in a warm environment. Similarly, it can help to try cooling bed technology— mattress pads, pillows, sheets, and more — if you tend to get night sweats or are sleeping in hot, humid conditions.
X: X-ercise in the afternoon. Exercising for at least 30 minutes every day can help you sleep better at night, partly because physical activity helps regulate circadian rhythms, but also because it helps relieve stress and anxiety. Just don’t do it too close to bedtime because that can make it harder to fall asleep, for some people. Interestingly, a 2019 study from Australia found that doing 30 minutes of higher-intensity interval exercise between 2 and 4 p.m. had a greater effect on improving sleep quality than moderate-intensity continuous exercise did in overweight, inactive men.
Y: Yield to the urge to snooze. When you find yourself yawning frequently or struggling to keep your eyes open while reading in the evening, heed these as signs that it’s time to go to bed and ditch the late-night chores. “Try to make it so you can sleep at the time your body wants to,” Wu says.
Z: Zero in on how much sleep you need to thrive. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to feel and function at their best, but sleep needs vary somewhat, Winter says. Find your own sweet spot and aim to get that much slumber on a nightly basis.