How to Sleep Better
The Ultimate Guide to Optimize Your Sleep: 45 Actionable Tips You Can Try Today
Are you trying to figure out how to sleep better? If so, you’re not alone. According to the CDC, almost 40% of adults have a short sleep duration, which can be caused by anything from a bad mattress to a medical condition.
These days, most of us live in environments that are very different from what our bodies expect. From background noises to temperatures and the firmness of the ground below us, our lives barely resemble those of people living a few hundred years ago, never mind further back than that. It’s no surprise that there are effects on our sleep.
Each person’s case is unique, so there’s no single thing to recommend that will improve your sleep. More realistically, you may have to try different things until you find what works for you. Fortunately, since you’re going to sleep no matter what, it’s not hard to make a plan and try something new.
In this guide, we’re going to look at many ways to improve your sleep, from improving your routine and habits to avoiding problematic behaviors and identifying potential medical conditions.
Optimize Your Sleep Environment
One of the easiest ways to sleep better is by optimizing your bedroom for sleep. While your environment may not allow you to implement all of these strategies, using as many as possible should still help you on your journey to a better night of rest.
Keep it Cool
Many people live in homes that are too warm for optimal sleep. Experts recommend keeping the temperature between 60 and 67 degrees. This is roughly the temperature you’d get when living outdoors, with a fire nearby and some rudimentary blankets. If you have a thermostat, let the house cool at night.
Set Your Sound
Reducing sound can also help optimize your bedroom at night. Keep noisy devices like electronics off, and use earplugs if necessary. Alternatively, consider a noise machine. Evidence suggests that white (even), pink (deeper), and brown (even deeper) noise can all encourage a restful night’s sleep.
Opinions vary on why these work, but some believe that white noise has nothing standing out to grab our attention, while pink and brown noise resemble natural environments where predators aren’t likely to be hunting. That makes them feel safe, encouraging deeper sleep.
Bedrooms should feel restful at all times. Keep your entire room clean, or at least your sleeping area if you can help it. Rather than having a place full of things, the idea here is to have as few distractions that can grab your attention as possible. Try to avoid using your bed as storage during the day.
Limiting sources of light can also help you sleep better. Even if you close your eyelids, light that’s too bright can penetrate them and prevent you from sleeping well. To cut off exterior light, consider installing a blackout curtain. If troublesome light comes from within the room, a weighted eye mask is a better solution.
Did you know that scent can also help you sleep? Any smell that encourages relaxation can help with rest, so you have a long list to choose from. If you’re not sure where to start, try lavender. Studies indicate a strong correlation between using lavender and sleeping better, so it’s an excellent default.
Essential oil diffusers, candles, incense, and other methods can all provide scent, so pick whichever one matches your budget. Be careful with candles, though, as they can be a fire hazard.
Bedding is one of the essential parts of your sleep environment. People have different needs, so you may need to test a range of mattresses from very soft to very firm. If you can’t afford a new bed, a memory foam or latex mattress topper can provide a quick change in your bed’s feel. Although not perfect, this works well for most people.
Morning & Daytime Routines
Believe it or not, having a good morning routine can help you rest. By training your body to expect certain things, it can adapt to those, reducing any stress when you wake up.
Try to wake up at the same time every day. This includes the weekends. While it may be tempting to sleep in when you have the opportunity, keeping a routine is ultimately much better for your quality of rest.
Make Your Bed and Don’t Return
Once you get out of bed in the morning, make it look neat. This process is part of avoiding clutter and can help your whole room feel better. After getting out of bed, try to stay out of it for the rest of the day. Avoid eating, drinking, working, or watching television in bed. The idea is to mentally associate your bed with two activities: sex and sleep. Other activities are for other places.
Go Outside and Get Sunlight
Getting sunlight will help you wake up in the morning and set your internal clock in the right place. Ideally, you can see the sunrise. If not, using lights that mimic the sun can be a good alternative, especially if you have an uncommon sleeping schedule. Some people rig lights inside their house to automatically brighten in a way resembling sunrises.
Find Time for Exercise
Try to find some time for exercise during your day. 7 AM and between 1 and 4 PM are the best times if you want to wake up earlier, but exercising anytime during the day except right before bed is fine as long as you can do it consistently. You don’t have to do high-intensity exercise, either. Even something like using an exercise bike can help improve sleep.
Keep Daytime Naps Brief
If you want to know how to sleep better, limit your daytime naps, regardless of how tired you feel. If you must take a nap, try to time it for 20-30 minutes. If you sleep more than that, it can interrupt your sleep later and make you more tired. If you must nap longer, try for 90-100 minutes, which is a full sleep cycle.
Time Your Caffeine
Make sure to avoid caffeine in the afternoons. Stop drinking coffee, caffeinated tea, and similar drinks about 10 hours before you plan to go to bed. This gives your body time to process the chemicals and get them out of your system.
If you need something to drink before bed, a calming tea like chamomile or lavender can do well. Warm milk with honey, cherry juice, and water are also good.
Evening Bedtime Routines
Evening habits are just as important as morning ones. The more you follow a routine, the easier it is to rely on that and have a calming, predictable time before bed.
There are many ways to relax. Reading, writing a journal, meditating, listening to peaceful music, taking a warm bath, and having a non-caffeinated drink can all support relaxation in the evening. The goal is to remove any feelings of urgency before bed, allowing you to focus entirely on your sleep.
Dim the Lights
Start dimming the lights about two hours before you go to bed. This helps mimic the sun going down, letting your body know it’s time to start preparing for sleep. You don’t need to dim things so much that you can’t read or enjoy a drink, but progressively dimming throughout the evening can help lead straight into sleep. Automatic timers work well for this.
Watch the Sunset if Possible
This is similar to dimming the lights, but watching the sunset is a key part of managing your circadian rhythms. It tells your body what time it is, pushing you towards sleep. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy in every household, which is why dimming the lights often makes more sense.
Be Consistent (Again)
Just like waking up, it’s best to try and go to bed at the same time every night. This includes weekends when you might be tempted to go to bed early. Keeping a proper routine for going to sleep means you’re not expecting or focusing on anything else, ultimately leading to a much higher quality of rest.
Establish a Routine
Outside of having a consistent bedtime, try to have a longer routine before bed each night. Ideally, this will include things you can do every night, establishing a pattern that it’s time to rest. A bedtime routine should be 30-60 minutes, which is enough time to get through several actions without being too stressed for time.
What To Avoid Before Bedtime
While there are some good things to do before bed, there are also some things to avoid.
It’s always better to avoid alcohol just before you sleep. Alcohol tends to reduce REM sleep and can even lead to sleep apnea. The evidence is solid on this one, with studies showing that despite alcohol often helping people fall asleep faster, the overall effect is noticeably worse. Ideally, avoid having any alcohol after dinner.
We probably don’t need to explain why having caffeine just before bed is a bad idea. However, while you already know to avoid coffee, don’t forget that other things like soda, chocolate, some teas, guarana, yerba, and some chewing gums have caffeine in them. Avoid these foods and anything with these flavors.
Similarly, it’s best to avoid having sugar too close to bedtime. Sugar is an energy-giving stimulant, which is one of the reasons kids love it, but it doesn’t mix well with a restful night of sleep. If you need to eat something before bed, look for something without sugar in it.
Spicy foods are bad for sleep mainly because of the capsaicin in them. This ingredient raises your body temperature, which can make you restless when you’re trying to sleep. It can also cause gastrointestinal problems, and some people report that spicy foods tend to give them nightmares.
It’s fine to enjoy spicy food earlier in the day, but leave them alone after dinner.
Blue Light in General
Here’s the hard one for many people. Blue light is an energetic daytime light, so as long as it’s entering our eyeballs, our bodies tend to think it’s daytime. Sadly, many electronics emit this, including televisions, computer monitors, and phones. Avoid blue light in the 90 minutes or so before sleep.
Don’t eat too much after dinner. Some cultures don’t recommend eating too much for dinner, either, preferring to have lunch as the largest meal of the day. Digesting food takes energy, and the more your body focuses on that, the less it can focus on sleep. Essentially, eating a lot makes you active on the inside even if you’re calmer on the outside.
Lots of Fluids
Don’t drink too much, either. This works for essentially the same reason as large meals. Having a single cup of something is fine, especially if it’s water or a calm nighttime tea, but don’t start chugging an entire carton of juice twenty minutes before bed.
Movies/Shows that Spike Cortisol
If you’re watching anything on a screen before bed, try to avoid anything too exciting or engaging. Action movies, puzzles, and similar productions can keep you far more awake than you want to be in the evening. Use relaxing shows instead, especially ones you don’t have to think too much about.
Most video games are highly engaging, so they’re a bad choice if you want to wind down for the evening and focus on sleep. While some games purport to help encourage sleep, you’re still playing them on a screen emitting blue light, and we’ve already talked about why that’s bad for you.
Revenge Bedtime Procrastination
Finally, avoid revenge bedtime procrastination. If you’re not familiar with the term, RBP is the idea of staying up late to have free time for yourself that you couldn’t get earlier in the day. However, it tends to result in waking up tired and continuing a cycle of poor sleep, so it ultimately hurts you.
Exercise and Diet - How What You Eat or Drink Affects Your Sleep
Here are a few more things to know about the way exercise and diet affect your sleep.
Foods to Avoid
To sleep better, try avoiding heavier foods, including those with too much fat or cheese, or anything fried. If you’re going to eat them, do so earlier in the day. Also, avoid foods with high water content, too much tyramine, and anything that produces a lot of intestinal gas.
When to Exercise
As we mentioned earlier, the best time to exercise is anytime during the day, as long as it’s not in the few hours before bed and you can exercise consistently. However, the best results tend to be in the early to mid-afternoon, when your body has time to fully wind down the stimulation from exercising while still having a little fatigue.
When to Eat
The best time to eat dinner is about three hours before bedtime. This gives your stomach enough time to digest food, allowing the rest of your body to focus on relaxing. This is particularly bad if you sleep on your stomach, where the additional pressure can push gastric juices up your esophagus.
Foods to Eat
Good foods to eat include oatmeal, whole-grain toast, cheesy, yogurt, almonds, hummus, bananas, and berries. Most foods containing tryptophan can also help promote sleep, although turkey isn’t as good at this as many people believe.
The Role Water Plays in Sleep
Water plays an important role in sleep, as it does with most other bodily functions. The idea is to drink enough to remain reasonably hydrated, but not so much that you end up having to go to the bathroom. If you wake up feeling tired and dehydrated in the morning, that’s probably a sign that you aren’t drinking enough water before bed.
Remember, water is usually better than sports drinks or anything else with a lot of flavors or added sugars in it. Room temperature water is usually better than cold water because it doesn’t feel like a shock to your system. It also helps you stay hydrated because it’s easier to drink a lot of room-temperature water at once.
Common Sleep Disorders
Roughly 70 million people in the United States have sleep disorders. These are one of the most common health problems in the country, in part because there are so many potential causes. You already read about ways to treat sleep naturally, so let’s take a few moments to discuss genuine medical problems that can affect your sleep.
Sleep apnea is a serious condition where your body can’t breathe correctly at night. Normally, it breathes automatically, but interruptions can jolt you awake for a moment to fix this.
Common symptoms include snoring, fatigue, gasping for air, difficulty concentrating, and restlessness while asleep.
Insomnia is a condition where it’s hard to fall or stay asleep. As many as half of all people will experience the occasional bit of insomnia, and as many as ten percent suffer it frequently.
Symptoms of insomnia include waking up early, having trouble falling asleep during the night, having trouble falling asleep for the first time, and daytime issues like fatigue or poor concentration.
Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome is a condition where you have a strong urge to move your legs around. It can occur while lying in bed, but also when sitting for a long time. Most people who have this experience it mainly in the evening, when it can be distracting and make it hard to fall asleep.
Reported symptoms include a generally unpleasant sensation in the legs, or more rarely the arms, along with a strong desire to get up and move around. The sensations usually lessen once you move.
Narcolepsy is a condition where you end up falling asleep due to sudden, overwhelming drowsiness. This can occur regardless of the circumstances, including while driving, so narcolepsy can be severely problematic in daily life.
Symptoms of narcolepsy include excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and cataplexy.
Sleep Studies & Testing
The best way to determine if you have a sleeping disorder is to get tested.
Talk to your doctor first. They may ask you to take some kind of risk assessment, but if they believe you have a sleep disorder, the next step is usually a sleep study. This could be a polysomnography test at a sleep clinic, but some at-home sleep tests may be available depending on what your doctor suspects you have.
I Still Can't Sleep, What Now?
Here are some additional strategies to try if you still can’t sleep. The reason it’s best to try these after checking everything else is that using advanced techniques to fall asleep doesn’t help much if your environment is poor or you have medical conditions impeding sleep.
Practice Deep Breathing
Taking slow, deep breaths can help calm your mind and body. The trick to this is being mindful and focusing on a rhythm. Remember that this is breathing and not holding your breath. Holding your breath can quicken your heart rate as your body assumes you’re in danger, so just breathe in and out slowly and deeply.
Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Start by relaxing your entire face, including the muscles in your mouth. Then drop your shoulders to limit tension there, allowing your hands to drop to your sides. Exhale and relax your chest, then your legs in each section. Picture a relaxing scene for ten seconds.
Most people do not succeed at this right away. It can take about six weeks of practicing this each night to get it to work correctly, but this kind of progressive relaxation can be surprisingly effective in helping you sleep.
Try Box Breathing
While you may not be familiar with the name, you may have tried box breathing. Also known as four-square breathing, the premise here is simple. Inhale for four counts (normally seconds), hold your breath for the same time, exhale for four counts, and then leave your lungs empty for the same time before repeating.
There isn’t much research on box breathing yet, but many people report that it has positive effects on reducing stress and blood pressure. It can also help you get into a meditative state, which is ideal when you’re trying to fall asleep.
If 20 Minutes Have Passed Get Out of Bed
If you’ve spent too long and can’t fall asleep yet, try getting out of bed and spending a little more time doing something gentle. Avoid electronics during this time. Instead, try reading or listening to calming music. The idea here is to relax more before you try falling asleep again.
Contrary to popular belief, melatonin doesn’t make you fall asleep. However, it can help manage your body’s timing. Melatonin is a natural chemical with release triggered by darkness, and it may help drop your body temperature and provide helpful antioxidant benefits.
Other Natural Sleep Aids
Other natural sleep aids include a selection of teas, supplements, and herbs that specifically focus on sleep. Teas and herbs are usually the most effective because they can have beneficial chemicals in them. Supplements are less likely to work unless you have a deficiency somewhere.
Don’t Sleep In, As Tempting as It May Be
Remember, avoid sleeping in, even if you’re feeling tired when you wake up. Although it may sound counterintuitive here, the goal is to get more tired before your next rest, not less tired. This will encourage your body to fall asleep sooner, which can help you get on track for a better night’s rest.
Get Tested for a Sleep Disorder
Finally, try getting tested for sleep disorders if you haven’t done that yet. Home sleep tests can help rule out obstructive sleep apnea (a common condition) while being both affordable and educational about your sleeping habits.
Home tests can also help indicate whether you need a more detailed sleep schedule, which your doctor may want to see before they refer you to a sleep clinic. Either way, these tests are easy to get online from different providers and most are quite cheap.
Figuring out how to sleep better is a multi-step process. You may have poor sleep from several causes, such as a bad mattress, looking at electronics too late, and having mild insomnia.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to try and improve your quality of sleep. Optimizing your bedroom, establishing morning and evening habits, avoiding things that will keep you awake, checking for sleep disorders, and using sleep techniques like progressive muscle relaxation can all help you improve your quality of sleep.
Remember, the sooner you start getting better sleep, the more positive effects it will have on your overall health and well-being. Start taking control of your sleep today and implement several of the strategies above, trying different ones as necessary to optimize your rest. If those don’t work, get a home sleep test and see if you can pinpoint the problem that way.