Have you experienced insomnia, or do you have trouble waking up in the morning? Do you normally feel energized or tired? Do you prefer to work in the morning or in the evening? In this article, I will share with you what I’ve learned so far about the science (or art) of good sleep!
I’ve always been a great fan of sleeping long hours, and fortunately insomnia is not common for me. However, I’ve always felt that my nights weren’t resting enough, I sometimes (almost) fall asleep reading, working, or driving, and I feel tired all the time. This hurts my productivity and my overall wellbeing.
During the last months, I’ve also had trouble falling asleep at night, with thousands of thoughts spinning around my head. Wishing to change that, I contacted a sleep specialist, Dr. Sandra Marques, to learn more about how I could improve my sleep.
Is my sleep good enough?
First of all, we need to know what we are talking about. Here are six statements for you to check if your sleep is good, according to the Sleep Foundation1:
- You fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of lying down.
- You regularly sleep seven to nine hours in a day.
- While in your bed, your sleep is continuous—you don’t have long periods of lying awake.
- You wake up feeling refreshed, as if you’ve “filled the tank.”
- You feel alert and are able to be fully productive throughout the waking hours
- Your partner or family members do not notice any out of the ordinary behavior from you while you sleep, such as snoring, pauses in breathing or restlessness.
My score is currently 2 yes out of 6, which does not constitute a good sleep. What about yours?
Not everybody is lucky enough to have a good sleep. According to the Portuguese Society of Pulmonology, an online questionnaire carried out in 2019, with a sample of 653 Portuguese people with age equal or higher than 25 years old, found that:2
- 46% slept less than 6 hours a day;
- 21% took more than 30 minutes falling asleep;
- 40% had at least one episode of trouble in keeping awake while driving, eating or socializing.
- 32% considered their sleep reasonably bad or bad;
Where are you in these statistics?
Why do I need to sleep well?
Sleep affects our health and quality of life in ways you and I never imagined. It influences countless processes and systems:
- The ability to memorize, focus, learn and make logical decisions;2
- Our humor and irritability;2
- Our immune system - studies show that people who don't get quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, and it may take longer to recover from sickness; 13
- Our metabolism - it affects our glucose and insulin balance, as well as the balance of the appetite hormones;6
- Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease;13
- Sleepiness increases the risk of car and work accidents and leads to mistakes and incompetence at work;2
After doing a sleep study, in which I had a device measuring several indicators of my body during a night, I discovered I have several sleep issues: sleep apnea (disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts), bruxism (teeth grinding), and restless legs syndrome (a nervous system disorder that causes an overpowering urge to move your legs).
Apparently they are relatively common issues and many people, like me, have them without realizing. These issues prevent proper rest and hurt the quality of sleep, so they should be diagnosed and treated with specialists. What about you, have you checked if you have any of them?
How can I improve my sleep?
Now that we have learned about the importance of good sleep, we need to know how to get there. I’ve collected a number of tips given by specialists on the best ways to improve our sleep’s quality.
1. Stick to the same schedules
Several scientific studies have found that it is essential for quality sleep to keep similar schedules of going to bed and waking up (including weekends and holidays), because your brain will recognize when it’s time to sleep. 3, 4
What about the right time to do that? According to Dr. Christopher Winter, Director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine Center, “There’s no right or wrong time to get up. If you want to tackle the day at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m., either is perfectly fine, just stick to that time.” 4
So, are you already making an effort to keep the same sleeping schedules, or do you change them all the time?
2. Prepare yourself to sleep
Our brain usually needs 30 to 60 minutes to wind down before it’s ready for bed, so prioritizing a routine before your target bedtime avoids getting into bed while your mind is still active4. Here are some good practices to try:
- Dedicate time to process your thoughts from the day and anticipate what needs to get done the following day4;
- Read a book in bed to relax your body4;
- “Find the enjoyment of simply relaxing in your bed,” says Dr. Winter4;
- Take a hot shower prior to bedtime, since the drop in body temperature is a physiological signal for sleep. 5
How many of these practices are you already using?
3. Set the right conditions for sleeping
Our body needs a few conditions to have the best night sleep possible, such as darkness and warmth. Here are a few tips to set the perfect conditions:
- A few hours before going to sleep, lower the lights at your house, preferring yellow bulbs;4
- Keep the room temperature at 18 or 19 degrees Celsious;6
- When going to sleep, keep the room dark and free from noise;6
- Make sure to invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow.6
Do you usually have all these conditions before sleeping?
4. Engage in practices that calm your mind
Many people, like me, suffer from stressful thoughts when they are trying to fall asleep. As you can imagine, it is quite counter-productive, since our goal is to calm down. Here are some tips to overcome that:
- Do a “constructive worry exercise” a few hours before bedtime, by writing a list of worries on a paper. Next to each one, write down whether or not it’s in your control, and if there is something you can do about it. In a third column, write down the next step you can take. For concerns that are not in your control, write down a self-acceptance statement, such as, “I’ve done everything I can for now, I’m going to let it go for tonight”. This way, your brain is less likely to ruminate on these worries.7
- Develop a pre-sleep gratitude practice, by writing down three things you’ve been grateful for that day. As little as two minutes of gratitude practice can help improve your mood and your quality of sleep.8
- Learn to stay present with meditation, mindfulness and breathing techniques. There are several apps and books that can help you with that, I’m currently trying Headspace and it has helped me to fall asleep a few nights.7
- Keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table. If during the night you suddenly remember something you need to do, write it down so you can stop worrying about it.7
Which of these tips did you find useful for your nights?
What do I need to avoid to have good sleep?
There are a few habits you can make an effort to avoid, in order to have better sleep. Some might be easy to skip, others can be harder:
- A habit referred by all specialists is to avoid bright screens at least one hour before bedtime. The brightness tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime and it delays melatonin release, which is important for sleep. They are also stimulating and can lead to bedtime procrastination and stress. If you really need to use them, switch your devices to night mode or wear glasses with a blue light filter. 4
- Avoid caffeine 4 to 6 hours before going to sleep: it’s a stimulant and it blocks the receptor to keep you from feeling sleepy, it also can reduce the amount of deep sleep that you enjoy.9
- Avoid alcohol before bed, as it suppresses deep sleep, delays REM sleep, is dehydrating, and is a muscle relaxer, so it often worsens breathing and can even cause sleep apnea.4
- Nicotine is also a stimulant, so it disrupts sleep and can raise the risk of developing sleep conditions, such as sleep apnea.10
- Avoid heavy meals or eating hard-to-digest food at dinner, such as fatty, fried, or spicy foods. Also, eat dinner early, so you don’t go to bed on a full stomach.4
- Don’t do anything stressful right before bed, such as working, paying bills or having difficult arguments.4
- The last one is less obvious: don’t exercise 3 hours before bedtime, as it has an alerting effect and it raises body temperature, preventing sleepiness.11
Are you doing any of these habits currently? Consider stopping them in order to improve your sleep.
What can I do during the day for a better night?
There are also a few things you can do during the day that have been proven to help you sleep in the night! Some of them are:
- Tidy your bedroom in the morning, keep your laundry and any unsorted mail or paperwork out of sight. “It’s calming to tidy up at the start of the day so you enter a fresh, neat bedroom at night. There is research suggesting that a neat environment helps facilitate the onset of sleep and better sleep quality,” 12
- Exercise outside or somewhere bright. “Regular exercise can be beneficial for healthy sleep, and morning sunlight is a strong stimulus to lock in your body clock and keep you on a regular schedule,”. It helps wake up your brain for a more productive start.4
- “Napping is great too, if you already sleep well at night but also feel the need for a little more shut-eye during the day”, though if you have problems sleeping, napping might not be a good idea.4
Creating new habits
Now that we’ve learned all of these possible habits to develop, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and think that it’s impossible to implement all of these changes. I feel that way sometimes! My suggestion is to choose a few new habits that aren’t so hard to implement, and later on adding other ones. Sounds good to you? Let me know how it works out for you!
Inês Freire de Andrade