Before we start offering suggestions on what to do and what not to do, it's important to address a few limitations to set the context straight.
We don't know you.
We don't know your family history.
We don't know your age.
We don't know if you experience occasional or frequent tossing and turning during sleep.
However, here's what we do know:
You are a human being.
Your physiology is almost identical to that of other human beings.
You have an inherent need for sleep in order to function and live.
You cannot ignore or escape this need.
Knowing that you are a human being, we can also understand that there are fundamental yet simple ways to improve your sleep.
This article aims to guide you through those fundamental principles. If you feel that you have already implemented them to the best of your ability but still struggle with prolonged difficulty falling asleep, we would recommend consulting a healthcare provider to explore other potential solutions.
There are seven key factors to consider. Mastering them all can significantly improve your ability to sleep. However, it's important to acknowledge that it may not be easy, as many people struggle with this for years. The best approach is to fully commit to each step and give it your best effort.
Your body operates on a biological clock, which helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. To enhance your overall well-being, it's crucial to align with this natural rhythm. An established routine around your sleep will help strengthen your body's internal circadian rhythm. Additionally, research is beginning to show that your sleep routines may be even more crucial for your health than the number of hours you sleep. Both should be prioritized, but this reinforces the notion that your routines are extremely important for your overall well-being.
To establish a sleep schedule, you can do the following:
Go to bed at the same time every night
This will help your body to establish a routine
Go to bed 9 hours before you need to get up
Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep on average, and we know that it often takes a few moments to fall asleep.
If you find yourself unable to fall asleep within 20-30 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a calming activity that clears your mind. Avoid turning to your phone or tablet, as the blue light, notifications, and stimulating content can hinder relaxation. Keep screens away from the bedroom!
In the beginning, it's a trial-and-error process to find what truly helps you relax. Whatever you choose, avoid engaging in activities that induce stress, such as watching the news, using your phone excessively, or doing chores.
What brings tranquility to your mind may differ from that of your neighbor, but there are scientifically supported elements you should consider when designing a sleep-friendly bedroom.
Keep your room dark - the darker, the better.
Keep your room quiet - minimize exposure to noises that could disrupt your sleep.
Keep your room cool.
This is a nuanced topic. While some sources may emphasize the benefits of daytime napping, it's crucial to consider the specific circumstances. To simplify things, daytime naps can indeed be beneficial if certain rules are followed.
The rules for effective napping are as follows:
Keep naps short, lasting no longer than 20 minutes.
Complete your nap before 3 pm to avoid interference with nighttime sleep.
When adhering to these guidelines, napping can provide a refreshing boost, increased energy, and improved productivity throughout the day. Who wouldn't want that? However, it's important to be aware of potential drawbacks. Studies have indicated that longer naps may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and excessive sleep can disrupt your natural sleep cycles, leaving you feeling groggy and less rested than before the nap.
If you work night shifts, napping may be necessary to help you get through the day. In such cases, it's advisable to schedule your nap as close as possible to the start of your shift to maximize its effectiveness.
As we mentioned earlier, your body functions like a well-oiled machine and thrives on routines. To help your body distinguish between day and night, it's important to provide clear cues. One way to achieve this is by exposing yourself to natural daylight. If you spend the entire day indoors, the distinction between daytime and nighttime can become blurred for your brain. By getting outside and allowing sunlight to touch your skin, you reinforce the natural circadian rhythm and promote better sleep.
Similarly, engaging in regular physical activity can significantly impact your sleep. Have you ever experienced a day filled with vigorous exercise or spent time hiking, only to find yourself pleasantly exhausted in the late afternoon and sleeping deeply at night? If you haven't, we encourage you to give it a try. The key is to strike a balance that works for you, as excessive or intense exercise too close to bedtime may have an opposite effect.
Each of us has a unique relationship with food. Some have a need to eat close to bedtime, others feel the urge in the middle of the night, and some struggle to sleep if they've eaten too near to turning in. There's quite a range in preferences.
How about beverages? You may have encountered individuals who claim they can't have a cup of coffee after lunch if they hope to sleep, while others insist they sip a cup right before bed without disrupting their routine. The reality is that both caffeine and alcohol can meddle with sleep unless they've been fully metabolised. The discrepancy lies in our varying susceptibilities to these effects. And while you might feel that alcohol makes it easier to drift off to sleep (due to increased sleep pressure), it will invariably compromise your sleep quality, every single time.
So, what's right and what's wrong? It might be tempting to say - "do what you feel is best for you," but that wouldn't be entirely helpful. In reality, there's a scientifically established preference that optimises the likelihood of high-quality sleep:
Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before going to bed
Even if you do not notice it, caffeine affects your sleep quality.
Avoid alcohol at least 4 hours before going to bed
That way, you give your body enough time to metabolise the alcohol and minimize the risk of having it affect your sleep.
Don't go to bed hungry or full
The less you eat - without feeling hungry - the final hours prior to sleep, the better.
Eating close to bedtime means your body has to metabolise and process food during the early hours of sleep. Overeating before bed can cause discomfort, affecting your sleep. If you're not feeling discomfort and wondering why to avoid late-night eating, consider the latest science backed by Harvard Medical School. It reveals that late-night eating influences:
The manner in which we burn calories post-eating
The way we store fat
The world we inhabit is rife with concerns and tasks awaiting completion. An essential principle to remember is that your problems can't be solved whilst you're asleep, and without adequate sleep, your ability to tackle them is hampered. The most effective strategy is to find a method that allows you to temporarily put aside these worries, only to return to them the following morning. Here are a few suggestions from us:
Jot down your thoughts on a piece of paper
If you have tasks pending, prioritise them for the following day and then dismiss them for the present
Develop a calming routine that diverts your mind, whether that's through music, an audiobook, or perhaps a breathing technique.
Daily stress is more the norm than the exception. Besides the fact that sustained stress over time is linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and accelerated ageing, it's also problematic because of its impact on our sleep. It's been observed that heightened daytime stress leads to higher average cortisol levels than we would have if unstressed. These elevated cortisol levels compromise our sleep quality. This isn't surprising, given that cortisol is the so-called 'stress hormone.' The greater the concentration of this stress hormone in our system, the harder it is for our body to achieve a stress-free state.
By reducing your everyday stress, you're helping your body improve its sleep quality.
For more tips on ways to change your lifestyle and biological age, click here.