By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C
If you’re looking to optimize your health, getting a good night’s sleep should be at the top of your list. Adequate rest profoundly impacts your cognition, exercise performance, and emotional well-being. Sleep loss is also associated with impaired hormone regulation, glucose homeostasis, and higher rates of obesity–increasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And when you’re recovering from injury, sleep is essential for muscle tissue repair.
Despite the abundant benefits of regular shut-eye, 1 in 3 Americans doesn’t get enough sleep per night. Here are four science-backed tips to sleep better at night.
1. Exposure to Early and Bright Natural Light
Exposure to sunlight helps to regulate your circadian rhythms–a natural internal clock that forms a sleep-wake 24-hour cycle. When light enters the eye, the retina signals to the brain what time of day it is. The brain subsequently sends messages to different body systems to continue running on all cylinders if it senses it is still daytime or settles into a restful state if it detects evening.
Exposing yourself to bright light, in essence, trains your brain when to be alert and when to feel tired, influencing your behaviors throughout the day. When it comes to sleep, research shows light exposure can help to improve sleep quality, sleep efficiency, and sleep duration.
2. Stay Active During the Day
There is no other daytime behavior associated with better nighttime sleep than exercise. Research shows that one exercise session can improve your sleep for the subsequent night, and regular exercise improves your sleep over time.
One study found that exercise sessions in participants with insomnia helped cut the time it took them to fall asleep in half, increased total sleep duration by 18 percent, and reduced night wakefulness by 30 percent.
One review found exercise positively impacted sleep quality and duration regardless of intensity, but other research points to moderate intensity being more advantageous than vigorous exercise. The impact of intensity on your sleep may depend more on how you react and recover from training, but a brisk walk during the day may hit two birds with one stone for better sleep.
3. Stick to a Sleep Schedule
Humans are habitual by nature, and your sleep routine is no different. Staying consistent with your wake and sleep times can create a pattern that your circadian rhythms follow. The more consistent you are, the more tired you will feel by bedtime and alert in the morning.
There is also a relationship between your sleep and eating schedule. Consistently getting up, eating around the same time, and going to bed at the same time can help to regulate your appetite and improve sleep. Life sometimes gets in the way, but try to stick within an hour window most days to reap the most sleep benefits.
Timing your sleep goes for naps as well. Daytime napping helps to improve alertness and sport performance in several sleep studies, particularly with habitual nappers. Research indicates short naps–10 to 30 minutes–provide the most significant return on daytime drowsiness without impacting your nighttime sleep.
4. Fine tune Your Wind-Down Routine
The hours leading up to bedtime can make or break how quickly you fall asleep, how long you sleep, and your sleep quality. While relaxation looks different for everyone, the hallmark of a science-backed nighttime routine includes lowering the temperature in your room, creating a quiet and dark environment, and performing relaxing activities (light stretching, reading, meditation).
Adjusting your environment for better sleep may also include:
- Bright light: Start dimming the lights in your home a few hours before bed
- Blue light: Limit exposure by turning off devices or using blue-light filtering glasses.
- Late-night workouts or large meals: Exercising or eating a large meal may make you more alert or disrupt your sleep.
- Alcohol and caffeine intake too close to bedtime: Curb your caffeine going into the afternoon and limit alcohol consumption before bed; both substances can significantly disrupt your sleep.
The bottom line: Sleep is an integral part of living a healthy and active life, but getting enough shuteye is an uphill battle for many. Manipulating your daily habits to improve your circadian rhythms and cultivating a personalized nighttime routine will be crucial for getting some extra Zzz’s.