I will give you my favorite, neuroscience-based tips to sleep better. Before I go into depth on this topic, I want to emphasize that everyone is different. Some people may need more sleep than others. Some people may find that certain tips to improve sleep quality don’t work for them—this is perfectly okay AND normal.
It is important to not think that you are forever cursed to sleep badly if you have tried a lot of different things that have not been helpful. There are many ways and methods to try to get better sleep, and giving yourself permission and time to explore these different ways can, hopefully, reduce any anxieties or stresses related to sleep that you may have developed over time.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule as much as possible.
Going to sleep around the same time and waking up at the same time can really help improve your ability to sleep as well as your sleep quality. Obviously, there will be times when you are traveling, on holiday, or having a fun night out, that will interrupt this schedule. However, if you can stick to a sleep schedule as much as possible, it can improve your sleep patterns as it helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, which will make your time asleep more restorative.
One great way to set a sleep schedule is to develop habits or rituals for both going to sleep and for waking up. For example, you can read a few pages or chapters of a book before turning off the lights, play some relaxing music as you shower and get ready for bed, or do a quick meditation for sleeping. Even journaling or drinking a warm cup of tea are excellent habits to develop before sleeping!
Journaling is also great when you wake up. I personally like to list 3 things I want to do that day after I have brushed my teeth and done a few push-ups and stretches to get my adrenaline flowing.
There are many different rituals you can set as you prepare to sleep and when you wake up, which will help get your brain and body into a habit-forming mode. Just make sure your nighttime habits are lower stimulation, which will help you get into a good state of mind.
2. Reduce your light exposure before bed.
I know this has been talked about many times, but it really is important to try to reduce all light exposure before bed, not just blue or green light. Even when we close our eyes, light can still go through our eyelids, and this signals to our body that it is time to wake up and stay awake. The light can trick our brain into thinking that it is day time, and, in turn, disrupt important sleep hormones like melatonin from being released. If possible, try to dim your lights as you perform your nighttime rituals to prepare your brain for upcoming sleep.
Some people may like to sleep with a nightlight, or may not be comfortable in complete darkness, and that is perfectly okay. Just try to reduce your light exposure as much as possible, and particularly your exposure to natural and artificial blue light-especially if you battle with falling and staying asleep. Natural and blue light can have a significant effect on our biology, increasing our energy levels and alertness, as human eyes aren’t good at blocking them out. Almost all of it passes straight through to the back of our retina.
In fact, although controlling exposure to all colors of light helps control your natural sleep-and-wake cycle (or circadian rhythm), blue light, more so than any other color, can mess with the body’s ability to prepare for sleep because it blocks a hormone called melatonin, which makes us tired (as I mentioned earlier). This is why many researchers recommend dimming your smart phone or computer as you get closer to your bed time, or even putting your phone away as you are about to fall asleep or an hour before bed. You may even want to try using blue light blocking glasses or even download some apps that help you get rid of blue light on your smartphone.
3. Watch your temperature, both internally and externally.
Your body’s internal temperature shifts during a 24-hour period. This is known as your circadian rhythm. Your body begins to shed warmth right about the time you go to bed and continues to cool down until reaching its low point near daybreak, at around 5 a.m. Your body cools by expanding the blood vessels in your skin. When your temperature starts to drop at night, you may notice that your hands and feet get warmer initially. This is because your body is letting heat escape through them to reduce your core temperature.
Sleeping when it is warm can disrupt the quality of your sleep. Since your body decreases its temperature when it sleeps, keeping the room you sleep in cool will help your body maintain this decreased temperature, reduce disruptions in your sleeping patterns, and balance melatonin levels .
An easy way to reduce your inner temperature before falling asleep is to (paradoxically) take a hot bath. Research shows that hot water can help your body relax while also dilating your blood vessels, which means that your body temperature drops quite a bit. It is recommended that you take the bath 90 minutes to 2 hours before bed so that your body has time to cool down, rather than jumping into bed the moment you get out of the bath. When you do this, the hot water helps change your body’s core temperature, so that you go to bed with a lower temperature and can possibly sleep better. If you’re not fond of baths, hot showers can have a similar effect.
You can also try using a frozen or cool washcloth on your head or feet before bed, as this is where we generally sweat the most; cooling down these areas may help regulate your body temperature.
Cooling off your pulse points may also expand the cooling effect to the rest of your body. To do this, use ice packs to cool off pulse points like your ankles, wrists, the backs of your knees, and the crooks of your elbows. Do this for about 20 minutes at a time.
You can also keep a glass of cold ice water near your bed to help maintain your temperature and stay hydrated.
To keep your sleeping environment cool, turn the air conditioner down, use room fans, or buy a cooling mattress, pad or blanket. There are even temperature regulating pillows, sheets, and blankets. If you don’t have air conditioning in your home, there are a couple of ways you can make your own DIY AC unit. One simple way to do this is by placing a bowl full of ice cubes in the path of the airflow coming from a fan. Another way to do this is by cutting off the bottom end of two soda bottles, strapping them to the back of a fan, and filling the bottles with ice. You can even put your sheets in the freezer! Before bed, place your bed sheets in a bag and freeze them for about an hour. Although the frozen sheets won’t stay cold for an entire night, they will hopefully stay cold enough to cool you down as you drift off to sleep.
There are many other great tips online that can help you stay cool at night, so don’t give up if something doesn’t work for you! Keep trying different things.
4. Don’t exercise right before bed.
If you like to exercise at night, try do it around 3 to 4 hours before going to bed. Tiring yourself out can definitely help you fall asleep, but working out too close to bedtime might have a negative impact on your ability to sleep.
Not only does exercise get your adrenaline flowing, but also raises your inner body temperature. However, working out long enough before bedtime can have similar effects on cooling the body temperature as the hot bath/shower. Exercise also releases endorphins, which can boost your mood, but a big increase in endorphins right before sleeping may have a negative effect, affecting your brain and body’s ability to get into a relaxed state before bed.
One good way of finding the best time to exercise that suits your body is to try to establish a routine. Regardless of when you prefer to work out, try as much as you can to be consistent, and your body will likely adjust to that schedule. If you like to work out more than once a day, try to do the higher intensity and cardio or aerobic exercises earlier in the day, and stick to more relaxed ones at night (such as yoga).
But when it comes to exercise, the most important thing to do is to find what works for you and your body, and just try to give yourself enough time to relax before bed. Experiment with what timing is best for you!
5. Try to avoid sleeping pills as much as possible.
When you take sleeping pills, the quality of your sleep will not be as restorative compared with falling asleep naturally—these medications should only be used as a last resort or when medically necessary. They are essentially sedatives, and sedation is not like a natural sleep cycle.
Sleeping pills work by targeting specific receptors in the brain that stop specific brain cells from firing. Chiefly, sleeping pills affect the cortex, which is tissue on the top part of the brain, and put people into a state of unconsciousness.
There have also been several studies that seem to indicate that many of the effects of sleeping pills are mainly from placebo. Many people also experience negative side effects from these pills, including the development of long-term dependency in certain people.
Natural sleep aids are generally safer, but may not help many people. Natural sleep aids like melatonin are better as short term solutions rather than something you take all the time. They can lead to grogginess, and taking them over long periods of time can end up making the supplement less effective.
Dietary supplements like melatonin are also not as regulated in the US, and the quality of melatonin or other natural supplements varies a lot.
6. Try to avoid drinking before bed.
Alcohol can also impact your quality of sleep. If you use it to help you fall asleep, it is acting more like a sedative (like sleeping pills), and turning off parts of your brain that usually use the time you are asleep to sort through your thoughts, which also can impact how you feel when you wake up.
7. Work on your mental state.
Often, people who struggle with sleep find that it is due to their mental state. By talking to people or working through the issues you are facing (using mind management methods like the Neurocycle, which I talk about often and discuss in detail my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle), you may find that the quality of your sleep improves dramatically.
Chaotic and toxic thoughts need to be embraced, acknowledged, isolated and compartmentalized in order to be processed and reconceptualized in a healthy fashion—they should never be ignored or suppressed, or they can impact how you sleep at night. You can do this proactively by getting into a regular 7 to 15-minute mind detox routine. Just 7 to 15 minutes a day of detoxing your mind can improve your sleeping patterns because you are cleaning up the mental mess in your head and getting your mind right before bed, which helps your brain and body regenerate at night and helps you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.
This will not be a “quick-fix” or magic bullet. It is important to remember that there is no quick fix for detoxing your mind and brain; capturing thoughts and reconceptualizing them is a lifestyle. This is basic mental self-care, as necessary as bathing and cleaning your teeth. It keeps your brain healthy and heals the brain damage from toxic thinking, which may be contributing to keeping you awake.
Generally, our brain activity fluctuates during sleep. There is NREM sleep (non-rapid-eye movement) when our brain activity is usually slower, and REM sleep (rapid eye movement) when our brain activity increases—this is usually when we dream more intensely. These different stages have a very strong effect on our emotional and mental health. When we are sleeping, the brain is working through our memories and thoughts, and this is a necessary part of managing our emotions; a lack of quality sleep can be harmful to the consolidation of positive emotions. This is why many people find it easy to fall into a negative cycle where increasing mental health problems lead to increasing sleep problems, and less sleep means worse mental health.
However, working through our emotions while we are awake can help prevent sleep problems that have a negative effect on our mental wellbeing. To this end, I recommend using my Neurocycle mind-management technique (mentioned above), which I talk about in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking!
- Gather. Preparing for sleep begins in the morning, as counterintuitive as this may sound. The way your mind is managed from the time you wake up impacts the biochemistry, circadian rhythm, and energy of the brain. An unmanaged, messy mind is an unmanaged, messy brain that will result in messy sleep. Gather awareness of your thinking. What is going through your mind? Are you anxious about something? How do you feel physically?
- Reflect. Reflect on what you’re focusing on as you wake up. Is it on the problems and negative aspects of the day or the bits and pieces of your dreams, images from TV, and undealt-with thoughts flowing messily and chaotically in your mind? What is occupying your attention?
- Write. If you don’t catch your thoughts with their intertwined emotions, information, and embodied physical sensations, this messy waking state can become a messy day, and you will feel like you are playing catch-up all day. So, say your thoughts out loud or write them quickly into your journal next to your bed.
- Recheckyour thoughts by breathing in for three counts and out for three counts, saying the opposite of what you reflected on; for example, say “I can only try to do what I can, and it’s fine if I don’t finish,” instead of “I have so much to do today!”
- Active Reach. Choose to put on a mindset for the day. Here are some more helpful morning Active Reach reminders:
- Write five things you are proud of yourself for—start your day off celebrating yourself!
- Write five things you are grateful for.
- Ask yourself not what you want to or have to do today but rather who you want to be today and how you want to feel.
You can also find several CBT methods here that may help you to manage your sleep issues and improve your mental health.
8. Give yourself grace.
Sleep issues can be very stressful and tiring. It often takes a lot of experimenting to figure out what is exactly right for your body. There are many sleep experts out there to consult if you feel like you have tried everything and are still struggling. Give yourself grace and be willing to explore all the options, including seeking professional help if necessary.
If you can’t sleep, try not to worry. Use the time to catch up on that list of books you have been meaning to read, or to do those tasks you have been putting off. Your body is really good at adjusting, and chances are you will catch up on the sleep you need later that week or even with a nap the next day. It helps to look at sleep over a period like a week or month versus nightly, because current circumstances and demands can also temporarily influence sleep!
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