How to Sleep Better According to Science

Last edited on March 25, 2020

Sleep is precious. In a perfect world, we should get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, but for many of us, we’re lucky if we can get five or six on a nightly basis. If you are reading this, chances are you are having difficulty sleeping, too.

For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through. – Steve Jobs

To get a good night’s rest, you will need to sleep better and this will impact you in two ways. You’ll be able to sleep when you’re supposed to and you can get more out of the sleep. This means that you won’t be wasting your sleeping time trying to fall asleep and you will also need less sleep by sleeping better.

So, without further ado, lets get into how to sleep better according to science:

Sleep better infographic

Causes of Poor Sleep

Insomnia is a plague to modern society. An inability to sleep is a significant cause of low productivity. Before we can discuss scientific ways on how to get a good night’s sleep, though, let’s narrow down our scope so that our discussion is informative and concise.

We won’t talk about extraordinary, one-off situations that might disrupt your sleep temporarily. For example, jet lag is a temporary issue, and it will naturally fix itself. Instead, our focus will be on adjusting your circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour cycle of your physiological process. Humans, after all, are creatures of habit. More often than not, your problems with sleeping are due to poor sleeping habits and a lack of regularity in your sleep.

Ideally, you want to sleep between 10 pm to 6 or 7 am. Adjust your schedule as much as possible so that you sleep within this timeframe. Chances are you get to sleep much later than 10 pm, and you probably need to be up well before 7 am to get to work. This means you already have less than the ideal eight hours of sleep, and that meager amount of sleep is most likely of low quality.

The top reasons for poor quality sleep are:
• Stress from work preventing relaxation
• Overconsumption of stimulants shortly before sleep
• Poor sleeping environment

Stress

One of the more common sleep-related questions is how to fall asleep faster. Ironically, even when we are tired, if our stress hormone levels are too high, sleep won’t come to us. The reason for this is that stress triggers our fight or flight response, putting us in a tense state, and being tense will obviously inhibit your ability to relax and fall asleep.

Being tense will obviously inhibit your ability to relax and fall asleep

Stimulants

Caffeine has a half-life of five to six hours. That means that if you took two espresso shots at 5 pm, you have the equivalent of one espresso shot still in your system by 10 pm. Nicotine has a half-life of one to two hours. So, if you smoke, the stimulating effect of nicotine will prevent you from sleeping if you smoke too close to bedtime.

Poor Sleeping Environment

Man sleeping with distractions

What your ideal sleeping arrangements are is contextual to your lifestyle and preferences. Most people prefer a dark, quiet environment for sleeping, but some people are perfectly okay snoozing to Swedish power rock while in broad daylight. Just do what works for you—trying to sleep outside of your comfort zone is a common obstacle to a good night’s sleep.

Sleep environment also includes the time at which you sleep. If you’ve been working the night shift for the last six months, it is a big ask for you to tell your body to sleep well at night.

Sleeping Better

Now that I’ve laid out the obstacles to a good night’s sleep, let’s talk about the remedies. Sleep requires you to relax to the point that you fall asleep. Typically, this means that you are in an environment where you feel that there is no reason to be alert. The latter is why most people prefer to sleep in the dark or at least in low light conditions.

It also means setting up your body so that it is in the best condition to fall asleep.

1. Lay off the stimulants before bed

Woman sleeping after drinking coffee

Like I mentioned earlier, caffeine stays in your system for hours. Ideally, your last cup of coffee should be no less than three hours before bedtime. Even assuming you have a high tolerance to caffeine, your sleep will nonetheless be of poor quality if you drink coffee shortly before bed. The caffeine is still present in your system, and it will prevent you from relaxing completely. The same is true for nicotine and other stimulants. Avoid using these three hours before bed so that your body can relax and go to sleep.

2. No Screens or Work One Hour Before Bed

You should ideally turn off your computer and put your phone/tablet down for good one hour before you want to go to sleep. You need to relax and stop accumulating stress if you plan on getting any decent sleep.

Stress is a major cause of poor sleep. Stress from work especially triggers our fight-or-flight response and gets the adrenaline pumping in our system, making us alert. Unfortunately, adrenaline performs the exact opposite function as the sleep hormone, melatonin. High adrenaline levels have the same effect as having stimulants in your system. Your melatonin levels will drop, and you will have trouble sleeping.

High adrenaline levels have the same effect as having stimulants in your system

For the average digital native in today’s tech-driven world, it takes a lot of discipline to put down your phone or tablet an hour before bed. We are so used to being constantly connected that we keep our phones with us and stay online even when we are supposed to be sleeping. You have to give yourself a cut-off time, and studies just so happen to have shown that one hour before bed is the ideal cut-off time for you to turn off your computer, laptop, or phone.

Man using his laptop before bed

Anything that you have not completed can wait until morning. If anyone sends work-related emails after this cut-off ought to be trained to respect your time and either send it earlier or wait until morning. Chances are doing so will benefit their sleeping habits, too!

The same goes for social media and anything else you might be doing with your cellphone. Just like texting while driving—it can wait. With social media, there is a scientific reason for giving yourself a cut-off point—and it is the same reason you want to stop dealing with work. Social media stimulates us and triggers the pleasure sensors in our brain. We are excited to get the latest update from influencers that we follow or see what family and friends are up to.

If our brain is actively seeking the stimulation from social media, it will not relax to the point that it can go to sleep. You will sleep poorly if you overstimulate your brain with images, sounds, and “blue light” from social media and electronic devices before bed. Your brain is trying to process all the information, and this will be an obstacle to reaching the ideal REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that you need.

3. Exercise

Woman exercising outdoors

The human body is an amazing, highly evolved system. Another way we can take advantage of how our body is wired is to exercise daily.

Now, depending on your level of physical fitness, what amounts to exercise for you can be anywhere from a thirty-minute brisk walk to a full-on, high-intensity aerobic workout with weights. It is up to you to decide what level of physical exertion you are comfortable with. The main idea for our intents and purposes is to exercise just enough so that you will feel tired later. Again, how much exercise needed will depend on your level of physical fitness. Immediately after you work out, your body will have an endorphin high, so you don’t want to exercise within two hours of going to sleep. Don’t try to sleep ten minutes after you maxed out your heart rate sprinting on the treadmill, or just after you set yourself a new record number of reps for bench pressing.

The main idea for our intents and purposes is to exercise just enough so that you will feel tired later

After the energizing effects of your endorphins have worn off, though, you will more than likely end up feeling tired and relaxed enough to fall asleep.

You’ll most likely want to take a nice, hot shower after a workout, but note that if you exercise to sleep, a cold shower—or at least a colder temperature than your normal preferred temperature—is advised. During exercise, your core temperature rises because your body heats during physical activity. You will feel relieved and relaxed when the cooler water hits your skin, and it will also help soothe your muscles.

The cold shower will also help you sleep! To achieve sleep, your body needs to lower its normal temperature by one or two degrees. If you take a cold shower, you’re helping it get to that ideal sleeping point faster.

So give exercise a shot if you are sleeping poorly. This healthy practice will generate endorphins that will eventually help you relax and fall asleep. Afterward, take a cold shower to lower your body temperature, thus making it even easier to fall asleep. Not only will you sleep soundly as your body eagerly tries to capitalize on its gains from working out, but you’ll burn some excess calories in the process.

4. Consistency is Key

Moon at night

As we mentioned earlier, your body’s sleep cycle is based on something called your circadian rhythm. Ideally, you want to adjust it so that you can sleep between 10 pm to 6 am. I know—shifting your bedtime can be difficult, but you will have to make an effort if you want to get some quality sleep.

Humankind has evolved such that our bodies get the most benefit from sleep during the night—and yes, some people can adapt themselves to sleep during the day if need be. But studies have shown that we get the maximum benefit from sleep when we do so between 10 pm to 6 am.

umankind has evolved such that our bodies get the most benefit from sleep during the night

It might be difficult at first if you are not used to it, but trust me, and give it a chance. Your body will thank you if you can find a way to sleep during that ideal span of time.

If you need to shift your sleep schedule, you might need to give yourself some help. Like I mentioned earlier, exercise can go a long way toward helping you relax. Even if you can’t work out until 7 pm, you should still be all set to sleep well by 10 pm.

Another last-ditch method to help you sleep in a pinch is to eat a full meal with carbs—but not too soon before bed. Depending on how much you normally eat, a carb-heavy meal will likely induce what is commonly known as a food coma and might help you feel sleepy. However, this should not be a habit. Eating a large meal shortly before bed is a sure-fire way to increase your weight—and the digestive process could keep you awake.

5. Prescription Meds and Food Supplements

Prescription medication for sleep

If you have a particularly bad case of insomnia, or if the tips I’ve presented here don’t work, then maybe it’s time to see your doctor. They can prescribe medicine to help you sleep, such as Ambien or Valium, but NEVER (I can’t stress this enough) use someone else’s prescription meds to help you sleep.

You should limit the use of drugs and only do so upon the advice of a medical professional. Certain types of prescription sleeping pills can be highly addictive, and you do not want this to happen to you.

Natural supplements are an option but note that they have no approved therapeutic claims. Many people swear by the efficacy of these over-the-counter remedies, however. So if you find that they work for you, then there is no reason not to use them to help you sleep.

Get a Better Night’s Sleep

Sleep is about getting quality rest and recharging your mind and body. To give yourself the best chances of falling and staying asleep, you must expose yourself to ideal sleeping conditions. You will need to let go of your stress and disconnect from all electronic devices before bed. To fall asleep, you need to be able to relax—and exercise can help you feel tired enough that you can do so, in order to rest well.

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