I think we can all agree that sleep is one of the most restorative things we can do, for both our minds and our bodies. It can remove mental and physical stressors, and rejuvenate us down to the cellular level. In college, we’ve been taught to value our sleep, because that’s when the real “learning” happens, as this is the time when our brains process information and store it for long-term use.
Now that you know why sleep is important (like I really needed to tell you), let’s look how to improve your sleep.
Here are 6 steps you can take to achieving a better sleep tonight:
- Eliminate light
- Eliminate sound
- Slow your thoughts
- Calm down the body
- Develop a bedtime routine
- Track your sleep
It’s proven that a darker room, devoid of unnatural light, can provide a better nights sleep. That’s because your eyes and brain – which are connected by the way – are able to see the light, even while you’re sleeping. And if it’s too bright, or intermittent, it can be very disturbing. In caveman times, a light a night would indicate danger by fire.
Draw your shades. Purchase some thicker shades or a good set of blackout curtains. Do not use a night light. And put your phone on do not disturb (better yet, keep it outside the bedroom at night).
Sound, or lack thereof, is another critical component to getting a good nights rest. Like light, sound is another trigger to your Brian that danger is afoot. While some sounds are necessary – carbon monoxide and smoke detectors – the rest are not.
Some things you can do to reduce external sounds:
- Wear earplugs
- Use a white noise machine
- Close doors
- Hang up some artwork: when you have objects hung up on the wall, noise is muffled and echo is reduced. This is fantastic if there are any noises inside or surrounding your home.
- Play soft music
- Investigate the source of the noise, and aim to reduce or eliminate it.
Everyone knows that if their mind is racing they will have difficulty falling asleep.
No matter what, do not watch (or read) something scary or overly though provoking or scary. These things will continue to play back in your mind and you will struggle to shake them from your thoughts. Often times, there’s not a whole lot you can do here.
I remember back in high school, one of the most important nights for me was the night before the ACT standardized test. I got everything planned out for the next day, but I’ll admit I was a little nervous. Pouring through practice guides (and pretty much whatever I could get my hands on) until the last minute was my style. The more, the better, I thought.
When my head finally hit the pillow I found I could not sleep. I just laid there and laid there for probably 6 hours. To me, it felt like I didn’t get any sleep at all. Who really knows how much sleep I really got that night, but I know for a fact I would have performed better had I known how to calm down my mind before “the big day.”
A few things you can do to reduce your mental chatter:
- Develop a meditation practice
- Do yoga
- Listen to calming music: classical, sounds of nature
- Read a light-hearted book
4. Physical Body
Sometimes your body is in pain and you can’t get yourself to sleep, or exposed to stimuli that is counterproductive late at night.
One major thing to watch out for is exercising too close to bedtime. If you get your heart rate up too high, it can actually wake you up rather than tire you out. This can wreak havoc on your sleep.
- Take a warm bath or shower. Add epsom salts if possible.
- Drink some camomile tea or warm milk.
- Take some melatonin
- Eat some food – sometimes if you can’t sleep it’s because your stomach hurts or you didn’t get enough to eat and you stomach is uneasy. Eating a little bit of food (almond butter is a great choice) can really do wonders.
- Avoid caffeine late at night
5. Develop a Bedtime Routine
We are a product of our habits. About an hour before bedtime, it’s a good idea to start winding things down:
- satisfy any remaining food cravings
- bring exercise to a halt
- stop using electronic devices
- if you are watching a movie or show, find a good point to stop and resume for the next day
And then start introducing some relaxing activities mentioned above:
- read a light-hearted book
- listen to some calming music
- take an epsom salt bath
- pour a cup of calming tea: camomile, or your favorite flavor
I should also mention that establishing a regular time range for sleep is also important. While it might be better to fall asleep when we’re tired, rather than when we should go to bed, let’s not underestimate the tendency of today to stay up as late a possible, in order to get more done.
Sure Americans are collectively pushing the envelope more and more, but being mindful of how many hours of sleep makes us feel restful, crossed with when we need to be up in the morning is always a good idea. Figure out when you need to get up, subtract how many hours of sleep you need, and have this be your bedtime target. Then subtract 1 hour from this time, and this is when you should be roughly starting your bedtime routine.
Example: let’s say you need to be up by 6am. If you need 8 hours of sleep, then you should be in bed by 10pm, and beginning your evening wind-down around 9pm.
6. Track Your Sleep
Buying a sleep cycle app (or device) can actually help you become more aware of your sleep, in general. Sometimes the act of becoming more aware of your own unique sleep behavior can help, in and of itself. I know this because it happened to me.
Back in 2012 I bought a little device called the Zeo, which was a device you wore around your forehead. While you slept, it monitored your brainwaves: alpha, beta, gamma, and via the iPhone app it would tell you (1) your sleep quality, (2) how many times you awoke during the night, (3) duration of time in each of the sleep stages (REM, light, deep).
After my first night, I realized my sleep was terrible. My score was in the 30’s or 40’s (out of 100). I awoke for long bouts (without knowing) and didn’t get much of the valuable deep and REM sleep. But the very next night my sleep improved, without changing a thing. I attribute this to mere mental awareness of the quality of my sleep (or lack thereof).
Since then, I’ve used the iOS app Sleep Cycle. It monitors your movements and sounds, with the paid version recording any snoring you may be producing in the night. I stopped using it after a couple months, however, because I’m not convinced that it is accurate at monitoring your asleep versus awake time and found it cumbersome to leave the app open with the phone face down next to the bed. In fact, I plan on ditching the alarm clock and removing my smartphone from the bedroom in the near future. Article to come soon.
When All Else Fails
You should consider visiting a doctor. There are medicines they can prescribe, such as Ambien, and sleep tests they can perform to help analyze your sleep.