Get better sleep at night with a few simple tweaks to your environment and daytime habits.
Whether you have frequent sleep problems or just the occasional restless night, optimizing your environment, routine and mindset for rest can help you have sweeter dreams and higher-quality sleep.
It’s helpful to understand that several factors are at play when you snooze.
First, you have internal psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, fear, or anger. Second, you have physical health and comfort, including mattress support, hormones, vitamins/nutrition, and physical conditions. And third, you have environmental cues including light, noise and temperature.
Disruptions to any of these areas can affect how fast you fall asleep, staying asleep, and the quality of rest you get, so it’s no wonder that up to 60% of Americans report weekly sleep troubles.
In this article, we take a look at nine of the most important and controllable ways that you can set the stage for better sleep.
1. Get Active Outside During the Day
Activity and sunlight both play a role in sleep, so why not multitask and get two for one? Sunlight exposure early in the day helps keep your body’s internal sleep clock on track. Activity and exercise also helps sleep over time as well.
Research suggests around 15 minutes of direct sunlight exposure per day to get the melatonin and Vitamin D benefits, which include better sleep, bone health, and potentially reduced risk of depression. Any increase in activity helps for people that have sedentary jobs.
One study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily helped postmenopausal women sleep an extra 45 minutes per night after four months, and another found that another study also found that consistent high levels of physical recreational activity helped sleep in middle aged women. Stress can also help reduce stress levels according to the Mayo Clinic.
By taking a brisk walk or jog in the morning, walking the dog, parking far from the office or even a quick stroll around your yard or office campus during a break, you can get dual benefits.
2. Take a Warm Bath or Shower Close to Bed
Temperature plays a biological role in drowsiness and sleep. Typically, body temperature drops slightly as you begin to fall asleep, and studies have found that cooler temperatures (60 to 70 degrees) result in better sleep throughout the night.
In addition to keeping your room cooler at night, you can encourage this natural temperature shift with a warm bath. When you get out of the warm bath, your body temperature will drop slightly, which can help induce drowsiness. It’s best to do this within about 30 to 90 minutes when you plan to lie down. Showers can also work, but the effect is lessened.
3. Institute No-Screen Time an Hour Before Bed
Several studies have concluded that televisions, electronics and indoor lighting can affect sleep at night. Bright and blue lights can impair melatonin release, thereby disrupting your natural sleep cycle and stealing rest.
Try setting an “off” time about an hour or at least 30 minutes before bed, after which TVs, computers, tablets, and phones are powered down.
To relax during this time, read a paper book or a dim e-reader that doesn’t emit blue light, write in a journal, do some light stretching or meditation, take a bath, or do any other activity that makes you feel calm and prepares you for bed.
4. Utilize Breathing and Visualization Techniques
Nearly everyone has experienced a night when stress or anxiety affected their sleep, whether related to relationships, work, school or other common stressors.
It can be helpful to know handy techniques for overcoming stress and switching gears when issues do pop up. There are many mental relaxation methods out there, so don’t give up if one doesn’t work.
This technique involves another person or recording walking you through gradual relaxation steps, often encouraging you to breath slowly and steadily, visualize something calming, and feel your muscles and body relax. You can also use progressive muscle relaxation techniques on your own, though some may find the guided method easier to start with.
There are several professional guided relaxation CDs and recordings, free ones on YouTube, and apps with guided sessions designed to help relax you to sleep.
Breathe in deeply through your nose from your diaphragm and exhale slowly from your mouth for several minutes. This can help minimize stress, bring down heart rate, and put you in a more relaxed state compared to short, tense breathing.
Lay in bed, close your eyes and begin to imagine a relaxing and calm scene. This could be a favorite place, a warm beach, a cozy cabin or anywhere that makes you feel relaxed and secure.
Focus on all of your senses, thinking about what you see in detail, what your hear, what you smell and what you feel. Spend time absorbing and exploring the scene as you allow yourself to drift inward and relax.
A recent study found visualizations help people fall asleep 20 minutes sooner than counting sheep or simply lying in bed.
5. Stretch to Relax and Destress
While exercising and being active during the day help promote more restful sleep, light stretching before bed can also help you relax and sleep better.
You could try basic stretching, light yoga, tai chi, or other low-impact, calming movements. YouTube is a great source for free yoga and stretching exercises you can do at home, and the Huffington Post has also covered yoga poses you can even do from your bed.
A study in the Journal of Physiotherapy of older adults found that stretching before bed reduced nighttime leg cramps, and a 2003 study found that stretching also helped sleep in sedentary, postmenopausal women.
6. Be Conscious of What You Eat and Drink Near Bed
What you eat and drink can influence how well you sleep at night. Here’s a few of the more important nutrition factors to keep in mind for better rest:
- Avoid stimulants several hours before sleep, such as caffeine (coffee, tea, guarana etc), theobromine (chocolate, tea), and supplements like ginkgo biloba or other energy-stimulating supplements.
- Very salty, fatty or spicy foods can cause discomfort at night due to indigestion or bloating.
- Drinking plenty of water is important for health, but focusing on your water intake earlier in the day can prevent you from waking for late-night bathroom trips.
- Alcohol before bed can also interfere with sleep, particularly in the later part of sleep when your REM cycles peak.
- If you tend to get hungry at night, opt for a healthy and sleep-friendly snack with good carbs and filling protein. A banana, small turkey sandwich, milk, crackers and peanut butter, or handful of nuts are good choices.
7. Keep Your Bedroom Comfortable
We’ve covered how to optimize your bedroom before, and physical comfort can really impact how well you sleep. Three common disruptors include feeling too hot or cold, distracting noises, and trouble getting cozy.
Here’s a quick look at tips for making your bedroom comfortable and relaxing:
- Keep temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees.
- Use comfortable bedding appropriate for the season or your preferences.
- Minimize light at night, whether via windows, electronics or other sources – the darker your room is the better for sleep.
- If you live in a noisy area or are easily startled, consider using ear plugs or an ambient noise device to buffer disturbances.
- Make sure doors are locked and your house is secure before turning in so you aren’t worrying later.
- Keep bedrooms organized and free of clutter, especially bills, unsorted laundry or other things that could stress you out. 62% of people in the National Sleep Foundation’s 2012 survey said a clean bedroom was important for sleep, and people who made their beds were 19% more likely to sleep well every night.
- Consider keeping pets out of the bedroom at night or giving them their own bed on the floor. They can kick around and wake you up, not mention dirt and bacteria tracked in from outdoors and accidents.
- If you like aromatherapy, employ calming scents like lavender around your bedroom.
8. Use a Comfortable Mattress in Good Shape
Since your bed is where you actually sleep, it makes sense that it would play a significant role in how well you rest. If your bed isn’t providing adequate support or if the firmness isn’t right, it can cause back and joint pain or pressure points.
In fact 92% of Americans surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation said a comfortable mattress was important to their sleep. Women and older adults were more likely to agree that a good mattress was important to better rest and avoiding back problems.
The average person keeps their bed about 10 years, though the NSF and Better Sleep Council recommend replacing it every seven to eight years. A study from Oklahoma State University of people whose mattresses averaged 9.5 years old found that a new mattress improved comfort and sleep.
If your mattress is older than eight years or if you find it difficult to get comfortable or awake with pain and soreness, than it might be time to take a closer look at your bed.
9. Try Not to Stress Over Sleep Too Much
Worrying about sleep or not getting enough of it while in bed can create a self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety and stress. Implementing good sleep hygiene including a relaxing routine and a conscious effort to relax rather stressing about minutes of sleep may be more helpful.
When you feel stressful or negative thoughts creeping in, do your best to focus on something else whether its a positive memory, relaxing scene, a particular word, or even your breathing. This is a key focus of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is recognized as helpful for overcoming insomnia and other stress-related sleep issues.
If you find yourself making mental checklists or brainstorming in bed, try to get this out of your system before laying down by journaling or planning earlier in the evening, or make a quick note of what’s bugging you so you can lay back down and relax.
One idea is plan a “worry period” during which you can address your worries, and to postpone them until that designated time.
Another technique suggested by psychologist Frank Lawlis is to “erase” negative thoughts by moving your eyes side to side as if erasing a whiteboard. This helps you focus on something else and breaks the train of thought.
Many sleep experts recommend removing or covering clocks in the bedroom so you aren’t stressing about minutes of sleep you’re losing. Instead of focusing on falling asleep, focus instead on deep relaxation (using the above techniques) to reduce pressure on yourself.
Sleep is an important and vital function, and the best way to get good rest is implement good sleep hygiene practices, try to maintain a consistent evening routine and sleep wake times, and to expect that sometimes, issues will pop up.
Understanding how sleep works and having a tool kit of solutions to deal with issues and stress can make all the difference between a restless night and sweet dreams.
What helps you sleep better at night? Do you use any of these ways to have a better night’s sleep?