Photo: Damir Spanic/Unsplash
I admit it — I’ve taken sleep for granted. Ever since I was little, I was prone to FOMO (fear of missing out). I’d wait for my brother and sister to fall asleep so I could curl up on the sofa and watch Friends with my parents, or be an unwelcome addition to their dinner party.
I wasn’t a big fan of sleep. I assumed some people might just need more sleep than others, and that I wasn’t one of them. I work very well on a short amount of sleep, I thought.
My cousin on the other hand looked like she was being tortured every morning. No matter how quietly I whispered for her to wake up, she’d look up at me with one eye open and plead that I let her go back to sleep, as though I was pointing a gun at her head and she was begging me not to shoot.
I never understood it. My sister and I would bounce out of bed as soon as the tiniest glimmer of light shone through the cracks in the blinds. Wide-eyed and ready for breakfast, we took about 20 seconds to get out of bed.
Even when I grew older, I’d often go out at night, get a few hours of sleep and rock up to a 9 am lecture, fresh as a daisy.
Well, those days are over. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but I can no longer function on little sleep.
I noticed a big change in my levels of energy this year. I had never had trouble getting up, and I began to fall into the cycle of hitting the ‘snooze’ button about four times before I got out of bed. Clearly, I wasn’t getting enough sleep. And, apparently, neither are over 40% of Americans, who are only getting a maximum of six hours of sleep per night.
It’s an issue. Forget ‘beauty sleep’; getting a good night’s sleep is a non-negotiable part of a healthy lifestyle.
Scientific research has shown that poor sleep has a negative impact on your hormones, your brain function, your concentration, your productivity; it can cause weight gain, and it harms your immune system. In fact, a lack of sleep has been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease.
So if you’re anything like the old me, and you know you’re not getting enough sleep, here at 10 ways to improve both the quantity and the quality of the sleep that you’re getting.
What do I mean by quality? Let me introduce you to the sleep cycle.
Understand the Phases of SleepPhoto: Sleepwellmilk.com
There are two types of sleep: REM sleep, and non-REM sleep. You begin in non-REM sleep and gradually fall into REM sleep. This pattern happens throughout the night in 90-minute intervals.
Stage 1 of non-REM sleep lasts for several minutes, and it’s the phase in which you begin to doze off. Your body is essentially preparing to sleep. Your breathing, your heartbeat, your eye movements slow down; your muscles relax and your brain waves start to slow down.
You spend about half of the night in stage 2, during which your body continues to relax, and your body temperature drops. It’s like when your laptop seemingly revs-up and makes a weird vibration noise before it finally shuts down, and you can almost feel the heat coming off of it. Stage 2 prepares you for shut-down; deep sleep.
Deep sleep occurs in stages 3 and 4. This is what I mean by quality sleep. You want to enter deep sleep because this is where cell regeneration occurs. It’s when your body and brain waves completely slow down.
It’s during this phase that the metabolism of glucose in the brain increases to support short-term and long-term memory function and learning. It’s in deep sleep that you restore your energy, pump fresh blood supply to the muscles, your tissues and bones are repaired, and your immune system is strengthened.
REM sleep comes in at stage 5. This is where you experience dreaming; your brain activity increases, and you might freak out the person next to you as your eyes flutter from side to side.
There’s no specific requirement for deep sleep, but if you wake up feeling exhausted, chances are that you’re not getting enough of it. Here are 10 things you can do about it:
How To Get More Deep Sleep
1. Stick to a sleep schedule.
The reason why you often feel awful when you wake up in the morning is that you’ve woken up in the wrong phase of your sleep cycle. You want to wake up when your sleep is shallow.
In his popular book, ‘The Owner’s Manual for the Brain,’ Organizational Psychologist Pierce Howard, explains that -
“A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8–10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed.” — Pierce Howard
An average sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes, but this may vary by up to 30 minutes either way from one person to another.
The best thing you can do is to spend a few days working out what your cycle is; see when you naturally wake up. If you can’t afford to not set an alarm because you have to go to work, try going to bed at different times; time how long you sleep and write down how you felt on different days.
Once you know what your natural pattern looks like, set your alarm accordingly.
2. Develop a wind-down ritual.
According to Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Matthew Walker, you need to manage your body’s expectations by developing a wind-down ritual. Avoid doing exercise in the evenings to give your body the time in need to wind down.
I personally avoid checking my phone after 8:00 pm so that I’m not constantly reminded of things I need to do the next day; e-mails I need to reply to, work that I have to complete. These things are important, but thinking about them now isn’t going to be helpful. The only thing it’ll do is make it harder to fall asleep.
I read before bed. I used to read a lot of non-fiction but I’ve decided to make the switch. I’ve gotten back into fiction. And if you aren’t a fiction fan already, I strongly recommend converting.
“Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention.” — Tim Ferriss
3. Avoid caffeinated drinks and nicotine.
You probably saw this one coming. Caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants, so it’s no surprise that they’re going to keep you up at night. Even consuming these in the afternoon can affect your sleep, and smokers often wake up earlier than they would naturally due to the withdrawal effects of nicotine.
It’s important to stay hydrated, so by all means, drink as much water as you need. But keep it at that. Even herbal teas for example have a diuretic effect, which increases the likelihood that you’ll need to get up to go to the bathroom during the night.
4. Avoid large meals in the evenings.
Your body needs time to digest before sleep. Sleep is supposed to be the body’s opportunity to rest, restore, and refuel. By going to bed on a full stomach, you’re making your body keep working to digest all that food. Plus, don’t you find it difficult to get into a comfortable position when you feel full?
Eating heavy meals right before bed can also cause digestive issues such as acid reflux, indigestion, and heartburn. In short, try to avoid eating heavy meals in the evenings; if you’re seriously hungry, opt for a light, healthy snack that’s low in sugar.
5. Get plenty of exercise throughout the day.
You’re more likely to fall asleep quickly if your body is tired from the day. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both.
Adults are also advised to add moderate — to high-intensity-muscle-strengthening activity on at least 2 days per week. These guidelines mirror the recommendations given by the UK’s NHS, and those issued by the EU.
But these are just the minimum requirements. The Guidelines state that you will gain even more benefit by being active for at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week, and they urge people to spend less time sitting down to offset some of the risks of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
This being said, try to avoid exercising before bed as this impedes the wind-down process.
6. Get enough sunlight.
Sunlight helps your body produce melatonin, which is the hormone that helps you go to sleep and the hormone that help helps your body sync to the cycles of day and night.
Importantly, sunlight is also your body’s main source of vitamin D, which plays an important role in helping you combat fatigue. Studies have shown there is a big correlation between vitamin D deficiency and fatigue. Those patients who increased their exposure to sunlight and got their levels of vitamin D back to normal saw an improvement in their symptoms.
Although you can get vitamin D from your diet, according to Mark Sisson in The Primal Blueprint:
“Dietary efforts to obtain Vitamin D are almost inconsequential compared to sun exposure”.
If you spend your days indoors and you think you’re probably not getting enough sunlight, take a page from Tim Ferriss’ book. During an interview with New York Times bestselling author Lewis Howes, he explains that he often schedules his phone calls back-to-back so that he can go for 1–2 hour walks through San Francisco. So long as you don’t need to take notes, why not do the same?
Think of any tasks that you could complete outdoors, and go for a walk.
7. Take a hot bath or shower.
Studies have shown that taking a hot bath 90 minutes before bed could help you fall asleep more quickly. The reason is that (counter-intuitively) the hot water actually helps to lower your core body temperature, which is inductive to sleep.
This being said, you should keep your bedroom cool. Your brain and body temperature needs to drop by 2–3 degrees for the good, deep sleep that your body needs. You should maintain your bedroom at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 18.5 degrees Celsius.
8. Ban bright lights from your bedroom.
You need darkness in the evenings for your body to release melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle and helps you fall asleep.
So avoid having any gadgets in your bedroom, because the bright lights they emit, especially the blue light, suppresses the secretion of melatonin.
Try leaving your phone in another room; if you’re relying on it for your alarm, consider buying an alarm clock. Another thing that could help is a table-lamp. Instead of switching your ceiling lights on, leave a small table lamp on in the corner of the room to gradually reduce your exposure to light.
9. Don’t stay awake in bed.
It helps if your brain associates your bed with sleeping. If you stay in bed when you can’t sleep, your brain loses this connection. One way to avoid this is by getting out of bed, and going into a different room to read (in dim lighting of course). Whatever you do, DON’T reach out to check your phone!
Another good idea is to meditate, as it’s been shown to relax the body. I have no scientific explanation for this, but I find it helpful to meditate without a pillow. There’s something I find relaxing about lying flat on my back. Maybe my brain associates it with yoga? Who knows? The important thing is to help your brain make its own associations.
If nothing else, this year has provided an opportunity to reflect and reconsider our priorities.
Health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and I’m sure that you’ve probably stopped to consider whether you’re really doing your best to improve yours.
If good quality sleep is one of the elements that you’re lacking, let these 10 tips change that. Apply them as early as today to improve the quality of your sleep and wake up feeling rested, energized, and ready for a productive day ahead!