You already know that you need to eat more plants and move more often to be healthy. You might have even tried a workout challenge or a clean-eating diet, whether your goals are more energy, better skin, or living longer and happier.
But sleep (specifically 7-9 hours of quality sleep) also plays a major role in our health and is often overlooked when trying to reach health goals. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist at Colombia University, says that lack of sleep and health issues go hand in hand. “Sleep can help prevent cardiovascular problems, improve mood, increase learning and memory, and prevent weight gain.”
Thanks to factors like stress at work, overexposure to light, and Netflix binges (curse you, Love is Blind!), more people are relying on coffee just to get through their day (forget about optimizing health). To fully achieve your health goals, you need 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night. To get quality sleep (and improve your energy), you might need to detox your routine. Say goodbye to double-shot espressos and get ready to for the best sleep of your life:
Stick to a sleep schedule
Maybe you aim for a 10:30pm bedtime and you proudly find yourself turning off the lights at 10:28pm on a Sunday. But then on Monday, your friends come over to watch The Bachelor and you get into bed at 12pm after a few glasses of wine. Tuesday you crawl into bed exhausted at a 10pm, and Wednesday you stay up until 1:30am with a tight deadline at work. Sound familiar? While our lifestyle (drastically) changes day to day, keeping up a regular bedtime is crucial for sleep hygiene.
Jason Piper, the founder of Build Better Sleep and a certified sleep science coach, said, “the body has many internal clocks inside that work together to keep organs and systems running smoothly. Going to bed at random times wrecks havoc inside.”
Think about it: how well can you sleep when the clock says 11pm but your brain thinks it’s daytime (or time for The Bachelor)? Jet lag doesn’t just happen when you’re traveling through time zones, it also happens when your body doesn’t have a consistent sleep schedule. Count eight hours back from the time your alarm clock goes off and fall asleep within a 30-minute window of that time every night (and yes, weekends still count. Sorry, bed-until-noon-ers!).
Limit light in the evenings
Even though modern technology has given us the ability to access light anywhere at any time (good for those of us who are scared of the dark, am I right ladies?), humans are meant to sleep when the sun goes down because darkness tells the body to produce melatonin (or “the sleep hormone”), making us fall asleep. Just because we can access light doesn’t mean we always should. Limit light as much as possible after sunset to start melatonin production.
Piper suggests installing night mode filters on all screens that you can program to switch on automatically when the sun sets, as well as using blue light glasses (with red lenses to block both blue and green light). And yes, this also means limit your Netflix binges and Instagram scroll time. You should also stick with low lighting in the evenings by dimming lights, using one lamp at a time, or lighting candles instead of using electricity (bonus: your significant other will appreciate the extra romance, and you’ll save energy).
Get sunlight first thing in the morning
Just as darkness releases melatonin to tell your body it’s nighttime, sunlight tells your body to suppress melatonin production to boost energy and alertness. So how does activity in the morning help you fall asleep at night? Sunlight reinforces your body’s natural circadian rhythms. Your body’s circadian rhythm is happening constantly throughout the day, so proper wakefulness leads to proper sleep (makes sense, right?). First thing when you wake up, open the blinds to get sunlight, and if possible, get outside in the morning (walk to work, drink coffee on your patio, or do an outdoor workout). If you’re one of the brave souls who wake up before the sun is up, consider investing in an alarm clock that mimics a sunrise.
Exercise daily, but not too late in the day
You know that working out is great for your physical and mental health, but it can also help your quality of sleep (as if we needed another reason to stream a Beyoncé workout). In an interview with Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Health blog, Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., the medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, said, “moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep you get. Slow-wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. Exercise can also help to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind, “a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep,”
However, when you exercise is also important for getting the best rest at night. Dr. Meghna Dassani, a sleep expert and host of the Healthy Sleep Revolution podcast, recommends exercising no later than 2-3 hours before your bedtime, so your body has time to recuperate, slow down, and decrease cortisol. Think about it this way: your focus throughout the day should be building and releasing energy until dinnertime. Starting in the early evenings, your focus should shift to slowing down.
Perfect your sleeping environment
If you’re a Marie Kondo fan (who isn’t?), you already know what clutter does to your stress levels and overall joy (specifically, does what you have spark it?). Be picky about everything in your sleeping environment, because anything can affect your sleep quality. Dassani recommends getting rid of anything in the bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, clutter, bright lights, or an uncomfortable bed. Bonus tip: turn the clock’s face out of view, so you don’t worry about the time while trying to fall asleep (you don’t want to stay up all night watching the clock, fall asleep in your meeting the next day, and then agree to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, à la Chandler Bing).
Temperature also affects how well (and how long) you sleep. Piper tells his clients to set the thermostat to 60-68 degrees (depending on how hot or cold your body typically runs). You might even want to consider sleeping with limited or no clothing (your significant other can thank me later), and investing in breathable bedding to keep your body temperature as cool as possible.
Avoid eating or drinking too much at night
Bad news for late-night Ben & Jerry’s: eating right before bed, as well as drinking too much liquid in the evenings, can disrupt sleep. “A large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep while drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate,” Dassani said. To get optimal sleep, eat a full two hours before bed, so your body has time to digest. Also, don’t wait to hit your water goal before bedtime. Drink lots of water in the morning and afternoon (hydration is crucial!), and then reduce liquids in the evenings.
Piper explains that eating too big of a meal before bed will raise your internal core temperature, divert energy away from your brain for sleep, and throw your digestive system clock off. Eating foods high in sugar or simple carbs like chips, bread, and crackers before bed can cause a blood sugar spike that might cause you to wake up.
Limit the amount of time you’re physically in bed while you’re awake
Be honest: how much time do you spend in bed when you’re not actually asleep? Do you ever watch the clock for hours with impending anxiety that you can’t fall asleep (or maybe you’re old school and count sheep)? Dassani suggests that if you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity until you feel tired, like read a book on your couch or do some light stretching on a yoga mat.
Martin Reed, a clinical sleep health educator and founder of Insomnia Coach, agrees. He said, “if you’re struggling with sleep, spending more time in bed will lead to more tossing and turning during the night, and more worry, stress, and anxiety related to being awake. Over time, this creates an association between the bed, worry, and wakefulness, rather than sleep and relaxation.” Think about it this way: the bed should only be used for sleep (and sex, just FYI!). This means absolutely no working, eating, or lounging in bed, or else your brain will associate the space with wakefulness and stress, rather than relaxation and sleep.
Talk to your doctor about your medications
If you’re struggling to fall and stay asleep, or if you still wake up exhausted after spending more than enough hours in bed, a medication or supplement might be the culprit. “Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns,” Dassani said. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist to see whether any medications or supplements you’re taking might be causing insomnia. If they are, don’t panic: you don’t have to give up quality sleep. Simply ask your doctor or pharmacist whether the medications and supplements can be taken earlier in the day or replaced with alternatives.
Don’t sleep in on weekends
While it may be tempting to “catch up on sleep” on the days where you can stay in bed until noon without getting in trouble with your boss, Dr. Candice Seti, a clinical psychologist and insomnia treatment clinician, says routine is key (especially on weekends). “It’s so much easier to wake up for work on Thursday than it is on Monday because you’ve probably been following a sleep schedule all week,” she said. “Because we tend to go to bed later on weekend nights, we also tend to sleep later on weekend mornings. That sets us up for ‘Sunday night Insomnia’ because the body is simply not ready for sleep.”
I know it’s a major bummer, but set your weekday alarm on weekend mornings and try not to stay up too late to see how you feel for the rest of the week. If you do feel like you need to sleep in, push back your wake up time for no more than an hour and make sure you’re back on your usual schedule the next day. PSA to social butterflies everywhere: this doesn’t mean you can’t have a social life. You can go to happy hour and dinner, but just don’t binge Narcos until 3am when you get home. Save the Narcos finale for the next day and stay regular with your sleep routine.
Include relaxation in your nighttime routine
In this day and age, we’re typically going 100mph until the second our heads hit the pillow (does anyone else feel like they’re constantly racing against the clock?). Whether it’s late-night work, going out with friends, or wrangling toddlers, nighttime can look like wearing ourselves out until we go to bed, not hours of me-time and self-care rituals while dressed a comfy bathrobe (Barefoot Dreams, to be exact. A girl can dream!). However, not allowing time for the right evening routine could be damaging your sleep.
Piper said, “stress is probably the biggest sleep robber. Think of sleep like working out: you need to warm up before you start exercising so you don’t injure yourself. The same goes for sleep.” Just as you stretch before working out or go through emails before starting your work day, your body needs to “get in the zone” before sleep, too. Rather than staying busy until two minutes before your bedtime, allow time for your body to warm up. Try a relaxing bath, go through your skincare routine, schedule alone time to meditate, or even read a relaxing book for 20 minutes. Tell your kids, significant other, friends, or coworkers that you’re going to need extra time for yourself tonight to show up as your healthiest, best self the next day. Happy snoozing!