Sleep is important for our wellbeing. If you’ve ever felt like a groggy zombie after a night of tossing and turning, you know this all too well. Indeed, one in three adults recently surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation said that poor sleep regularly leaves them feeling drained during the day, reporting negative effects such as headaches, irritability, and interference with routine activities. Fortunately, better sleep isn’t just a pipe dream. Research has uncovered multiple ways to score better shuteye—and experts say many are super doable.
The importance of sleeping well
Before we get to all that great advice, there’s something you should know about sleep duration: There’s no magic number that equals a perfect night’s sleep. Most adults seem to function optimally on seven to nine hours a night—and where you fall within that range depends on factors such as age, as well as the quality of the sleep you’re getting. So when tweaking your sleep approach, don’t stress too much over that number. Trust yourself to know what feels best!
In addition to being restorative, high-quality sleep supports long-term health, helping ward off concerns such as weight gain, diabetes, increased inflammation, heart disease, and cognitive impacts, according to a 2017 literature review in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics.
Even better, you might be able to encourage sweeter dreams starting tonight. Read on for science-backed tips and insights from leading sleep specialists.
9 tips for a better night’s sleep
Before tackling sleep troubles, you’d be wise to assess your general health, says Douglas Kirsch, MD, FAAN, FAASM, director of sleep medicine at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. Common conditions that can interfere with sleep—including restless legs syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, and clinical depression—might call for more than lifestyle adjustments. If you think an underlying condition might be present, have a chat with your physician or a medical sleep specialist to ensure you’re getting the support you need, Kirsch says. Once you’re in a good place on that front, try catching more ZZZs with the following strategies, all supported by science.
Set up a schedule that works all week.
Like a lot of busy people, you might skimp on shuteye Monday–Friday and try to play catch-up over the weekend. The thing is, your body clock and overall sleep quality may benefit if you strive for a consistent bedtime and wake-up time seven days a week, says clinical psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD, a New York City sleep specialist in private practice. A predictable schedule strengthens the body’s circadian rhythm, the brain’s built-in timekeeper that governs the release of hormones that induce sleepiness and alertness. The better your body clock runs? The better your slumber, Tal says. That’s not to say you can’t occasionally snooze until noon on a Sunday; just try to be consistent over the long term.
Enjoy some morning sun.
Another body clock trick to try: Expose your eyes to natural light as soon as possible after waking. A small 2017 study in the journal Sleep suggests that an optical dose of sunlight early in the day may help the brain cycle into alertness mode—which starts the brain’s clock ticking toward sleep mode later at night. (Aren’t cycles amazing?) Try sipping your morning coffee in a sunny corner of your kitchen, or wake up with an early outdoor walk.
Move around during the day.
Speaking of walks, carving out two to five hours a week for moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise could improve your ZZZs by helping you cruise into sleep more quickly and helping you snooze more deeply once you do, according to the latest physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And sure: Two hours may sound like a lot of time to be exercising, but it boils down to as little as 20 minutes a day. Aim for activities that quicken your breath and get your heart pumping. In addition to brisk walking, options include cycling, swimming laps, playing tennis, and dancing like a fool in your living room. Pick something you enjoy!
Choose a mattress that passes the “me” test.
It goes without saying that an uncomfortable sleeping surface will keep you from getting the rest you need. So if your lumpy mattress is leaving you sore, it’s probably time to ditch it. Just note: A recent boom in the mattress industry has given rise to lots of competing companies claiming they’ve cracked the code to superlative sleep. Don’t believe the hype, Kirsch cautions. Comfort is highly subjective, he says, and the best mattress—whether soft, firm, made of memory foam, or constructed with coils—is one that feels good to you personally. Shop around and test mattresses in person, or if you’re buying a mattress online, make sure there’s a forgiving return policy in case it’s not a fit for you.
Conduct a caffeine audit.
Could quitting cappuccinos improve your sleep? You’re probably your own best judge of that, our experts say. While caffeine that naturally occurs in coffee and tea is a stimulant, individual responses vary widely, according to a 2015 article in Sleep Medicine Reviews. No matter your personal level of habituation, avoiding caffeine in the four to six hours before bedtime is generally helpful for sleep. If you suspect your coffee habit is affecting your sleep, test your theory by tapering down for a few days (sipping two cups instead of three, for instance, or one cup instead of two cups) and then see how you feel. If you’re less buzzed at bedtime and find yourself snoozing more soundly, consider sticking with the smaller quantity.
Wind down with mindfulness.
This one’s for the millions of people who are frequently kept awake at night by racing thoughts: Simply practicing mindfulness—described as focused attention on the present moment, without judgment—may dial down “cognitive arousal” (read: stress) enough help you drift off, the 2015 Sleep Medicine Reviews analysis suggests. Even better, mindfulness doesn’t have to add a ton of extra time to your bedtime routine. Try taking a few minutes to sit quietly and focus on your breath—in and out—and notice the sensation of your body relaxing. Or try a short guided meditation from a provider like Headspace (free on the WW app) to help turn down the day’s static in your brain.
Skip the nightcap.
When it comes to effects on sleep, alcohol can be a little trickier than caffeinated drinks, Tal says. While a glass or two of wine might seem to promote ZZZs by making people feel pleasantly drowsy, alcohol can actually undermine sleep quality in the second half of the night, he explains. As a general practice, it might be best to enjoy your last drink at least four hours before bedtime, suggests a 2019 study of 700 adults in the journal Sleep.
Create a peaceful sleep environment.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of a comfy mattress, let’s talk about the rest of your sleep space—especially lighting and temperature. Research hints at some quick adjustments you might want to consider making tonight: Dim the lights in your environment about an hour before bed, which helps the brain recognize that sleepytime is nigh. If you have control of a thermostat, adjust your room temperature to about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, a thermal sweet spot that seems to keep sleepers comfortably warm without overheating. If you like natural fragrances, the scent of lavender—say, in the form of an essential oil diffuser—might have a calming effect.
Set a digital curfew.
Even if your Instagram feed is all soothing photos of puppies and flowers, using a device right before bed could keep you from achieving sweet dreams. That’s because smartphones, tablets, and computer monitors emit blue light, a short-wavelength form that may hinder the brain’s release of the sleep hormone melatonin, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The group recommends powering down all gadgets (and turning off fluorescent and LED lights, which also emit blue light) 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
And just a note about sleep aids: While over-the-counter medication may be helpful for a restless night every once in a while, this class of drugs is not intended for long-term use and can sometimes mask other issues, Tal says. Speak with your doctor if sleep trouble or daytime fatigue persists despite lifestyle adjustments.
Can better sleep help your weight?
First things first: A week or two of less-than-perfect slumber doesn’t mean you’re destined to gain weight. That said, when sleep trouble stretches on, things can get a little more complicated. People who experience prolonged sleep trouble may find their moods and decision-making skills negatively affected, opening the door to emotional eating and a diminished desire to exercise. Poor sleep may also play a role in insulin resistance, according to a 2015 review in the International Journal of Endocrinology, with implications for blood sugar levels and diabetes risk. Finally, sleep loss may set off overeating by affecting leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that regulate appetite, according to a study of 1000 adults published in PLoS Medicine in 2004.
Again, no single night of sleep will make or break your weight-loss journey. But getting a healthy amount of shuteye over the long term is important for staying on your path.
Better sleep, better health
Quality ZZZs are critical for many aspects of wellness, and some simple measures can help you get the rest you need. In the same way you plan out your day to include nourishing meals and physical activity, it’s possible to map out a doable sleep approach that works for your life. Be well and rest easy.
Jessica DiGiacinto is an associate editor at WW. A health and wellness writer and editor based in New York, she’s contributed to Popsugar, Bulletproof 360, and Galvanized Media, among other outlets.
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