Lifestyle Modifications to Help You Sleep Better

It’s time to real-talk for a second: sleep is a non-negotiable aspect of life, and nailing down a solid sleep schedule requires deliberacy and dedication. (Not unlike athletic training, right?)

Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of how to make their sleep more deliberate.

And though the answers may feel ambiguous, the reality is quite straightforward: much like many other aspects of health, the best approaches for improved sleep quality involve lifestyle or behavioral changes.

We know, we know — easier said than done. But if we’re looking to dedicate time to healthier habits, shouldn’t sleep be one of our top priorities?

So let’s take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; we’re going to divulge some lifestyle habits that can positively impact your quality of sleep.

An Average Night’s Sleep Cycle

Before we get too caught up in what you need to change, let’s first lay down some basics.

In an ideal night of sleep (the standard 8 hours), many people don’t actually experience deep sleep for a majority of the night. In fact, on average, you’ll likely be awake for about 10% of the night.

Sleep Cycle

Granted, we don’t mean awake in the same way as we’re awake in the daytime. Within the context of the sleep cycle, this 10% of awake time includes our initial attempt to try falling asleep. Research has found that this phase of wakefulness shows brain waves identical to our brain waves during the day, meaning we’re still quite mentally active at this point, even if our bodies aren’t moving about.

As we progress further into the night, nearly 50% of our sleep is spent in a state of light sleep, otherwise known as NREM 1. You’re most likely to be roused from slumber during this stage, as many of us have likely experienced, but it carries many vital functions for our overall sleep cycles.

There’s plenty more to the complexity of a full sleep cycle, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll focus more on these initial stages of wakefulness and light sleep. After all, the process of falling asleep and staying asleep is typically the most difficult aspect to sleep improvement.

(But if you want the full picture, you can read more about it in this blog.)

Tips to Fall Asleep Faster (and Stay Asleep)

Adjusting your habits for better sleep can encompass a wide array of change, ranging anywhere from the obvious to more nuanced options.

Keep in mind that not every suggestion is necessary, nor will it impact your sleep in exactly the same way it might for another individual. The options below are intended for reference and to start you off with habits that you can tailor for your personal circumstances (and preferences!).

Though we can’t guarantee how effective these methods may be, we can certainly lay out some of the most beneficial options for you to help you get started.

So let’s get into it, fellow sleepers!

Establish a Sleep-Friendly Environment

One of the first steps to falling asleep is ensuring that your surrounding environment actually allows you to fall asleep easily. It may sound super obvious, but you’d be surprised at how quickly we can neglect our environment when we’re so actively focused on falling asleep.

Firstly, the bed you sleep in should be primed for comfortable sleep! If possible, choose a mattress and pillows that allow for comfortable positioning, as well as sufficient neck and back support. As for blankets and sheets, ideal covers vary greatly from person to person, but temperature and air flow regulation can have a big impact on your overall comfort (anyone else toss and turn when the sheets are too warm?).

Environment

On that note, temperature can be a key factor as well; not just with your blankets, but also within the room itself. Sleep onset is associated with a significant drop in core body temperature, so maintaining a steady room temperature is equally important. Research suggests that sleeping in a cooler room (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) is ideal for most individuals.

And one of the more obvious factors is to ensure that noise and excessive light don’t interfere with your sleep. Of course, no one actively searches for a bedroom with loud construction outside or creaky floors, but it’s easy for us to dismiss those factors as temporary or “ignorable” nuisances. If this is the case for you, consider some more proactive methods for suppressing the noise, like sleeping with ear plugs, fans, or a white noise machine to help mitigate unpredictable sounds. Similarly, options such as blackout curtains or sleeping masks can help block light from conflicting with your typical circadian rhythms at night.

Use Your Bed for Sleeping, and Sleeping Only

This is likely one of the trickier habits that many people have to unlearn…

With the ever-increasing use of portable technology, most individuals find themselves tapping away at their devices in bed for one reason or another. It’s become extremely common (if not completely normalized) to do so, but research tells us that it’s best to limit our use of the bed or bedroom to sleeping purposes only.

Easier said than done, huh?

Perhaps. But, it’s a smart strategy to eliminate just about any activity that heightens your senses from your sleeping area. For many, the bed is a comfy place for watching shows, scrolling through news feeds, or even setting up shop and working from home — but that simply keeps your brain active in a space that should be meant for slowing it down.

No Phones

Though it may seem like this adjustment won’t have much effect on your sleep, our brains are extremely talented in their powers of association. If you experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety, focus, or any other sensation that leads to high brain activity, your brain will associate your bed with those feelings, even if you consciously know better (and even more if those feelings continue to occur over time).

If you do find yourself lying in bed awake for 20 minutes or more, the best strategy is to actually get out of bed and do something relaxing. It feels counterintuitive to leave your place of sleep, but actively trying to lull your brain back into a relaxed state can help diminish any lingering feelings of frustration or anxiety while trying to fall asleep. Then, once you feel relaxed, head back to bed and try again.

Create and Maintain a Bedtime Routine

Let’s clarify that a bit: many people who hear “routine” assume that it means an extensive process to prepare yourself for bed. But that’s not what we’re referring to here.

More so, we’re referring to a set habit for relaxing well before you fall asleep. If you allot sufficient time to wind down before bed (at least 30 minutes), and you practice this ritual consistently enough, the habits will help signal your brain that you’re getting ready to rest. When you’re deliberate about keeping your activity relaxed, it provides more positive, sleep-inducing associations for your brain to settle into a calmer state.

Routine

And you’ve probably heard this bit before, but it bears repeating: before going to bed, don’t use any devices that emit blue light! In the same way that external light sources can impact your circadian rhythm, so does blue light (i.e., the light emitted from technology like smartphones or tablets). Some ideal pre-bedtime activities include reading, listening to soothing music, journaling, light stretching, or practicing some meditation/relaxation exercises.

Keep Your Sleep Consistent

Our brains love routine. While this applies to many aspects of our everyday lives, it can be especially impactful when it comes to our sleep hygiene.

So, do your best to maintain a regular sleep schedule! Consistently aiming for the same sleep time and length of rest will help your brain and body establish a steady rhythm.

If ever you find yourself needing to adjust your sleep schedule, make sure you do so gradually (just like you would with a training schedule!). Adapt your bedtime or wake time by no more than 1-2 hours a night, that way you aren’t depriving yourself of rest just for the sake of a different schedule.

Keep in mind that if you’re shifting your sleep routine, be extra sure to avoid light exposure within the hour before you head to bed. And when you’re awake during the day, do the opposite — maximize your light exposure in the morning and midday hours to help solidify your body’s circadian rhythms.

Additional Methods That Promote Sleep

Those first few suggestions are ideal for just about anyone; they help set the foundation for developing healthier sleep patterns.

But, there’s plenty more that can be done! Here’s another handful of techniques that can supplement your foundational habits for better, more robust sleep.

Limit Late-Night Eating and Drinking: Many of us have fallen victim to the occasional midnight snack, which won’t kill you once in a while; but as we’ve learned, our brains can be quick to make a habit out of small actions.

Eating late means your body has to stay active to digest the food, especially if your meal consists of fatty or spicy ingredients. Though some people are able to fall asleep without much difficulty soon after eating, staying asleep is often what gives people trouble.

Take Up Meditation: Learning to meditate (specifically with the practice of mindfulness) has long been associated with improving sleep quality and symptoms of chronic insomnia.

This is because mindfulness and meditation is known to promote relaxation in both body and mind, leading to a more natural sleep onset. And while not everyone may benefit directly from mindfulness exercises, there are lots of meditative variations, including body scanning, deep breathing, and guided imagery, to name a few.

Practice Moderate Exercise: Exercise is an extremely common suggestion to help with sleep, and it certainly can be — in moderation. 

For the specific purposes of inducing sleep, moderate exercise is the ideal intensity. If you push yourself too hard or for too long with a high-intensity workout, your body will get too amped up to truly relax before sleeping. So, before going to bed, be wary about performing tougher or newer workouts that your body isn’t used to.

Take Naps: Yes, that’s right — naps are actually recommended! Napping can be a super effective way to offset any sleep deprivation you may experience at night, assuming that you can achieve a state of deep sleep.

Just be mindful of when you nap, and for how long. Naps are most beneficial if you keep them relatively short (no longer than 30 minutes), and don’t cozy up for one after 3:00pm. As long as you stay within these bounds, regular power naps could be just the boost for your circadian rhythm.

Do Sleep Supplements Help?

You may have noticed that none of our suggestions include sleeping aids or supplements… And here’s why.

Most sleep aids are labeled as supplements, meaning they don’t necessarily come with set dosages or consumption instructions. They also don’t have to be FDA-approved before being sold to consumers, so their credibility can be hazier than we may expect.

Take melatonin, for example — it’s one of the most widely researched sleep aids, yet it’s still misused so often (and not necessarily to the consumer’s fault). Many brands of melatonin supplements have extremely variable dosages, making it difficult to properly regulate and utilize its benefits in the best way possible.

Supplements

There’s also the question of over-the-counter medications, such as Benadryl or Tylenol PM. Although they claim to improve sleep, much research has proven that they don’t provide substantial improvement. (Some of their main ingredients, like antihistamines, can increase sensations of grogginess afterwards, but ultimately still do little to help your actual sleep.)

Sleep Tight!

And there you have it: a fraction of possible methods to help with falling and staying asleep.

Your personal journey with sleep may be vastly different from the next person, and not every solution will be as equally effective as others. There’s unfortunately no “one-size-fits-all” answer, even with the plethora of research dedicated to sleep improvement.

But getting better sleep isn’t about finding what works for everyone — the key is to put in the effort to find what works well for you, and to make a consistent habit out of it. Taking actionable steps to relax your brain and body is the ultimate start to understanding your sleep needs.

So here’s to prioritizing your bodily needs! Get to experimenting; we wish you all the best in achieving the most robust sleep you’ve ever had.

Sleep Habits

By Dr. Dana Lindberg DPT CSCS

As a sprinter and long-jumper turned doctor of physical therapy, Dr. Lindberg knows full well the importance of the mental component in competition, and looks forward to assisting athletes in achieving their absolute best. In his time with the Samuel Merritt University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, he conducted biomechanics research alongside faculty members to investigate the influences of different footwear on running force transmission.

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