Practical Ways to Get Better Sleep

Practical Ways to Get Better Sleep

"It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it."

-John Steinbeck

Sleep! You know you need more of it, but how to get enough? This list will give you 21 practical ways to get better sleep.

But first, in case you’re not aware of how important sleep is, here’s what bad sleep does to you.

The Bad News About Bad Sleep

Your body relies on a cascade of hormones that dictate when you sleep, eat, and what you are motivated to do. When you don’t sleep well, the domino effect of protective hormones is altered, increasing the likeliness of all of the following:

  • You will eat significantly more calories and turn to sweet, fatty, high-calorie foods instead of more sensible choices.
  • You’ll be less active and expend less energy over the course of the day.
  • You will take more dangerous risks that increase your chance of injury and “problems.”
  • You may not perform as well as you’d like when training or competing.

This is just the short-term bad news about bad sleep. Longer term, people gain fat, develop inflammation, fall into a “hole” of out of whack hormones, and increase risk of a bunch of diseases.

So, you’re probably thinking:

“Okay, okay. I know lack of sleep is bad for me, but I’m ambitious. I have goals. Lack of sleep is a reasonable payoff for where I need to go in life.”

With that reality in mind, this list will tell you how to both get more out of the sleep time you have and reduce the effects of lack of sleep. These tips are in “categories” to give you a clue as to which ones are best used together.

Category #1: Use habits that help you sleep.
1. Avoid caffeine after 1 p.m.

Consider avoiding it altogether if your lack of sleep is due to a racing mind. Caffeine, even used in the morning, can increase the stress hormone cortisol in people who are anxious, reducing the ability to go to sleep many hours later.

2. Eat more protein during the day but carbs at dinner.

Protein is a mild simulant for the brain because the amino acids block brain neurons—called the orexin pathway—that makes us sleepy. This doesn’t mean high-protein diets cause trouble sleeping. They actually improve sleep when people eat their protein during the day and eat carbs, which activate the orexin “restful” pathway, at dinner.

3. Pick a regular bedtime and follow it even on weekends.

Having a regular bedtime uses both the power of habit and allows you to take advantage of your natural circadian rhythm:

Your body temperature peaks as sunset approaches so that it can keep you warm over night. This coincides with release of the hormone leptin, which will suppress hunger and signal the brain to release fat for burning when you sleep. Then, melatonin is released, brain function in reduced, and you’re ready for sleep.

Studies show people with trouble sleeping tend to improve when they have a set bedtime that is between 9:30 and 11:00 p.m.

4. Use cool temperatures to help you sleep.

Warm temperatures at night and cold temperatures during the day inhibit circadian rhythms. Whenever possible opt for cool at night and warm during the day by turning off air conditioning when it’s unnecessary.

Category #2: Optimize your light and dark exposure.
5. Expose yourself to light at the right times.

Light serves as the major regulator of your “master clock,” which controls your circadian rhythm. To “anchor” your master clock, you want to get bright outdoor light exposure for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day, preferably in the morning right after waking up.

6. Sleep in darkness.

Too much light in your bedroom can keep you from sleeping. Get blackout curtains to block light from outside and cover or unplug electronics that emit light.

Be aware that even when you’re asleep, your brain can sense light exposure through your eyelids. Exposing yourself to light during sleep is bad when you want sleep, but it’s beneficial in the morning when you need to wake up.

In fact, a recent study found that when people were exposed to dawn light during the 30 minutes before waking, they reported having slept better and did better on both an exercise and a cognitive test than a control group that slept in complete darkness for the duration of the night.

7. Avoid blue light at night.

Turn off all computers and phones in the hour before bedtime because they decrease production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Dim your lights, get amber bulbs, and install f.lux on your devices to automatically dim screens after sunset.

Category #3: Use food to regulate circadian rhythms
8. Avoid late night eating.

Finish your last meal by 8 p.m. because frequently eating most of your calories after this hour can have fairly disastrous consequences. It goes against your circadian rhythm and makes it more likely you’ll gain body fat because your hormonal cascade will be off.

For example, a recent study found that people who ate most of their calories after 8 p.m. consumed an average 250 more calories daily, chose more fast foods, and tended to sleep poorly. They also were much more likely to be overweight.

This happens because in order to sleep well, insulin must be fairly low. As insulin levels decrease, the hormone leptin is released to keep you from getting hungry during sleep. Higher leptin leads thyroid hormone to be released to keep you warm and burn stored fat during the night, which is followed by the release of melatonin—and boom!—you go to sleep.

9. Eat quality carbs at dinner.

If you’re on a lower carb diet, eating whole-food carbs at dinner can help you sleep. Eating carbs leads the body to produce more of the transmitter serotonin, which is calming and makes you feel sleepy. Carbs have the added benefit of being enjoyable (which can do wonders for will power) and of helping to reduce the stress hormone cortisol because they trigger a prolonged insulin release.

Cortisol makes you feel more alert, and is elevated in the morning to get you out of bed. It should drop over the course of the day, but if you train or work late, or deal with “life” stress later in the day, it can get jacked up, keeping you anxious and awake.

Try including a starchy vegetable like a sweet potato, boiled grains, beans, a piece of fruit, or other whole carb food at dinner if you restrict carbs during the day.

10. Pick a meal frequency and stick to it.

Not eating for long periods has been found to alter circadian rhythms and impede sleep because the low blood sugar leads to the activation of neurons in the brain that keep you alert and awake.

Evolutionarily it makes sense because when our hunter-gatherer ancestors lacked food, they needed enhanced mental clarity and brain function to drive activity and help them find food. However, it’s unlikely they were in a fasting state on a regular basis.

There’s no one ideal meal frequency for everyone. Here are a few key tips on picking a meal frequency from the research:

  • Avoid frequently going long periods (more than 8 hours) when you are awake without eating
  • Opt for a diet that leads to a lower to moderate insulin release.
  • Keep blood sugar levels as steady as possible.
  • Eat in a way that allows you to avoid hunger and cravings.
  • Don’t eat after 8 p.m.
Category #4: Use physical activity to promote sleep
11. Train in the late afternoon if possible.

Between 3 and 6 p.m. is the ideal time for physical performance because body temperature is elevated and protein synthesis peaks around this time.

Later in the evening is not ideal for sleep because it has been found to suppress melatonin and elevate cortisol. Early in the morning fits better with our circadian rhythms, however, performance is poorest at this time because body temperature and coordination are reduced.

12. Don’t be sedentary.

If your job involves sitting at a desk all day, chances are that even if you work out frequently, you’re still leading a sedentary life. This can have a negative effect on sleep and is definitely not pro-health.

Good news is that the solution doesn’t require more gym time. All you need is to be generally active throughout the day—walking, standing, stretching, breathing deeply at least every hour—and lifting weights or doing some form of vigorous exercise for an hour a few days a week.

This helped older subjects with mild insomnia significantly improve their sleep and have a better quality of life. Just 10 weeks of 3 workouts a week did the trick. They also got stronger and improved their mood.

13. Don’t go overboard with exercise.

Too much intense exercise, particularly when paired with a stressful life or poor nutrition can elevate cortisol and lead to circadian imbalances. If you actively promote recovery and have your stress in check, this is unlikely to be a problem, but if you have trouble sleeping, ask yourself, am I doing frequent twice-a-day workouts or chronic long and intense cardio?

Category #5: Use supplements for better sleep.
14. Get more magnesium.

Sleep deprivation can deplete your body’s magnesium stores, decreasing your strength and exercise performance. When you sleep poorly, the body produces extra catecholamine hormones to help you get through the day. This causes the excretion of magnesium via the kidneys, resulting in compromised exercise performance and low magnesium.

Shoot for at least 500 mg a day of elemental magnesium, either in your diet or by taking a magnesium that is bound with glycinate or some other form that is easily absorbed by the body.

15. Get enough vitamin D.

Studies show raising vitamin D levels to between 60 and 80 ng/ml can reduce insomnia and improve sleep. Vitamin D works because the part of the brain that is responsible for sleep has a large concentration of vitamin D3 receptors, and when D is absent, sleep is disrupted.

16. Raise melatonin with tart cherry juice or a melatonin supplement.

Melatonin can directly influence your body’s core temperature as well as the sleep-wake cycle, making optimal levels at nighttime critical for sleep.

A natural (and delicious) way to raise melatonin is to drink tart cherry juice because it contains phytochemicals that reduce inflammation and lead the body to secrete more melatonin. For example, when 20 young volunteers drank tart cherry juice for 7 days they significantly improved sleep quality and duration.

Supplementing with melatonin will also work. Between 0.5 and 5 grams has been found to help people go to sleep, sleep longer, and improve sleep quality according to an analysis of 19 studies.

Category #6: Ways to reduce the painful effects of not sleeping.
17. Consciously observe your eating when sleep deprived.

Lack of sleep raises cortisol and reduces insulin sensitivity, which makes us more likely to seek out pleasurable, high-fat, sugary foods. Neurotransmitters are also affected, increasing risky behavior and reducing will power.

The result is that we eat more—300 calories more a day, according to one study in which subjects got 4 hours of sleep a night. To avoid this when you’re running on short sleep, make the extra effort to start all meals with protein, fibrous fruits and veggies, and water.

18. Remind yourself to stay active when exhausted

Another thing that happens when we don’t get enough sleep is we move less, thereby expending fewer calories over the course of the day. This further reduces insulin sensitivity in the body and makes us feel sluggish and low energy.

Remind yourself to move frequently throughout the day. Do activities you enjoy that make you feel good because this is a constructive way to respond to our natural drive for pleasure when we are suffering from short sleep.

19. Don’t ditch your workout but do give yourself a break.

Lack of sleep greatly reduces our lack of enthusiasm to exercise. If you can overcome this, it’s worthwhile to do your workout as planned when exhausted because studies show the effects of sleep loss on strength and endurance are relatively small.

When sleep deprived, try calling a training partner to keep you honest. If you’re suffering on multiple days of short sleep, give yourself a break and modify your workout—try changing how you count sets and reps, or do single-set training to failure. Or try a short, sweet interval workout to get you sweating, burn a bunch of calories, and improve metabolic hormones.

20. Use creatine as your secret weapon.

Taking creatine is an incredibly effective way of reducing the cognitive and physical performance effects of lack of sleep. That’s because lack of sleep leads to reduced high-energy phosphates in the brain, resulting in reduced central nervous system activity.

Sleep-deprived rugby players who took 10 grams of creatine 90 minutes before a workout replenished brain phosphate stores, allowing for improved motivation. This led to restored power, better reaction time, and sprint performance that was equal to when they weren’t sleep deprived. A 5-gram dose also worked but the larger dose has a greater effect.

21. Save coffee for when you need peak performance.

Caffeine is a powerful performance enhancer that can make all the difference when you need to perform but are on low sleep. Studies show that caffeine will restore motivation to train, improve endurance and precision, and reduce physical pain.

Studies suggest for most people, the benefit is greatest when you don’t drink it regularly, saving it for when you need that extra lift for a stellar performance.


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