Altough the science behind sleep is a vast and complex subject to digest, I like to keep it simple and use 7 strategies to dramatically improve sleep quality/quantity in the short and long term. Some of them take discipline to adhere to but once you dedicate yourself to these strategies, you will notice positive changes in your physical and mental energy by having more restful sleep throughout the night.
1) Start each day with a morning routine that optimizes your circadian rhythm:
Ideally you wake up at the same time each day: this is the best way to reset your circadian rhythm which makes it easier for your body to adapt to times of wakefulness and sleep. You can use a margin of up to 30 minutes max. Very ocassionally you can go way beyond your appointed wake up hour (nights out, family events, concerts etc.) but try to stick to a tight sleeping schedule. This is the most important tip to improve sleep quality.
Hydrate first, eat after: drink 0.5 - 1l of water enriched with lemon/lime juice and optionally a pinch of Himalayan salt after you wake up. Don’t eat or drink anything else for the first half hour. The lemon/lime water (use 1 lemon or lime for 1 l of water) helps to restore stomach acids/enzymes which improves protein digestion, improves cellular hydration (and therefore cellular function), helps the liver to detox (lukewarm water stimulates the release of bile into the gut), improves blood flow, cleans out the gut etc. The pinch of himalayan salt supports your adrenal glands. It basically prepares your body for the food you’re about to eat and the activities you’re about to perform during the day. Early hydration is especially important if you have an active lifestyle.
Move: the circadian rhythm is highly influenced by body temperature and heart rate. A higher heart rate and body temperature are associated with increased brain and physical activity. The opposite is necessary to prepare the body for a restful night of sleep. Go for a 15 minute morning walk after you’ve hydrated yourself, do some house cleaning, prepare your lunch or do a couple minutes of active movement in whatever form you like. The goal is to increase heart rate and body temperature in order to fully wake up your internal systems.
Expose yourself to sunlight: this is another very important element that regulates circadian rhythm. Exposure to sunlight (or blue light in winter) completely halts melatonin production, increases cortisol/adrenaline production which in turn increases your brain and physical activity. People always refer to caffeine as a potent substance to wake you up. Sunlight is way more potent than caffeine though because it directly stimulates cortisol/adrenaline production via sensory input and helps to mobilize energy right from the start without overstimulating your nervous system. Sunlight also improves serotonin production in the gut, which in turn helps with peristalsis and melatonin production. Serotonin and melatonin are both very important to prepare the body for sleep by reducing neuronal and muscular activity.
Don’t start your morning with a cup of coffee (or any other caffeinated beverages): I know this is a deeply entrenched habbit but you will actually get a lot more out of your cup of coffee if you drink it 1.5 hours after waking up. At this time cortisol usually drops down a bit so by drinking coffee at this time you can increase adrenaline production again without getting overstimulated and feeling jittery (when you wake up cortisol and adrenaline are already high because these are the hormones that pull you out of sleep in the first place). If you’re having trouble sleeping, try to limit caffeine intake and don’t consume any caffeine after 2 PM. If you’re the type that goes to bed early, you will benefit from stopping caffeine intake even earlier. Too much caffeine or drinking caffeine too close to bedtime is a bad idea because it will keep you out of deep sleep. Caffeine does this by binding to the same receptors that normally bind with adenosine (see strategy 2). Adenosine is very important for sleep motivation and needs to bind with these receptors in order to be properly metabolized at night. Caffeine prevents this and therefore adenosine concentrations stay higher in the brain which makes you feel tired in the morning even after a good night of sleep.
2) Increase physical activity throughout the day:
Humans are made to move, not to sit around all day. In general, movement offers a whole host of benefits but for sleep specifically movement plays an important role in increasing adenosine production. Adenosine is a neuromodulator and a byproduct of energy production.
Physical activity increases adenosine concentrations in the brain and when these molecules attach to specific neuron receptors, they slow down neuronal activity and build up homeostatic pressure. This increased pressure, along with increased melatonin concentrations, leads to feelings of tiredness/fatigue at the end of the day and improves sleep motivation.
Sleep motivation (regulated by adenosine concentrations) and circadian rhythm (hormone secretion → cortisol, adrenaline, serotonin, melatonin) are the two systems that regulate sleep.
3) Eat the right foods and use food strategically to improve sleep quality:
There’s so much to be said about this but I’ll try to keep this simple and short. Our personality, mood, wakefullness, sleep quality/quantity are all regulated by hormones and neurotransmitters. Food directly impacts hormones and neurotransmitters.
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that you need to manage cortisol and adrenaline. You want these to be higher in the morning, normal throughout the day (frequent short peaks throughout the day are normal, it’s more about feeling focused and relatively relaxed) and low in the evening. Carbohydrates are the best ‘drug’ to lower cortisol. Therefore increasing carb intake in the afternoon/evening can be a potent strategy to help your body relax.
When looking at food quality, use the 80/20 rule. 80% healthy, whole, minimally processed foods, 20% crap. This will keep inflammation in check, which can be another element that impedes sleep quality. If your gut health and gut bacteria are bad, they will communicate with the rest of your body and brain via the vagus nerve. An inflamed gut and a lack of good gut bacteria increase oxidative stress and therefore negatively influence hormonal and neuronal output.
Besides carbs, makes sure to eat enough fruits, veggies, herbs, potatoes with your meats and healthy fats to control acidity and provide pre-and probiotics (via fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut) for the gut.
4) Strategically use supplements to enhance sleep quality:
Sometimes food and lifestyle alterations are not enough to offer good quality sleep. This is where supplements might be a useful tool to kickstart better sleep hygiene. Before you decide to use them though, keep the following things in mind:
Always consult with your doctor or a professional when you’re about to introduce a new supplement, unless you know what you’re doing. Start with smaller doses and steadily modify them to your personal needs.
Supplements are exactly as the word says. They help complete an already healthy eating/drinking pattern. Don’t buy them with the expectation that they will solve all of your problems. It’s important to have a holistic view on this.
Try to buy supplements that offer 100% natural ingredients or close to it. Too often supplements have chemical additives, alcohol or conservatives added to them that can potentially cause more harm than good. Besides, the body recognizes and better absorbs substances in their most natural state.
When buying mineral supplements, choose either ionic or chelated versions. This increases gut absorption and cell utilisation.
Buy supplements with single ingredients or an upper limit of 3 ingredients. Blends are suboptimal because, while the listed ingredients can be very beneficial, the doses are often too small to have any noticable effect.
This one speaks for itself: be careful when mixing supplements with alcohol. Especially supplements that increase inhibiting neurotransmitter activity. If you combine these with alcohol, things can become very dangerous rather quickly.
My recommended supplements to improve sleep: glycine, magnesium l-threonate, magnesium bysglycinate, inositol, taurine, 5-HTP, probiotics (GABA production), GABA, l-tryptophan, chamomille, kava kava, valerian root and, if you have to, melatonin.
5) Manage stress for more restful sleep:
This is one lifestyle factor people struggle with the most. It’s so important to keep stress levels in check, whether they are physical or psychological.
You can manage stress partly via proper hydration, food, supplements, a healthy balance between physical activity and recovery and avoiding stressful situations. Your sleep quality, mindset, thoughts and subconscious beliefs however, are the ones that need more attention.
You can use deep breathing techniques, self massage like accupressure mats/myofascial release, yoga and deep stretching in the morning or prebed, meditation or mindfulness protocols, easy walks in nature etc. Making time for playing with your kids, hanging out with friends and family, listening to relaxing music, having sex, reading (fictional literature, no heavy or learning topics) are all examples of decreasing your stress load.
Look to previous threads on sleep in which I posted answers for more details on this matter.
6) Optimize your sleeping environment:
Fixing a sleeping issue can sometimes be as simple as making a few changes in your sleeping environment. It’s important that your brain learns to associate your bedroom with sleepy time or sexy time. These should be the only two activities happening in the bedroom. Take a close look at these tips and see if you can use some of them to increase your chances of having better sleep:
Keep your bedroom temperature between 16°- 20° (61°F- 68°F). Your core body temperature regulates circadian rhythm. In order for you to fall and stay asleep, your core body temperature needs to be a bit lower than during the daytime. A slow drop in core body temperature alongside a slow increase in darkness is necessary to signal the process of melatonin production and secretion. A cool bedroom helps to reach this ideal core body temperature more quickly because the body can lose heat. Regulating room temperature in winter is pretty easy. In spring and summertime you might need more creative solutions to reach the same goal: opening windows in the morning and at night, wearing breathable/cooling clothing or bedding, using airconditioning, sleeping on the ground floor or even outside on very hot days.
Wear thin, loose socks or gloves to improve blood circulation and vasodilation in the hands and feet. Hands and feet are the body’s extremities and the preferred places of the body to give off heat. This is why people tend to stick out a leg or arm from underneath their sheets when they’re hot by the way. It happens subconciously because that’s how the body naturally wants to cool off.
Invest in bedding materials like cotton, silk or bamboo. These natural fibers are more expensive but they are the very best at thermoregulation. If you’re a hot sleeper it is definitely worth buying one of these.
Make sure your matress and pillow are not worn out. Depending on the materials and your body composition, it can take as little as 3 years for a matress and 1 year for a pillow to become useless. When your matress/pillow no longer offers the support and comfort your body needs for a neutral sleeping position, it can lead to issues like stifness, pain and even disturbances in deep and REM sleep.
If you value your sleep, it is always a good idea to invest in sustainable, high quality matresses/pillows. High quality matresses/pillows not only have a much longer lifespan. They also offer the support and comfort your body needs for a restful night of sleep.
It’s actually kinda funny how people spend thousands of dollars on medication and supplements but complain about spending a little more money on things like matresses/pillows that can truly make a huge difference in their sleep quality and their overall quality of life. If you think about it, we spend about a third of our lives in bed. Knowing this, doesn’t that make it a lot more logical to choose high quality materials?
Avoid noises in the bedroom that are disturbing to YOU. The brain kan pick up sounds even as we sleep. We are wired like that. For example a mother can wake up during the night when her baby’s crying. A partner snoring very loud can wake you up during the night. A passing truck can wake you during the night. Off course you cannot ignore your crying baby but you can do something about the other disturbing noises in your bedroom that wake you up at night. On the other hand, a bedroom that’s too quiet can also be a problem for some individuals. Using a white noise machine or similar devices that produce soothing, relaxing sounds can help you fall and stay asleep.
Use alarm clocks that vibrate or simulate sunlight. These things are not stressful or disturbing and wake you from your sleep in a more natural way. Avoid very loud, blaring alarm clocks that shock your system each time they go off and DO NOT USE THE SNOOZE BUTTON. The amount of time you have between snoozes is not enough to get you back into deep sleep so you’re basically wasting time.
Smell, just like sound, can also increase alertness or relaxation. For example mint has a stimulating effect while jasmin or lavender have a soothing effect on the nervous system.
Ventilate your bedroom (and your entire house) regularly to allow fresh air to come in. Besides oxygen air also contains negative ions that are crucial for health and wellbeing. Negative ions improve air quality in 3 ways: they make air more active by providing free electrons, they oxidize odours, fungi, parasites and toxic substances/gases. They also bind to pollen, cigarette smoke, fine dust and pet dander to form larger particles that are easier to remove from your home. Finally, better air quality significantly lowers the risk of respiratory problems and allergies, which can also be a disturbing factor for sleep.
Use houseplants to reduce CO2 and increase oxygen in your bedroom and house. Plants filter the air, remove neurotoxins like formaldehyde and some of them spread calming scents as well. They are a worthy addition for your bedroom.
Use painting colors for your bedroom walls that generate feelings of calmness and peace. While this may seem irrelevant at first, the opposite is actually true. Bright colors and strong color contrasts can arouse the nervous system and increase feelings of anxiety. Uniform and calming colors like blue, green and white are great options (these are the colors we can often find in nature). Choose softer, lighter variants instead of darker ones. Unless you are a metalhead, then you can go with pitch black. Which brings me to my next point.
Turn your bedroom into a “cave”. Light exposure is one of the most disturbing elements for good sleep. Your skin and eyes contain photoreceptors that are incredibly responsive to light. They signal the brain to produce wakefulness hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which decrease melatonin production. Make your bedroom as dark as possible and use things like blackout curtains. If you cannot see your hand in front of you, you did a good job.
Limit or keep all electronic devices out of your bedroom. There are several reasons for this but I’ll give you the most important ones: Blue light exposure, exposure to radiation that surpresses delta waves (these are necessary to reach the deep sleep stage) and melatonin production via an increase in dopamine production (which in this case is an excitatory neurotransmitter).
Play your position: choosing the right sleeping position and selecting the right pillow/matress for your sleeping position can make a huge difference. For more info on pillows, matresses and sleeping tips in general, check out the blog of dr michael breus, the ‘sleep doctor’.
7) End each day with an evening routine that optimizes circadian rhythm:
Ideally you go to bed at the same time each day. Same rules apply as those described in the morning (see strategy 1).
Decrease blue light exposure at least 90 minutes before bedtime and ideally stop blue light exposure at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Engage in relaxing activities like reading, having sex, talking to your spouse/kids/dog/cat. The idea here is to let melatonin do its thing so you can fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of going to bed.
Use a “power down hour”. This concept was popularized by dr. Michael Breus and is fairly simple. You basically divide the last hour before bedtime into 3 segments: In the first segment you finish small tasks that take away stress in the morning like preparing lunch for your kids, choosing your suit for the next day etc. The second segment is all about hygiene. Brushing your teeth, washing your face etc. The last segment consists of relaxing activities that have a low energy demand. Off course you can make your own version, as long as you don’t implement blue light exposure and/or mentally/physically draining tasks.
Take a sauna, shower or hot bath 1.5-2 hours before bedtime. This pulls heat to the skin and steadily lowers your core body temperature.
How to lower nightly trips to the bathroom:
- stop drinking fluids 2-3 hours before bedtime.
- use a bit of salt with your last meal/snack to increase water retention.
- don’t look at your watch/clock when you do wake up to go to the bathroom. When you notice you only have a couple of hours of sleep left, this can generate stress and make it harder to fall asleep.
- use a ‘brain dump’ if you can’t escape your thoughts. Write them all down on a piece of paper and go back to bed. This can work wonders for some people.
- don’t turn on the lights of your bedroom and hallway to go to the bathroom. Blue light exposure remember? Use either dimming lights or yellow/red light bulbs upstairs to guide your way to the bathroom as these won’t disturb your melatonin secretion.
- Use deep breathing (in via nose and into diaphragm, out via mouth) to decrease your heart rate. To reach a state of unconsciousness (sleep) your heart rate needs to be at 60 or below.
- use 200 mg of 5-HTP or l-tryptophan to boost serotonin levels at night. Studies have shown that higher serotonin concentrations in the brain increase deep and REM sleep in people with sleeping disorders.
- If you need to pee at night, just go. There’s no point in waiting until you can’t hold it in anymore. The sooner you go, the faster you can go back to sleep again.
- Avoid alcohol late at night. Alcohol is a diuretic which causes your kidneys to flush sodium and water from your body through urine. Never wondered why you look leaner after a night of drinking?
Lastly, it is normal and ok to occassionally have a bad night of sleep. This is part of life and being human. However, when you’re chronically sleep deprived, that is an issue that needs to be fixed.
I’m 100% sure these strategies can improve your sleeping game. Unless you have a serious underlying medical condition or sleeping disorder. In that case I would advise you to go visit a sleeping centre.