Original publication in Thrive Global on August 29th 2019
To avoid sleepless nights and set yourself up for success the next day, try one of these science-backed steps.
If you have trouble getting into a regular sleep pattern, establishing clear morning and nighttime routines can help you fall asleep more easily and wake up feeling refreshed, leading to greater productivity all day. It doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming, but sticking to a schedule has a calming effect and can relieve stress.
Here, two sleep scientists give their suggestions.
In the Morning:
Pick a wake-up time and stick to it
“Setting the same wake-up time every morning is essential and it’s best to maintain that every day, even on the weekends,” says Cheri Mah, M.D., a physician scientist specializing in sleep and performance at the University of California, San Francisco (U.C.S.F.) Human Performance Center.
“There’s no right or wrong time to get up,” Christopher Winter, M.D., Director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine Center, tells Thrive. “If you want to tackle the day at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m., either is perfectly fine, just stick to that time.” He notes that if you do need to get up earlier occasionally, that’s OK, but it’s better not to sleep beyond your regular wake-up time.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the minimum recommended sleep for healthy adults is seven hours a night, but just as everybody is a little different, everyone’s sleep needs can differ as well; you may need more than the recommended hours of sleep to feel fully rested.
Tidy your bedroom in the morning
Dr. Winter, the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It, suggests making your bed every morning and keeping your room neat. He also recommends keeping your laundry and any unsorted mail or paperwork out of sight. “It’s calming to tidy up at the start of the day so you enter a fresh, neat bedroom at night. There is research suggesting that a neat environment helps facilitate the onset of sleep and better sleep quality,” he says.
At Sleep Number, 73 percent of Sleep Number® SleepIQ® sleepers make their bed every day. Compared to those who don’t make their bed, this group wakes up 20 minutes earlier but they’re more rested; they end up getting four more minutes of restful, good sleep.* Those four minutes may not sound like much, but could add up to much more quality shut-eye and energy over time.
Exercise outside or somewhere bright
Exercise is a great way to start your day, says Dr. Mah, who is a sleep specialist working with elite and professional athletes, along with her academic work. “Regular exercise can be beneficial for healthy sleep, and morning sunlight is a strong stimulus to lock in your body clock and keep you on a regular schedule,” Dr. Mah tells Thrive.
Dr. Winter adds that exercising somewhere bright, whether it’s outdoors or in a well-lit indoor space, helps wake up your brain for a more productive start. “It’s great to have the contrast between a dark, cool, motionless room during the night versus, say, a bright, warm Zumba class at 7:30 a.m. That’s a fantastic way for your brain to understand when the day begins, so it can plan accordingly,” says Dr. Winter.
In the Evening:
Don’t eat too late
Eat dinner on the early side, says Dr. Winter. “If you drink alcohol, it’s best to have it as soon as you get home from work in the evening — and in moderation.”
Alcohol suppresses deep sleep, delays REM sleep, is dehydrating, and is a muscle relaxer, so it often worsens breathing and can even cause sleep apnea, Dr. Winter tells Thrive. “Remember, sedation and sleep are not the same,” he says.
Establish a wind-down routine
To prepare your body to sleep, Dr. Mah suggests prioritizing a wind-down routine before your target bedtime, which can include reading, breathing exercises, yoga, stretching, or meditation. Any wind-down time is helpful, she tells Thrive, and she recommends starting with five minutes, then building up to a 20-minute routine. “Use this as a dedicated time to process your thoughts from the day and anticipate what needs to get done the following day,” Dr. Mah says. “One athlete I worked with liked to do a Rubik’s Cube before bed, and found that relaxing. There isn’t one thing that’s going to work for everyone, so find a routine that works for you.”
Switching up your after-dinner lighting options can also help. “Get dimmer switches,” advises Dr. Winter “Also, consider buying bulbs that are blue– or green-free. That will allow your brain to start generating melatonin.”
You can find helpful bedtime routine ideas in the free Sleep30 Challenge by Sleep Number.
Stay away from screens
Avoid using technology an hour before bedtime because bright screens can delay melatonin release, which is important for sleep, and prevent you from sleeping when you intend to, says Dr. Mah. “Creatively rearrange how you spend your time. Use the phone and watch TV earlier in the evening, not right before sleeping,” she advises.
Go to bed at around the same time
“It’s important to have a regular bedtime, because that helps our body anticipate regular sleep,” says Dr. Mah. That time doesn’t have to be set in stone, but you should aim to make your bedtime early enough to allow for seven to eight hours of sleep a night. If bedtime rolls around and you “don’t feel sleepy, try to doze off anyway with the idea that you might surprise yourself. Even if you don’t fall asleep right away, resting in bed (not sleeping) is awesome and restorative too,” says Dr. Winter. And if you do stay up a little later occasionally, don’t stress about it.
Make bedtime joyful and relaxing
Reading a book in bed can be a great way to prep your body for sleep. Dr. Mah strongly recommends reading “real” books or magazines. “That way you’re not going to get the blue light exposure from screens, triggering your brain to stay awake. Blue light can prevent sleep and melatonin release, and that’s important for falling asleep,” she says.
Work on cultivating a feeling of joy when you climb into bed, says Dr. Winter. “Being in a comfortable bed is great,” he says. “Find the enjoyment of simply relaxing in your bed. It beats a lot of other places and situations you could find yourself in!”
What you do all day matters, too
Scientists point out that to ensure a good night’s sleep, it’s not just about morning and nighttime routines. Small changes like not drinking coffee after noon, setting regular mealtimes, making sure you find some time to move and get some light throughout the day, all contribute to a good night’s sleep. “Napping is great too, if you already sleep well at night but also feel the need for a little more shut-eye during the day,” says Dr. Winter, though if you have problems sleeping, napping might not be a good idea. “If you want the best quality rest at night, it’s all about the decisions you make in the daytime,” concludes Dr. Mah. “Healthy sleep starts with the way you navigate your day as well as making choices to optimize quality sleep at night.”
*Based on SleepIQ® data from 1/1/19 to 1/31/19 and self-reported survey data (from a Sleep Number study) among SleepIQ® sleepers.