How to Get Better Sleep
A simple but thorough guide with no gadgets or pills required
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
We need seven or more hours of sleep per night, so we can recover from all the stuff we put our bodies and minds through over the course of a day.
This is a lot more important than many give it credit for and a physical fact based on human biology and evolution.
Despite this, more than 60% of people report that they do not sleep as well as they would like, while sleep quality tends to get worse with age.
I know there are many people out there who believe the rules do not apply to them. They say things like, “I only need four or five hours and I’m fine.”
I used to be one of those people.
Maybe this seems true to us when we are young because youth is so forgiving and we would bounce back despite the deprivation. Indeed, getting away with too little sleep when we are young is likely a behavioral precursor of poor sleep habits.
But over time, and regardless of the lengths we go to confirm our own beliefs, physiology catches up with us. There are negative effects of not getting enough sleep (which I summarize below), and they get more severe the more regularly we don’t get enough.
So whether we are getting older and we still believe we do not need that much or younger and think we were born different, now might be a great time to understand the costs of inadequate sleep and to adjust our routines.
We can break down negative effects into two categories, short term and long term.
Short-Term Effects of Poor Sleep
The bad news is a poor night's sleep can affect our functioning across behavioral, cognitive, and emotional domains.
Effects can include:
1. Reduced energy
2. Inhibited motor coordination
3. Less stamina
4. Decreased alertness
4. Less ability to focus and concentrate
5. Impaired memory
6. Decreased ability to learn
7. Decreased creativity
8. Decreased emotional control and regulation
9. Negative mood
The good news is that there are no long-term negative effects of getting a poor night’s sleep here or there. A couple good nights sleep and we are fine again.
Long-Term Effects of Poor Sleep
But if we are not getting enough sleep regularly, the negative effects become more severe over time.
Chronic poor sleep increases the risk of:
1. Dementia / Alzheimer's Disease
2. Heart Disease
3. Accelerated muscle loss (Sarcopenia)
4. Compromised immune system functioning
5. Mood disorders
8. Lowered sex drive
Listening to Our Bodies
Our body tells us when we are not getting enough sleep but sometimes we ignore the communications. Sure, we might feel tired or lack energy, which are clear signals, but needing more sleep may show up in other ways like crankiness or any of the effects mentioned above in the Short-Term Effects section.
Tuning in to our own body’s cues and raising our own awareness of our energy levels can play a critical role in determining if we need to begin incorporating some of the Good Sleep Habits I list below:
Good Sleep Habits
We can improve our sleep by focusing on a few or more of the following components of Sleep Hygiene (Hygiene is just a fancy way of saying health habit).
1. Wake up early in the morning near the same time everyday. Even on the weekends.
2. Get outside early in the day and let your eyes and body soak up some sunlight. This serves as a body clock (Circadian Rhythm) reset. Plus, it feels great and might lift our mood.
3. Exercise earlier in the day if possible. I love the early morning walk, which also satisfies 2 above (getting outside early in the day).
4. Go to bed by 10 and close to the same time most nights.
5. Begin dimming the lights as bedtime approaches. Similar to 2, this is a body clock reset.
6. Avoid Alcohol.
7. Avoid a heavy carbohydrate-loaded lunch. This might tire us prematurely.
8. Avoid caffeine after 2:00 PM. Caffeine in our system might prevent sleep onset.
9. Avoid exercise before bedtime. This raises our heart rate and blood flow and might make it more difficult to wind down before sleep.
10. Take a hot bath or hot tub in the early evening. This relaxes our bodies and, counterintuitively, promotes a decrease in body temperature after the warm soaking.
11. Leave your mobile device out of the bedroom. We want to avoid the light in our face and also the brain activation the phone, and especially social media, might provoke.
12. Don’t eat right before bed. We want to rest our bodies and allow them to recover and digestion puts our bodies to work.
13. Keep it cool in the bedroom, below 70 degrees. Our body temperature decreases when we sleep. A cool bedroom provides a conducive environment for this body temperature decrease.
Some Important Stuff to Know
Here are some important things to consider when adopting habits from the list above in order to improve sleep.
KISS (Keep It Simple Sleepy) - There are a lot of other things we could add to this list like wearing blue light blocking glasses or taking Melatonin or some other pills. I don’t add these other things because most people can go a long way to improving sleep without them.
If we get outside early and dim the lights late, most of us won’t need to wear special glasses etc.
Our bodies were designed over millions of years of evolution to sleep without gadgets and supplements.
Everybody Is Different - Some people will have to follow many of the things on this list religiously in order to sleep better. Some people will improve their sleep only following one or a few.
Some people can drink caffeine or exercise later in the day and sleep fine, while others can’t.
Tuning In to our Own Experiences - Training ourselves to sleep better is doable.
And one key to doing it is tuning in to how we feel. Do we feel tired? Do we feel tired but trying to block it out? Do we cope by drinking coffee well into the afternoon? Do we regularly exhibit some of the Short-Term Effects listed above?
When we pay attention to our own experiences, we immediately improve our ability to modify those experiences.
The Quantified Self - Wearable devices like the Apple Watch, Oura Ring, and Whoop can provide a lot of information about how we are sleeping. We need to be a little careful wearing them, because we don’t want to sacrifice our own senses, but if we need them to make a poor sleep diagnosis, then that’s a good thing.
Quantified Self devices have been especially useful in helping people realize how bad alcohol use can be for sleep.
Alcohol and Sleep - Which brings us to this one.
Alcohol consumption negatively affects sleep quality. Because alcohol is a sedative, people sometimes mistakenly believe that it can help us sleep better by enabling sleep onset.
While alcohol consumption may provoke sleepiness, sleep quality and duration tends to be poor as REM sleep decreases.
This, in part, explains why we might be tired the day after drinking.
Frequent alcohol use can help spur the long-term effects of poor sleep listed above. It may also increase the risk of Sleep Apnea as well as a host of other health problems not directly related to sleep..
1 Through 6 Training
If you’re not sure where to begin, try 1 through 6 listed in the Good Sleep Habits Section above.
At the top of this post, I mentioned that I used to be a poor sleeper.
I was terrible for many years and it most notably affected my energy levels, mood, and ability to focus.
Here’s what I did to improve my sleep dramatically. I followed steps 1-6 listed above.
I quit drinking. It’s been a few years and my sleep has improved substantially.
Then, I began getting outside early and moving my body as well as dimming lights in the evening.
These are now daily habits and it works for me.
This combination might work for you or you might need to try other things on the list but it’s a good place to start.
Focusing on Benefits
When we begin to adopt new habits that might help us improve our sleep or anything, we are training ourselves.
And when we train ourselves, one thing that gets us to repeat new habits is the rewards.
In this case, we can think of the benefits of the new habits as rewards.
This is why I recommend tracking the benefits of any new behaviors.
So let’s say tomorrow, you do 1-6. You wake up early, get outside, take a nice brisk walk, do not drink, dim the lights in the evening, and get to sleep early.
Then, you notice that you slept pretty well and that the next day you felt rested and woke up easily.
Take special note of those things. Write them down. Those were the rewards for following the budding habits. Those will reinforce your new behaviors.