March 18th is World Sleep Day—a day to slow down, examine your sleep needs, and recommit to healthier habits. Your genetics and many environmental factors may be outside your control, but don’t underestimate how much behavioral changes can impact your sleep and overall health.
In honor of Sleep Awareness Week and World Sleep Day, we’ve compiled a list of 10 simple ways to improve your sleep. As you read through these tips, think about how you can gradually incorporate a few of them into your daily routines. Your hard work will pay off in just a few weeks with better rest and more energized days.
1. Stick to a Schedule, Even on the Weekends
For anyone with a traditional nine-to-five job, the weekends are a respite from work and stress. While you should take advantage of the weekend and relax, maintaining some structure will make it easier to get back into the swing of things when Monday rolls around.
As tempting as it may be, sleeping in on the weekends throws off your circadian rhythms, also known as your internal clock. To regulate your sleep cycles, try your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. According to the Mayo Clinic, you shouldn’t delay your bedtime or wake time by more than one hour on the weekends.
2. Embrace Natural Light
Your body relies on light to regulate sleep. Photoreceptors in the retina respond to light, telling the brain to repress melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel tired. In the absence of light, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, signaling to the rest of the body that it’s time to get ready for bed.
Exposure to natural sunlight during the day—especially first thing in the morning—can help sync your internal clock with the sun. This synchronization will help regulate when you feel tired and when you feel alert, making it easier to keep a consistent sleep schedule and get plenty of rest.
What does it mean to embrace the sun? Start by opening your blinds as soon as you wake up. We also recommend spending time outside every day, ideally in the morning or early afternoon. You can also arrange your home or office in a way that maximizes sunlight by strategically arranging your furniture or using mirrors to redirect light.
3. Cut Off Caffeine Eight Hours Before Bed
Especially if you have a desk job, the latter half of the workday can feel endless. As the afternoon drags on, you may be tempted to make another cup of coffee to power you through the post-lunch slump. However, caffeine can keep you up at night if the body doesn’t have time to metabolize it. Studies show that having caffeine even six hours before bed can disrupt sleep.
Erring on the side of caution, you’ll want to cut off caffeine intake about eight hours before bedtime. So if you hope to sleep around 10 p.m., you shouldn’t drink caffeinated beverages after 2 p.m.
4. Nap Smarter
If you’re one of the millions of employees who now work remote, you’ve likely taken advantage of your new-found freedom to take lunchtime naps. However, taking naps isn’t always beneficial; if you don’t nap the “right” way, you run the risk of waking up dazed or making it harder for you to fall asleep that night.
To experience the energy-boosting benefits of a short snooze without jeopardizing your overnight rest, follow the two golden rules of effective naps:
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Napping too late in the day can prevent you from feeling tired and falling asleep at bedtime.
- Aim to nap for 10 to 20 minutes. If you nap for less than 10 minutes, you likely won’t feel refreshed. If you nap for about 30 minutes or more, you may enter deep (slow-wave) sleep. Waking up from this sleep phase is difficult and leaves you feeling groggy.
5. Exercise with Intention
Getting regular exercise has countless benefits for your health, including positive effects on sleep.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, exercise improves sleep quality by increasing the time you spend in deep sleep. Exercising regularly also helps balance your mood and decompress your mind, which makes it easier to fall asleep.
Of course, establishing an exercise regimen is easier said than done, especially if you’ve never kept one before. Below, you’ll find tips and resources for starting (and sticking to) your fitness journey.
Guides for Establishing an Exercise Routine
- The New York Times, How to Start Working Out
Should You Exercise at Night?
Keep in mind that exercising too close to bed can make it harder for the body to shut down and rest. Exercise releases endorphins, creating brain activity that can keep you awake. It also raises your body temperature, telling the body to stay awake. Experts recommend waiting at least 90 minutes before going to bed after exercising.
6. Don’t Delay Dinner
While a light evening snack likely won’t affect your sleep, you should leave ample time for digestion between dinner and bedtime. Eating a full meal too close to bed may disrupt your circadian rhythms, as eating and digestion signal wakefulness. Digestive issues like acid reflux and heartburn can also make it hard to relax and drift off to sleep.
We recommend eating your last meal of the day at least three hours before bedtime. This gives your body enough time to (partially) digest the meal and allows your stomach to settle if you ate anything that triggers acid reflux.
That said, going to bed hungry can also prevent you from falling asleep. If you need a snack to tide you over, stick to something healthy and simple. Sleep Foundation recommends a low-calorie carbohydrate or protein, such as nuts, oatmeal, or yogurt.
7. Invest in Your Mental Health
Earlier this year, Nolah published our 2022 Sleep Survey, exploring the factors that prevent and promote healthy sleep. Among the 400 participants surveyed, the most common cause for difficulty falling asleep is “stress, anxiety, overthinking, or other uncontrollable thoughts.”
Sleep health and mental health have a reciprocal relationship, meaning the more psychological stress you experience, the harder it is to get restorative rest. Meanwhile, insufficient rest often worsens symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 50 percent of all insomnia cases are related to psychological stress, anxiety, or depression.
On the positive side, the close relationship between sleep and mental wellness also means you can improve one area by treating the other. Getting better sleep can make symptoms more manageable, and reducing anxiety and stress can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
It’s important to note that everyone can benefit from intentional mental health care, not just individuals with insomnia or a mental disorder. Also, maintaining mental wellness looks different for everyone—the key is finding the practices and tools that work for you.
For many people, making lifestyle changes and establishing healthier habits can go a long way to reduce stress and boost your mood. For example, you can try modifying your diet, establishing an exercise routine, enjoying the outdoors more, journaling, meditating, making time for friends, or taking up a new hobby.
That said, you shouldn’t be embarrassed or afraid to seek professional support. Depending on your needs, seeing a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist may be the best way to address your mental health concerns. In the links below, you’ll find resources for getting the mental health support you need.
Mental Health Resources
- The American Psychological Association’s list of crisis hotlines and resources and guide for finding a therapist
- The National Institute of Mental Health’s resource list and guide for finding help
- Find a local National Alliance on Mental Health organization or affiliate
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mental health tools and resources
8. Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Sanctuary
Don’t underestimate how much your environment impacts your sleep.
If your bedroom is too bright or too hot, you’ll have trouble falling asleep and may wake up during the night due to discomfort. In a messy or cluttered room, you can feel overwhelmed, making it hard to relax. Meanwhile, if you don’t have the right mattress and sleep accessories, you’ll struggle to get comfortable and may wake up with soreness or pain.
You spend about a third of every day in bed, making it well worth it to perfect your bedroom and sleep setup. The list below highlights the environmental factors you should consider to optimize your sleep.
- Try to keep your bedroom neat and clean. If you can, keep stressors like work materials out of the bedroom. If you have limited space and your bedroom doubles as your office, try to create a division between your bed and your work area. Strategically arranging your furniture or buying a free-standing room divider can separate the zoom into zones.
- Sleep health experts recommend keeping your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit during sleep.
- Thick, blackout curtains not only keep out light but they can damper outside noise as well.
- The type of bedding you buy matters. To keep cool, dry, and comfortable, look for light-weight and moisture-wicking materials like bamboo, silk, and linen.
- Mattresses aren’t a one-size-fits-all product. When you buy a new bed, you should consider your weight class, sleep position, and any pain points you commonly experience. For help finding your perfect fit, check out our Mattress Buying Guide.
9. Befriend Books and Podcasts
According to our 2022 Sleep Survey, 85 percent of adults sleep with their phone in or near their bed every night. Unfortunately, this habit may negatively affect your sleep, as the blue light emitted from screens can disturb your circadian rhythms.
Our study found that 57 percent of adults who always sleep by their phone typically need more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, compared to only 29 percent of adults who never sleep with their phone beside them. To improve your sleep latency, we recommend staying away from screens for at least one hour before bedtime.
Take this phone-free time as an opportunity to calm your mind and prepare for sleep. While you don’t want to climb into bed just yet, you can start winding down by doing something relaxing that takes your mind off stressors. Reading and listening to podcasts or audiobooks make great options, as they immerse you in another world but don’t rely on visuals.
10. Try Guided Meditation or Breathing Techniques
People who have trouble sleeping often ask about exercises that make you fall asleep fast. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single trick that works for everyone or does the job every night. That said, there are a few methods that help a lot of people smoothly transition into sleep.
- The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique– This technique—derived from the yogic practice of Bhramari pranayama—works by calming the mind and reducing your heart rate. All you have to do is inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven, exhale for eight, then repeat this cycle four to eight times. Click here to learn more about how the technique works and how it benefits your sleep.
- Body Scan Meditation– This simple meditation helps relax your entire body, one area at a time. Once you settle into bed, close your eyes and start by focusing on your breath. Next, acknowledge and feel every part of your body, starting with your face and ending with your toes. By “scanning” yourself and isolating each body part and muscle group, you’ll give attention to every inch of your body, consciously relaxing every part. Move through this exercise slowly, and repeat from the bottom up if necessary. You can continue the cycle until you drift off to sleep.