Most of us are familiar with that dreaded, late-night feeling. You’re lying awake in bed, getting more and more anxious about how tired you’ll be when your alarm goes off. Instead of following that life coach’s instructions to visualize your best life, you’re manifesting an irritable and unproductive day ahead. “Why can’t I sleep?” you wonder.
Getting good sleep matters
A poor night’s sleep not only turns you into a huge crank — it affects your metabolism and immune system and can even have long-term health consequences
. Since sleep is so important to your health, relying on your homegrown insomnia remedies like bingeing unboxing videos just won’t cut it.
Improving your sleep is way more complicated than just figuring out what time you should go to bed. The good news is that there are steps you can take right now to upgrade your sleep hygiene. But first, let’s nerd out about how your body actually regulates sleep through hormones.
What are sleep hormones?
A hacky comedian might call a moody woman “hormonal,” but literally everyone has hormones — they’re chemicals that regulate all kinds of functions in your body. The so-called “sleep hormones” are a cast of characters that help you know when to be asleep and awake. This timing is part of your “circadian rhythm.”
Melatonin is the star of the show, making you feel relaxed and drowsy. Melatonin production generally increases when you perceive that nighttime is falling.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone” is our sleep villain. It raises your blood pressure and blood sugar, causing you to be alert. Cortisol is great in the morning when you have to rush a desperate dog out for a walk or respond to an urgent work email but it wreaks havoc on your slumber if you produce too much around bedtime.
Leptin and ghrelin
Leptin and ghrelin are known as the “hunger hormones” and generally regulate — you guessed it — when you’re hungry. The plot twist is that these hunger hormones also influence your sleep because their levels at bedtime affect your ability to produce melatonin. In turn, your quality of sleep also affects your hunger hormones
. You may notice that when you’ve slept poorly you tend to have a sudden urge to taste-test all the new Oreo flavors — not a helpful effect if you’re trying to maintain a diet.
Human Growth Hormone, commonly known as HGH, is primarily produced while you sleep. That may explain the conventional wisdom that children need sleep to grow. But even as an adult, you need HGH for brain function, to repair your body, and to build muscle
. You don’t want to miss out on these essential functions by sleeping poorly.
You have the power to direct these hormone characters in a pleasant story about high quality sleep instead of a horror show about tossing and turning!
Tips to improve your sleep
1. The best time to sleep and wake up is…a consistent time!
It would be hard to catch your favorite spin class if the schedule was constantly changing, right? So if you’re always going to bed and getting up at different times, your body will have trouble knowing when to release melatonin and cortisol.
Create a sleep schedule that suits your family or job obligations and then stick to it as much as possible (yes, even on weekends). Soon you’ll be regularly kicking that slumber into gear.
2. Watch your caffeine intake
Have you ever felt physically exhausted yet when you go to bed you can’t seem to turn your brain “off”? Caffeine might be the culprit.
Try reducing your intake and/or avoiding it after a certain hour (as tempting as that afternoon matcha tea may be). If you’re the type who pounds sodas or coffees throughout the day, try gradually stepping your caffeine down by making half-caf drinks. You can also get some of your “pick-me-ups” from non-caffeinated beverages like flavored sparkling water.
3. Be mindful of what you eat and drink
We already know that caffeinated beverages can keep you up but surprisingly alcohol can also wreak havoc on the quality of your sleep by suppressing melatonin production
. What you eat additionally affects your sleep since melatonin levels are impacted by your blood sugar and hunger hormone activity. Saliva tests can measure biomarkers
to help determine if your diet might be contributing to difficulty sleeping.
4. Exercise regularly
There are, of course, a multitude of health benefits to exercising, one of which is that it directly improves your sleep quality
. Exercise can also indirectly help you sleep by reducing stress that might otherwise keep you tossing and turning. Some may find that rigorous exercise in the evening increases bedtime cortisol too much, so find a time that works best for your body if you’re into tire flipping and suicide drills.
5. Take the right amount of melatonin for you
While melatonin does induce sleep, simply loading up on melatonin at night won’t necessarily foster quality sleep over time. Too much melatonin
can cause you to be groggy in the morning if your body can’t produce enough cortisol to shake the fog. Besides defeating the purpose of getting a good night’s rest, this may lead you to reach for caffeine, sabotaging your next night’s sleep.
Everyone’s body is different and the amount of melatonin that’s right for you can’t be decided simply by age or weight. You can track your levels of melatonin
at different times in the day so that you can customize an optimal melatonin dosage for your body’s needs.
6. Reduce blue light exposure
Remember how melatonin is produced when you perceive night to be falling? That system doesn’t work great for modern humans who stare at bright screens all day. Our electronic devices emit “blue light” which is particularly powerful at suppressing melatonin
. Luckily there are several ways you can reduce your blue light intake.
Avoid using electronic devices near bedtime
In addition to reducing your blue light exposure, this may help you relax your mind and avoid stress. (Yes, scrolling Instagram content of celebrities living better than you is stressful!)
Reduce the blue light emanating from your devices
Many phones and computers allow you to set a daily schedule to switch the screen to warmer colors at a certain hour, or you may be able to install an app to do this.
Wear blue light blocking glasses when using your devices
These specialty glasses (available with and without prescription lenses) block a portion of the blue light before it reaches your eye. Some may find these tinted glasses to look a bit silly but a good night’s sleep is always in fashion.
7. Craft a relaxing bedtime routine
Are you too wound up around bedtime? It could be that your cortisol levels are high (saliva tests
can help confirm this). Certain regular activities can help your mind relax and ward off those late-night bumps of stress hormone.
Even a short meditation session can reduce stress
. If you don’t know where to start, try a mediation app, many of which include specific meditations for sleep. Deep breathing and stretching can additionally help you relax.
Take a warm shower or bath 90 minutes before bedtime
In addition to causing your body’s core temperature to drop (a circadian rhythm signal), the time away from outside stimulations may help calm your mind (assuming you are not taking your phone into the shower!).
Read a book or write in a gratitude journal
Quiet activities away from electronics can help you relax and reduce the temptation to “plug in.” Experts recommend doing these activities somewhere other than in your bed, keeping that space associated only with sleep.
Make a To Do list for the next day
If you’re the type who lies awake stressing about everything you need to get done the next day, try writing those items down. You may find that your mind relaxes when you know your list of Zoom meetings to schedule and sourdough starters to feed will be there waiting for you in the morning.
8. Take CBD oil at bedtime
If a relaxing bedtime routine isn’t enough to reduce your high cortisol levels, you might consider trying cannabidiol oil
, commonly known as CBD oil. This derivative of cannabis can help you relax without the impairing effects of the THC compound found in many forms of cannabis. CBD oil derived from hemp (as opposed to marijuana) is legal in most places.
9. Optimize your sleep environment
Lower the temperature of the room
This is a signal for your circadian rhythm similar to the warm shower prior to bedtime.
Make your room dark
Even without the expensive blackout curtains found in fancy hotels, you can make your room darker by hanging a dark item of clothing in front of your blinds (now you finally have a use for all those old goth clothes!). Covering or stowing away electronics that give off light will also help.
Add white noise
A fan or air conditioner can block out noises in the environment that might wake you up. If something like a partner’s snoring is still bothering your ears, you may want to invest in a small noise machine.
Keep your phone out of reach
Even if you resist the temptation to reach for your phone, the mere option to check if you’ve missed a new TikTok video may cause undue stress while you’re trying to sleep.
Turn your electronic clock away from sight
In addition to reducing light exposure, this will prevent you from spiraling into panicky time-checks if you don’t fall asleep right away.
Consider keeping your pets off the bed
Sorry Kitty Purry, but if you’re active at night or if your human has allergies, you might have to find a new place to sleep.
Improve your bedding
Even if you’re not in the market to buy a new mattress, there may be inexpensive toppers or sheet sets that will help you find comfort. You may also want to rotate your mattress to avoid those pesky lumps and bumps.
10. Wake up gently
Waking up naturally rather than with a startling alarm can make you feel more refreshed — even if you got less actual sleep time. Most of us don’t have the luxury of waking up whenever we want, but you can create a more natural wake-up even on a schedule.
Use a sleep app alarm
Apps like Sleep Cycle
allow you to set an acceptable wake-up window of time. The app then listens to your movements in order to sound your alarm during an optimal moment of your sleep cycle.
Wake up with light
Light alarm clocks wake you up with a gradual brightening of light to mimic a natural “sunrise” waking.
11. When traveling, replicate as much of your sleep routine and environment as possible
Many people have more trouble sleeping when in an unfamiliar place
. Your body may sway less from your usual circadian rhythm if you stick to your bedtime routine as much as you can. Bringing items from home like your noise machine or favorite pillow can also help.
Follow the tips above and you may soon find yourself sleeping like a baby…or rather, sleeping like a well-informed adult!