We spend up to one-third of our lives asleep. And while our waking hours might seem more productive, quite the contrary is true. We need healthy sleep in order to function properly, both physically and mentally. Many biochemical and physiological processes take place during sleep. Our cells grow and repair themselves of damage from stress and ultraviolet rays. And our mind gets a break from dealing with life’s daily stressors.
Unfortunately, studies show 50 to 70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders and intermittent sleep problems. Poor sleep adversely affects cognition and motor performance, hormone production, metabolism, and can also weaken the immune system. Prolonged and untreated sleep disorders have even been linked to heart disease, stroke, hypertension, depression, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
While getting a good night’s sleep might seem impossible, there are a lot of simple changes you can make to your daily routine and bedtime ritual that can have a significant impact on improving sleep quality. From tweaking your bedtime routine to sleep-promoting evening snacks, check out these tips on how to sleep better.
How many hours of sleep do adults need?
Our age, lifestyle, and overall state of health are the biggest factors that impact how much sleep we need. While this varies from person to person, sleep experts have come up with scientifically-backed recommendations.
The National Sleep Foundation - one of the most trusted resources when it comes to sleep - has created a sleep chart with guidelines on how much sleep humans need at each age. They recommend adults 18-64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep. Similarly, the CDC advises adults get no less than seven hours of sleep each night.
5 Tips on how to sleep better
1. Eat sleep promoting foods an hour or two before bedtime
Diet plays a huge role in the way our bodies function, both physiologically and psychologically. There are foods that promote productivity, supplying us with fuel for the working hours. And there are other foods that help us relax, as we transition into bed time.
Tryptophan is one of the most beneficial sleep-promoting nutrients. It’s an amino-acid found in foods that are high in lean protein, such as chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seed, pepitas, spirulina, bananas, and peanuts. When metabolized, the body turns tryptophan into a B vitamin called niacin. Niacin is then used to create serotonin - a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our melatonin levels (the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycles). Serotonin is also the brain chemical responsible for making us feel happy. Its relaxing effect on the body helps lower stress levels and depression. The perfect segue into a healthy night’s rest.
In addition to eating foods high in tryptophan, there are particular nutrients that help speed up the time it takes your body convert the amino acid into serotonin. Vitamin B6 and unrefined carbohydrates are two of the most effective enhancers to pair with tryptophan-rich foods.
To help improve your quality of sleep, try these quick and easy pre-bedtime snack combos:
- Hummus and whole wheat pita
- Banana and any kind of nut butter
- Whole grain crackers and almond butter
- Almond milk and cereal
Magnesium and sleep
Magnesium, potassium, and calcium also help promote healthy sleep by regulating blood flow and muscle contraction - two key factors that help the body relax into sleep. When consumed together, these minerals aid in the absorption of one another. Magnesium also helps calcium and potassium ions reach our cell membranes, allowing them to do their job of maintaining cell function.
Foods high in magnesium, potassium, and calcium include:
- Steamed broccoli
- Sweet potatoes
Foods that inhibit healthy sleep
Just as some foods help promote sleep, others can potentially inhibit it. In general, anything that’s hard to digest is not a wise choice before bed time. That includes alcohol, anything high in fat such as fried foods, and acidic foods that can lead to heartburn such as tomato sauce, citrus fruits, and spicy foods. It’s best to avoid these at least three hours before you plan to hit the hay.
2. Get enough light exposure during the day
The amount of light you get each day has a huge influence on your body’s mood and sleep cycle. It’s also what controls and influences your body’s melatonin production.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland (the tiny, yet powerful, pea-sized gland found just above the middle of your brain). It helps tell your body when it's time to sleep.
Around sunset, your body will naturally start to produce melatonin. Levels continue to increase throughout the evening, until it’s time to sleep. When the sun goes up, melatonin levels drop, signalling to your body that it’s time to wake up. The amount of light you get each day - plus your own body clock - is what regulates production.
3. Avoid blue light exposure in the evening
Whether it’s our phone, laptop, TV, or tablet, we spend a significant portion of our day staring at screens. From long work days, to the inevitable scroll through social media before you sleep, our eyes are being exposed to the blue light emitted from digital devices the moment we wake up, to the moment we sleep.
According to recent studies, the average US adult spends about half their waking hours in front of a screen. Another study revealed many of us spend even more - reaching up to 11 hours per day of screen time. This can have serious consequences on our sleep quality.
During the day, blue wavelengths can be beneficial. They boost attention, reaction times, and mood. In the evening, however, they interfere with our "circadian rhythm" or natural sleep/wake cycle. Basically, the light waves trick the body into thinking it’s still daytime. This suppresses the secretion of melatonin, thus prolonging sleep onset. While any source of light has this effect, the shorter wavelengths found in blue light do so more powerfully.
While eliminating all blue light exposure two to three hours before sleep is the best option, that’s not always feasible. Fortunately, there are a handful of great blue light filter applications that tint your screen to neutralize the light. Download these on all your devices for a fast and effective way to reduce your blue light exposure during the evening hours.
4. Swap your ebook or Netflix show for a podcast or your favorite tunes
As tempting as it may be to zone out to your fav TV show while you drift off to sleep, this common habit can be quite disruptive. It’s not necessarily the show or movie that’s the issues here - in fact, focusing on something you enjoy at the end of the day can have a positive effect on the body, giving your mind a break from all the thoughts that are constantly running through your head. The electronic devices from which we watch media from, however, exposes us to blue light. This can trigger the brain to stop making melatonin, thus delaying the onset of sleep. (The same goes for ebooks.) Even if you do happen to doze off in the midst of watching something, the flickering of the screen can leave you lingering in the earlier stages of sleep. This makes it more difficult to reach REM sleep.
As an alternate way to relax the mind and ease into sleep, swap out visual entertainment for audio media. There are a ton of podcasts great for falling asleep. From storytelling to non-fiction commentary, guided meditations to white noise, podcasts engage your brain and quiet it at the same time. Studies have also linked listening to music before bed with improved memory.
Regardless of what you’re playing, listening to something in bed rather than watching a screen provides all the same soothing benefits plus others - without the blue light. It also makes for a great bedtime routine practice. Once you make this part of your nightly schedule, your mind and body will learn to anticipate it each night, and will start to associate the activity with bedtime.
5. Sip on a cup of herbal tea
Non-caffeinated herbal teas are full of natural relaxing agents. Plus, the simple yet cozy act of sipping on a cup of tea is calming in and of itself. It even affects your body temperature in such a way that tells your brain it’s time for sleep. Despite popular assumption that hot beverages heat you up, they actually have a cooling effect on the body. As your temperature drops a bit during your cup of tea, the body perceives this as a signal to rest.
Valerian root and chamomile are two of the most powerful sleep-inducing teas. They act as a mild sedative, offering a great natural remedy for those who have trouble falling asleep. Lavender and lemon are excellent options for reducing stress and anxiety that often disrupts our sleep. Ginger and peppermint teas can help alleviate indigestion, easing symptoms of discomfort that can often keep people up late at night.
Try experimenting with these bedtime teas and see what works best for you. Once you get a feel for what your mind and body respond well to, you can create your own bedtime tea recipe. However, when mixing numerous ingredients, it’s recommended you seek the advice of an expert, as different herbs and supplements may interact with one another when combined.
Limit your intake to 1 cup
While proper hydration is key for optimal health, over hydrating just before bedtime can lead to interrupted sleep. Unless you are dehydrated, if you chug a bunch of water just before climbing into bed, it’s likely you’ll need to use the restroom an hour or two into sleep. Frequent middle of the night trips to the restroom will interfere with REM sleep, leaving you unrested by the time morning rolls around.
Improve your sleep today
While the struggle to get a good night’s sleep can be very frustrating, a little patience and concentrated effort can go a long way. You don’t have to try and implement all five of these tips into your daily routine all at once - instead, try adding one at a time. You might even find that one is enough to do the trick. Either way, you’ll be one step closer to a healthy, peaceful night’s sleep that’s bound to have a positive impact on your health and overall well-being.