The Guide to Better Sleep
When people say they want to get healthier, they often focus on just two things: eating better and exercising more. But sleeping well is also a vital part of any health routine. Here’s your all-day guide to getting the best sleep you’ve ever had.
Wake up at the same time every day: around 8 A.M.
One of the most important factors in getting quality sleep is the consistency of your sleep schedule. Some research has shown that teens naturally wake up later than older adults, but the exact time you wake up is not as important as keeping it regular. Waking up at roughly the same time each day keeps your circadian rhythm—the body’s internal clock—in sync, says Kenneth Wright Jr., director of University of Colorado Boulder’s sleep and chronobiology laboratory. That’s key, because your circadian rhythm is the natural process that regulates feelings of sleepiness throughout the day.
Unfortunately, that means it’s not ideal to sleep in on the weekends or stay up too late. Changing your sleep schedule just one or two days a week throws off your body’s internal clock to a similar degree that jet lag does.
Go toward the light: 8:30 A.M.
“After you get up, one of the things that we recommend is getting some exposure to sunlight,” Wright says. Getting sunlight in the morning by going outside not only helps you wake up, but it also helps juice your internal clock, so you’ll feel ready to sleep again by the time you want to go to bed in the evening. “Even if it’s a cloudy day, going outside is a strong signal to your body to prepare for the day.”
Drink coffee in the morning: 10 A.M.
Drink your day’s worth of coffee—three to five cups at most—before lunchtime. That’s because caffeine can take four to six hours to work its way through your body, says Jeanne Duffy, a neuroscientist and sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School. “If you’re using caffeine too late in the afternoon or evening, that is definitely going to impact your sleep,” she says.
Eat a big lunch: 12:30 P.M.
Make lunch your biggest meal. It’s important to fuel up early in the day because your body needs calories to help you keep going. You’ll want to avoid eating heavy meals late at night, Duffy says, so try to stock up on hearty foods at lunch, even if you want to watch your calories.
Nap (but only if you must): 2 P.M.
Daytime naps are always tempting if you feel sleepy, but they’re not a good idea for everyone. While short naps help some people feel refreshed and alert, research has shown that longer naps can leave people feeling groggy and make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime. If you feel the need to rest your head during the day, the Mayo Clinic recommends limiting naps to 10-30 minutes and planning them for after lunch, when your body is naturally less alert.
Exercise: between 4 and 6 P.M.
Regular physical activity is good for sleep. Some people like to start their day with a workout, but for those who can’t make an early gym appointment, an afternoon workout has serious benefits. Your body is slightly warmer and has increased hormone levels in the afternoon, meaning you’ll be at your peak strength and your muscles can work more efficiently during this time.
But, like eating, you should be wary of exercising too late. Try to finish working out at least two or three hours before bed, Duffy advises. “One of the things that naturally happens when we fall asleep is our body temperature cools,” she says. “Exercise tends to raise your body temperature and you don’t cool down quickly, it takes some time, so that process can impact your ability to fall asleep.”
Eat a small dinner: 6:30 P.M.
Eating large meals too close to bedtime gives your body too little time to digest before you lie down, which can disrupt your sleep, Duffy says. But it can also cause longer-term consequences, like high blood sugar and a higher risk of metabolic disorders and diabetes. Your circadian rhythm typically gets your body ready to respond to food and use the nutrients as fuel, but if you eat too late at night, your body won’t react in the usual way.
Have your last glass of wine: 7 P.M.
Many people claim alcohol helps put them to sleep, but research shows the opposite: it’s actually one of the biggest sleep destroyers. Not only does booze dehydrate you, but as your body metabolizes the alcohol during the night, it also creates more fragmented sleep, says Jamie Zeitzer, a Stanford neurobiologist and sleep expert. A glass of wine at dinner is probably fine, but if you indulge in a nightcap or regularly drink right before going to sleep, you may want to quit earlier in the night.
Take a shower: 9 P.M.
Many people like to shower in the morning, and that’s just fine, Zeitzer says. But if you shower at night, pay attention to the timing. A warm shower or a hot bath may seem relaxing right before bed, but it may raise your body temperature and disrupt sleep, Zeitzer explains. Instead, take it at least an hour and a half before you drift off to give your body time to cool down.
Power down electronics: 10 P.M.
Recent studies have shown that the blue light your phone emits suppresses melatonin, a hormone the body needs to maintain its circadian rhythm. This can keep you up at night if you’re looking at a screen right before bed, but fortunately Zeitzer says those effects can be mitigated by getting a normal amount of light exposure during the day.
The other problem with your phone or laptop is harder to fix. “If the content on your screen is causing you to be anxious or stressed, that’s not ideal,” Zeitzer says. The content doesn’t even have to be negative—only stimulating—to work against slumber. Reading an exciting book on a tablet, answering emails from your boss or scrolling through Facebook can all make it harder to sleep.
“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all thing,” Zeitzer says. “But if you’re having trouble sleeping, put a moratorium on it an hour before bed, and don’t do it when you’re in bed.”
Go to bed: 11 P.M.
Your genetic makeup likely dictates when you’ll feel most comfortable going to bed. Some people are night owls and naturally stay alert until late night hours, while “morning larks” have an earlier rhythm. But experts say that going to bed between 8 p.m. and midnight gives your body the best chance of getting all the different types of sleep it needs.