The benefits of getting quality sleep are as numerous as they are well-established, ranging from reduced risk of stress, obesity and other illnesses to improved cognition and even sexual performance. Still, many of us — particularly those with demanding lives, from gamers to busy parents to first responders — ask the question, ‘do I really need at least seven hours of sleep per night?’, assuming that we are exceptions to the rule.
The fact is, everyone needs quality sleep, and when we don’t get enough of it we put ourselves at risk of developing a range of health conditions at worst, and failing to deliver the AAA-quality results our most well-rested selves could produce at best.
Which is why it is especially important for those of us who work in high-stress environments — where focus, alertness, reaction time and overall mental health is critical to your (and others’) success — sleep must be at the foundation of your hierarchy of needs.
The benefits of slumber can perhaps best be illustrated in the impact that sleep has on athletics, where nearly every action is now measured. Quality sleep has been demonstrated to improve reaction time, accuracy and power, while enabling the brain to create new pathways that help us learn and form new memories. The results are clear: sleep helps athletes win. For those of you on which others’ lives depend, the gains are even more important.
So how do you maximize your chance of getting 40 winks? Here is our attempt at putting together the most comprehensive list of tips you can employ to ensure that you’re falling asleep faster, staying asleep longer and waking up feeling your best.
Get Your Mind Right
- Start believing that you actually need at least seven hours. If you’re like many people we knew in the military or throughout our athletic and professional careers, you’re no stranger to the mentality that being able to operate on just a few hours is a display of strength. But everyone needs quality sleep, and even though you may lose a few hours of wakefulness, the enhanced health and cognitive abilities that come with restfulness should more than make up for the “lost” time.
- Establish a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Try setting an alarm at bedtime. That fact is, sleep consistency results in more sleep. Fitness company Whoop revealed that their most consistent sleepers are getting more (about 1.25 hours) and better sleep (more slow wave and REM sleep) per night than are their least consistent sleepers.
- Give yourself enough time in bed. Many of us confuse time slept with sleep opportunity time. If you only give yourself five to six hours of sleep opportunity, you may actually only be getting four to five hours of real sleep, given the time required to fall asleep and disturbances that happen throughout the night. Therefore, if you need seven to nine hours of actual sleep, give yourself seven-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours in bed.
- Don’t continue lying in bed if you can’t fall asleep. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and find a soothing activity in a different room, like reading or meditating. The more stressful falling asleep becomes, the more unhealthy the relationship that forms between your bed and the act of sleep.
- Get a fitness tracker. Fitness trackers like Oura, Whoop and the Apple watch are increasingly able to offer you detailed insights on your sleep duration and quality. If you can measure your sleep, you can manage your sleep.
- Consider cognitive behavioral sleep therapy. Many people who experience insomnia move away from non-pharmaceutical options to treatments like CBT-I, “a structured program that helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep.” To find a certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, check out the American Academy of Sleep Medicine or The Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine for a list of providers.
During the Day
- Limit your caffeine intake well in advance of bedtime. Caffeine promotes wakefulness by blocking adenosine — a naturally occurring molecule that makes you feel tired — from being broken down in the brain. Caffeine also has a halflife of five to six hours for the average adult. That means 50% of the caffeine you consume is still circulating in your system five to six hours later. It also means that caffeine has a quarter-life of 10 to 12 hours. So if you have a cup of coffee at 3PM, a quarter of that caffeine can still be circulating in your brain at 1AM. In other words, drinking a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can be the equivalent to drinking a quarter cup of coffee immediately before you hit the sack. If you're an avid consumer of caffeine, like we are, consider combining your caffeine with L-theanine.
- Exercise. A 2018 meta-analysis of people with insomnia who incorporated exercise into their daily lives noted significant improvements to sleep quality and insomnia severity. Supplementing this activity with proper hydration throughout the day has also been shown to promote longer sleep times.
- Hydrate. There’s a delicate line between being dehydrated and nocturia, or frequent urination at night. To find the right balance, hit the hydro during the day, cutting off your liquid intake about two hours prior to bedtime.
- Eat a healthy diet. An analysis of the 11-year National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that a lack of micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium and other vitamins, is associated with insomnia and other sleep problems. Stick to a balanced diet, rich in whole foods and that minimizes your intake of processed meats and carbohydrates especially.
- Mind your nap time. Studies have shown that we may have evolved to be biphasic sleepers — that is, we function best with extended sleep at night with a short nap during the day. That said, late afternoon naps (ie, after 3pm for traditional sleepers) can make it harder to fall asleep at night. The same can be said of longer naps: keep them short (ie, an hour or less).
- Optimize your exposure to sunlight. Sunlight is a critical factor in regulating our circadian rhythm. Sleep experts therefore recommend getting 30 minutes of natural sunlight, and preferably one hour of morning sunlight, each day.
Prior to Bed
- Avoid lots of fluids and large meals. Loading up on any drink right before bed can cause frequent disturbances and several trips to the bathroom throughout the night. Large meals can cause indigestion, which negatively impacts sleep.
- Relax. If you’re still feeling that anxiousness in the final hours, try adding yoga, stretching, meditation, or mindful breathing to your pre-bed routine. Along with alleviating tension in your body, these activities can help your mind settle from stress and other thoughts.
- Avoid blue light. Bright lights and blue light especially, whether from the sun or electronic screens, inhibits your brain’s ability to secrete melatonin, which is one of the primary controllers of your body’s circadian rhythm. If you must use a computer or mobile device before bed, consider using software such as f.lux, which reddens your screen light, or wearing blue-light-blocking glasses in the hour or two prior to bedtime.
- Read on paper, not a screen. See our tip on blue light. Electronic readers are great, but they won’t necessarily do you any favors in the sleep department. If you do use an e-reader, look for one that spits out as little blue light as possible.
- Minimize cardiovascular exercise before bed. Your core temperature needs to decrease in order for you to fall asleep. If cardio is part of your workout regimen, it’s best to keep it to the earlier hours.
- Take a hot bath. Seemingly counterintuitive, warm water actually promotes a decrease in core body temperature through a process called vasodilation, where blood is pumped to the outer extremities. You can’t fall asleep until your temperature lowers, so taking that shower before bed, along with making your bedroom cool, can help promote restfulness.
- Minimize alcohol and nicotine. While one instance of drinking alcohol before bed might make you sleepy, repeating this habit will eliminate the effects and prevent you from getting quality sleep. Even further, studies have worked to further determine the link between alcohol and insomnia, a condition that makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Surprising to some, nicotine can have powerful nootropic benefits, but ingesting it too close to bedtime can have a negative impact on sleep quality and duration.
- Avoid medicines that impact your sleep — even sleeping pills. Common medicines for heart, blood pressure, coughs, colds, ADHD and other ailments often impact your sleep quality and quantity. If you’re prescribed something that diminishes your sleep, ask your doctor if you can take those meds earlier in the day, or switch to something else.
- Take a sleep aid. Ingredients like melatonin, magnesium, GABA, Venetron, valerian root, glycine and the chamomile have been shown to aid in sleep, all of which and more are included in our very own sleep aid. Researchers also believe that chamomile can be good for promoting longevity, while magnesium can help improve mood.
Prior to Travel
- Adjust your schedule to match the destination time. Set your watch to the destination time when you board your plane. Eat meals at the destination time.
- Get enough sleep prior to traveling. Sleep prior to and during travel if possible to avoid sleep debt once you hit your destination.
- Bring sleep gear. Earplugs, eye shade and a neck pillow are our go-to combination.
- Block out exposure to light and noise. Light and noise are two of the biggest disruptors to sleep, and unless you live close to the north and south poles, your body is used to calibrating its biological clock based on the amount of light and noise surrounding you. To lessen these disruptors, try to make your sleeping area as dark and quiet as possible, using blackout curtains, a sleep mask, nightshade or earplugs.
- Invest in quality bedding. You spend ⅓ your life in bed. Invest in a quality mattress, pillows and bedding.
- Adjust your thermostat. Depending on the person, the optimal bedroom temp is in the 60-67 degree range, aiding in your body’s ability to lower your core temperature and signal that it is time for bed.
- Hide your alarm clock. Nothing spoils relaxation like anxiously watching lost sleep time fly by before your eyes. Do yourself a favor and hide your alarm from view — a double bonus if your alarm clock is on your phone.
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