Looking back at my childhood, I can’t understand why I fought my mom on taking naps or going to bed at 8 p.m. Now, naps and getting solid Zzzs are luxuries I would do anything for (anyone else think naps should be implemented into the workday?). With a laundry list of “what-ifs” and to-dos circling my mind, counting sheep doesn’t stand a chance. Then there’s the having-to-pee-every-couple-of-hours scenario that disrupts my beauty sleep. If that sounds familiar, we’re not alone. According to the Casper-Gallup State of Sleep in America 2022 Report, about 84 million adults struggle to get quality shut-eye.
So how do we ensure a sound slumber for a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed morning? I consulted four sleep specialists to get to the bottom of it and they let me in on their tried-and-true sleep hacks. Here’s to the best sleep of our lives.
What does the body need to fall asleep?
When it comes to catching Zzzs, we may think there’s not much to it other than whether or not we get a good night’s rest. But what goes on internally when we sleep? “Sleep is a complex process of multiple pathways and neurotransmitters in the brain,” explained Dr. Valerie Cacho, MD, a board-certified internal medicine and sleep medicine physician, co-editor of Integrative Sleep Medicine, and founder of Sleephoria. “Simply put, we fall asleep when our brain waves slow down, our muscles relax, and we lose consciousness.” Sounds easy enough, right? It turns out, there are a lot of other factors at play to hit the sleep jackpot (I’m all in).
You’ve probably heard of the term “circadian rhythm” but don’t know exactly what it is. Otherwise known as our internal clock and the body’s 24-hour sleep and wake cycle, it plays a vital role in reaching deep sleep. “Not only does it signal us to let our bodies rest, but it also plays a role in our body temperature, heart rate, and hormone regulation,” said Tara Youngblood, CEO and cofounder of Sleepme and sleep coach for the Cincinnati Reds. “We want our circadian rhythm to stay consistent every day,” affirmed Dr. Whitney Roban, PhD, a sleep specialist and founder of Solve Our Sleep. “In doing so, we will have an easier time falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up.”
Bottom line: “When our circadian rhythm is working well, we’re likely to get restorative sleep and have energy during the day,” explained Morgan Adams, a holistic sleep coach for women and an accredited health coach with advanced certifications in sleep science. “When it’s not working well, you’re at more risk of developing insomnia and being extremely sleepy during the day.”
What does “quality sleep” mean?
I think it’s fair to say we all strive for optimal sleep and waking up on the right side of the bed in the morning, but what does that really look like? Sure, the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults, but the key to restful sleep isn’t one-size-fits-all. “While seven to nine hours is the highly prescribed amount of time to sleep each night, think of it as a ‘quality over quantity’ situation,” Youngblood said. “You could be in bed for eight hours but never fully hit your deep sleep stage, which will leave you feeling tired.”
“Not everybody needs eight hours of sleep,” Adams agreed. In addition to getting the recommended number of hours for your age group, Adams listed other indicators of quality rest: falling asleep within 30 minutes of getting into bed, having minimal nighttime awakenings, and falling asleep within 20 minutes if you do wake up. “A more subjective way to assess your sleep quality is to check in with how you feel in the morning and during the day,” Adams said. “Is your mood stable? Is your energy level high enough for you to perform at your job? Do you feel well physically? If so, chances are, you’re getting your own personal sleep requirement.”
Why does getting enough sleep matter?
There’s no denying that sleep is an essential part of the wellness equation and bears a lot of weight on our mental and physical health. “So many different processes happen while we sleep that keep us healthy (rest, recovery, repair, rejuvenation),” Roban said. “Your brain and body release toxins which leads to stronger brain health and overall physical health, your body restores energy, the muscles and cells in your body repair and grow, and the information you learned from the day gets processed and stored from short-term memory to long-term memory.” Whether it’s a big presentation for work or running a marathon, getting adequate sleep the night before can make or break the outcome. And—as I can attest—the irritability, anxiety, and difficulty focusing after a night of tossing and turning is enough to make anyone want to cry.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but lack of sleep can have long-term effects. “Our bodies need to rest, and when we are sleep deprived, we can have problems with our cognition, mental and cardiovascular health, ability to control our metabolism and weight, and even have a higher risk for cancer,” Cacho warned. On the other hand, when we have consistent nights of blissful sleep, Adams cited better brain function, improved emotional regulation, a healthy immune system and weight, and decreased risk of developing chronic diseases.
Expert hacks to get the best sleep of your life
1. Establish a wind-down routine
Whether you’re part of the WFH club or someone who tends to bring work home, it can be difficult to set boundaries and unplug, leaving your body to wonder when it’s time to start winding down for the night. “A consistent bedtime routine will signal to the brain and body that it is time for sleep,” Roban said. Adams agreed and advised carving out at least 30 minutes for your daily regimen. “During this time, choose activities that aren’t stimulating or involve bright light,” Adams stated. “Some ideas are reading, journaling, meditation, crafts, or chatting about your day with your partner.” Youngblood’s pre-bedtime go-tos are practicing yoga or listening to soft music, like jazz or classical, to relax, relieve stress, and unwind.
2. Follow a consistent sleep schedule
Just like any routine, our bodies get used to following a certain sleep pattern. “Our bodies thrive on consistency, and a consistent sleep schedule promotes healthy sleep,” Roban explained. Adams recommended waking up at the same time every morning, even on the weekends. “This helps keep your circadian rhythm strong, and you’re more likely to get sleepy around the same time each night,” she said. Yes, that means going to bed and waking up at approximately the same time every day (even when you have a long-overdue, epic GNO).
3. Set a food and drink curfew
I hate to break it to you, but what you eat affects your sleep. Adams suggested curbing your intake of food and alcohol three to four hours before bed. “Alcohol can disrupt your sleep, especially that critical REM phase where emotional regulation happens,” she said. “Food too close to bedtime can signal wakefulness in the brain, which can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.” If your goal is to be in bed by 10 p.m., try having dinner ready no later than 6:30 p.m. to ensure you have enough time in between your meal and bedtime (meal prep FTW).
Roban’s rule of thumb is no caffeine after lunch and no heavy meals and alcohol close to bedtime. That’s right: Bidding adieu to your afternoon pick-me-up and favorite nightcap is the sacrifice we have to make for a good snooze. According to Roban, fatty and spicy foods are also a no-no before bed. We’ve all learned that the hard way.
4. Incorporate movement in your day
If you’re anything like me, you need to work out to relieve stress, feel balanced, and get a solid night’s rest. Aside from boosting your self-esteem and mental and physical health, Cacho explained that getting your body physically tired promotes quality sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, moderate-to-vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality for adults by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and decrease the amount of time they lie awake in bed during the night.
As for whether working out within hours before going to sleep is detrimental to your quality of sleep is up for debate. Like I said, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep. So exercise at the time of day (or night) and intensity that works best for you. Only you know what feels best for your body and sleep.
5. Keep your sleeping environment cool
As someone who runs hot, this sleep hack is preaching to the choir (sorry to my boyfriend—I win). “Your core body temperate needs to cool down by a couple of degrees to fall and stay asleep,” Adams said. The optimal room temperature for healthy sleep? Youngblood suggested keeping your sleeping quarters between 65°F and 72°F. If the temperature is too hot or cold, it may affect the natural drop in your body’s internal temperature at night and cause you to have disrupted sleep.
To stay cool during the night, you might consider sleeping in breathable sheets, keeping a cool glass of water on your nightstand, and wearing lightweight cotton pajamas (if sleeping in your birthday suit feels the most comfortable, by all means!).
6. Get sunlight first thing in the morning
Vitamin D not only gives you that just-came-back-from-Hawaii glow, but it also does your sleep good. Cacho suggested soaking it in up to 30 minutes within an hour of waking up. “This is the signal our brains need to tell us to be awake and start the day,” she said. Getting morning sun exposure can be as simple as taking your coffee out on your balcony or your dog out for a walk around the neighborhood. “A 15-minute burst of natural light helps regulate key hormones, melatonin and cortisol, for the rest of the day into the evening,” Adams said. She suggested getting direct sunlight sans sunglasses, as it loses its effect when filtered. What’s more, exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the calming and mood-boosting hormone serotonin. I rest my case.
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.