How to Sleep Better: The Definitive Guide to Restful Sleep
High-quality rest is so vital to our mental wellbeing and physical health that scientists have spent years trying to figure out how humans can get their best sleep.
They’ve found that getting good sleep will help you maintain a healthy weight and keep hunger cravings at bay.
You’ll also be a more productive and creative employee.
Even better, good sleep significantly reduces your odds of contracting major diseases. This includes conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and more.
We have all of this information, but we’ve never been worse at getting a full night of deep and uninterrupted rest.
In this definitive guide to getting sleep, we’ll share some scientifically proven tips that will have a massive impact on the quality (and quantity) of your sleep.
We’ve broken this up into eight sections we call pillars. Each of these eight pillars represents a different aspect of your life you can improve upon to sleep better every night.
Don’t feel overwhelmed though. Integrating even a few of these pillars will drastically change your sleep habits for the better.
Your daily habits
1.1 • Avoid long naps late in the day
Naps can have many advantages like reducing your fatigue, helping your memory, and improving your mood.
However, to reap those rewards, you have to respect some basic rules:
- Keep your nap relatively short. Naps should last around 20 minutes and never exceed 90 minutes. More than that and you’ll feel groggy afterward and have trouble falling asleep at bedtime.
- Nap earlier rather than later. It would be best if you tried napping before 3 pm to reduce the risks of disturbing your sleep schedule.
- Take your nap in a dark and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed. This will make you feel more relaxed when you wake up.
1.2 • Keep a regular sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends, is the absolute best way for your body to naturally optimize its circadian rhythm for improved sleep at night. Psychology Today explains it best:
“Often referred to as the “body clock,” the circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, and eat—regulating many physiological processes.”
The human body operates on a consistent sleep-wake cycle. It auto-regulates the release or suppression of certain hormones and biochemicals in your body.
When you’re not keeping a consistent sleep schedule, your brain and your body become confused. They have trouble figuring out when you should be asleep and when you should be awake. If you’ve ever fallen asleep at work or felt wide awake all night long, you’ve been a victim of your circadian rhythm gone wonky.
The division of sleep happens in 90-minute cycles called “ultradian rhythms.”
In a typical eight hour sleep you go through roughly five cycles. During the first cycles, you’ll experience mostly non-REM sleep which is where you reap most of the health benefits. In the later cycles you’ll go through REM sleep which is associated with dreams.
REM stands for rapid eye movements because it is a period of sleep when your eyes move rapidly in different directions.
Your best bet is to rest for five full sleep cycles. Try not to sleep more than six sleep cycles but aim for nothing less than four sleep cycles.
To break this down even more, try to get about seven and a half hours of sleep every night to maximize your health. Don’t sleep for over nine hours but make sure you get more than six.
1.3 • Whatever you do, don’t hit the snooze button
Is there anything more alluring than a snooze button after you’ve been woken from a deep slumber by a shrill alarm? We don’t think so.
But there is a major downfall to succumbing to the temptation to get “just ten more minutes.” If you fall back asleep after turning off your alarm, your body thinks it is trying to fall asleep for a long period. That’s why it seems so much harder to get out of bed when you abuse that snooze button.
What happens is your body tries to go through the normal sleep cycles to reach REM sleep again, but you’ll likely get woken up by your alarm before you get there. Bummer!
Additionally, getting woken up in non-REM sleep puts you in sleep inertia, a state where you feel foggy and confused. It’s a feeling that can last throughout the entire day.
There is some good news though.
If you maintain a regular sleep schedule and avoid hitting the snooze button for a few weeks, you may naturally wake up when you want with no alarm.
Can you even imagine a morning routine that doesn’t begin with an alarm? You can make it happen by creating better sleep habits now.
1.4 • Increase your exposure to natural light during the day
On top of raising your body temperature and waking you up, light elevates your body’s levels of serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that regulates your mood and is used to create melatonin which we’ll get to later.
Using light for 15-20 minutes when you wake up will also increase your cortisol levels, providing your body with additional energy to become alert.
If you happen to live in a colder climate with less sunlight, you can invest in a light therapy box that’s designed to mimic natural light.
Your nutrition & diet
2.1 • Lay off the alcohol before bedtime
After decades of research, the “glass of red wine before bed helps me sleep better” myth has been disproven.
You will end up falling asleep faster, but alcohol’s effects wear off fast.
What actually happens is that you end up disturbing your sleep and waking up during the night when your body and brain need REM sleep.
This means that the more you drink before bed, the more your sleep cycle will be negatively impacted. As a result, you’ll wake up feeling tired.
If you’re going to drink, here’s how to minimize the negative effects of alcohol on sleep:
- Drink one liter of water before imbibing. Drink one or two glasses of water for every glass of alcohol, one liter of water before bed, and another liter of water when you wake up.
- Try to eat light snacks as you’re drinking so that your body can better absorb and process the alcohol.
- Have your last glass of alcohol at least four to seven hours before you go to bed.
2.2 • Try to stop smoking
If you’re not sleeping well, it’s time to ditch the cigarettes.
Smokers will take far longer to fall asleep when it’s time to go to bed because the nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant.
In fact, research shows that smokers sleep less and do not get as much REM sleep as their bodies need.
If you think smoking is something that relaxes you, understand that it’s nothing more than a myth. The increase in dopamine—the hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure—causes you to feel relaxed. However, your body is merely experiencing a small break from the feelings of withdrawal.
Smoking a cigarette will also cause your muscles to tighten and your blood pressure to increase. Neither of those effects will help you get a good night’s sleep.
If you can’t quit the habit entirely, try to have your last cigarette at least four hours before bedtime.
2.3 • Eat a lighter meal before bed
Eating a very heavy and rich meal before bed means that your digestive system is going to be working around the clock to take in all the food you ate. It’s kind of like putting your body into overdrive.
Instead, opt for a lighter, low-calorie meal. You’ll satisfy your hunger and feel full without being too bloated.
This list will give you a good idea of what foods are best before bedtime, and which ones to stay away from.
- Peanut Butter
- Leafy greens
- Whole wheat grains
- Fatty foods
- Foods and drinks high in sugar and refined
- Meals high in protein
- Spicy foods
- Processed foods
Did you know that some foods contain a compound named tryptophan that makes you sleepy? The most infamous food containing tryptophan is turkey, which might explain your post-thanksgiving come-down.
2.4 • Don’t eat too close to your bedtime
In addition to knowing what to eat, great sleep habits start with learning when to eat.
Since your body needs time to digest food, health experts recommend you have your last meal two to three hours before you go to bed.
2.5 • Avoid drinking liquids before bed
Staying hydrated throughout the day is essential.
However, consuming too many liquids right before bed leads to several bathroom breaks throughout the night that disrupt your sleep.
Drink water in equal portions throughout the day. Stop drinking any liquids one to two hours before bedtime and use the bathroom right before bed.
2.6 • Ditch the extra cup of coffee
Coffee isn’t bad for us. On the contrary, coffee has numerous health benefits that include protection against chronic diseases and increased longevity of life.
However, there is a right time and a wrong time to consume coffee.
Caffeine has a half-life of roughly six hours. If you consume a cup of coffee at noon, half of it would still be active in your bloodstream at 6 pm.
That means if your bedtime is 10 pm every night, have your last cup of coffee by no later than 4 pm. That will give your body enough time to get the caffeine out of its system.
NOTE: Certain foods, drinks, supplements, and even decaf coffee have a decent amount of caffeine in them. Check your labels!
Your exercise habits
3.1 • Break a sweat when you can
New research from the scientific journal Sports Medicine reveals that people who exercise within a four-hour window before bed spent a longer time in deep sleep than those who didn’t exercise.
Additionally, studies in insomnia patients have concluded that regular exercise is a powerful tool for improving sleep hygiene.
Most importantly, follow a consistent workout schedule and exercise with some form of intensity.
3.2 • No high-intensity exercise before you go to bed
At the same time, doing any form of high-intensity exercise too close to your bedtime—an hour or so—will negatively impact your overall sleep.
You fall asleep more easily when your body temperature lowers. If you’re working out intensely right before bed, your body’s core temperature rises to compensate for the increased physical activity. Plus, you start producing more cortisol and adrenaline, both of which make your body hotter which keeps you awake.
Schedule vigorous exercise no later than four hours before bed.
Exercise is necessary to live a healthy life, so make sure you’re choosing the right time to get your sweat on!
3.3 • Lighter exercise can relax your mind
On the other hand, doing gentle, low-intensity exercises won’t get in the way of your ability to fall asleep.
They also help defeat the drowsiness you feel right before bedtime.
Here are some of the best low-intensity exercises and movements to do before bed:
1) Gentle Stretching
Yoga, Tai Chi, or any form of gentle stretching have worked wonders for people who want to move their bodies in a relaxed state.
There is an endless number of variations in these movements, so find what works best for you and start establishing the mind-body connection.
2) Deep Breathing
Deep breathing exercises are a great way to induce a mental state of relaxation while sitting down or lying flat on your back.
When you take the time to breathe deeply and slowly, you stimulate your body’s parasympathetic system. In turn, this lowers your heart rate and reduces your blood pressure.
Relax Melodies comes with several breathing exercises which can help you achieve a state of peaceful calm in just a few short minutes.
The more often you practice deep breathing, the more powerful the relaxing effect becomes over time.
3) Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This specific type of exercise involves contracting and relaxing every single muscle of your body starting from your toes and ending at your head.
For beginners, this practice might take a considerable amount of mental concentration.
We highly recommend you follow along with somebody’s guidance and instructions when doing PMR the first few times.
If you don’t know where to start when it comes to bedtime exercise, we suggest you try SleepMoves on the Relax Melodies app.
Built in collaboration with physiotherapists and neuropsychologists, SleepMoves are gentle body-mind exercises done with a pillow to guide you gradually into sleep.
Your nighttime rituals
4.1 • Do a complete brain dump of everything causing you to feel anxious
A 2013 study found out that when you allow yourself to deal with all of your worries at a specific date and time, your symptoms of anxiety and depression dramatically decrease.
So, schedule a specific time at night when you allow yourself to worry as much as you want, ideally three hours before bed.
The best way to get all of your racing thoughts and concerns out of your head is to dump them all on a piece of paper and then forget about them.
If you’re not sure what to write down, here are a few ideas to get you started:
- What tasks do I absolutely have to get done tomorrow? When will I get them done?
- Who/what is causing me the greatest amount of stress and turmoil in my life?
- What are all the possible ways I could solve this problem?
- Do I have all of my work essentials (clothes, gym bags, meals, wallet + keys + phone, etc.) ready for tomorrow?
- Am I taking care of my hygiene?
4.2 • Visualize yourself having a good night of uninterrupted sleep
Lie down and imagine yourself somewhere in a peaceful environment, easily falling asleep. Invoke every single emotion possible, making your visualization vivid.
Keep your body relaxed. When your focus drifts off, simply come back to the scene you’ve created.
Some sleep experts go as far as having you visualize specific images and movies to induce a state of sleepiness.
4.3 • Set an alarm to go to bed
Setting an alarm to remind yourself of your upcoming bedtime is a shockingly effective tactic for getting to bed on time and avoiding what scientists call “bedtime procrastination.” Their research notes:
“Bedtime procrastination is defined as failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so… self-reported bedtime procrastination was related to general reports of insufficient sleep above and beyond demographics and self-regulation.”
Set your alarm at least 30 minutes before you have to go to bed. This will give you plenty of time to stop what you’re doing, get your things ready for tomorrow, and prepare yourself for bed.
If you want a simple bedtime alarm that always works, check out the Bedtime Reminder feature in the Relax Melodies app.
It’s really easy to use—just set the alarm for 30 minutes before your bedtime, and the app will gently remind you to begin preparing for sleep.
4.4 • Take a hot bath to wind down
Earlier we checked out how body temperature plays a role in your sleep routine. Taking a relaxing hot bath is a great element to add to your schedule. The hot water elevates your body temperature and dilates your blood vessels.
Once you exit the hot bath, your body temperature cools down while your blood vessels push out heat from your body. This process will make you feel sleepy.
Bathe 90 minutes before going to bed so that your body has time to enter a cooldown state.
4.5 • Surround yourself with pleasant, relaxing smells
One 2017 study found that elderly patients with dementia who used aromatherapy slept longer and with fewer interruptions while also waking up in the morning with greater ease.
Moreover, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus, specific scents, such as lavender, can improve overall sleep quality while increasing the time spent in deep sleep.
4.6 • Disconnect from electronics and bright lights before sleeping
We touched briefly on melatonin earlier. Melatonin is vital for regulating your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. When it’s in the mid-to-late evening or dark outside, your body produces melatonin to make you sleepy.
However, any exposure to a light source can significantly diminish your body’s melatonin production, especially the artificial bright blue lights coming from the screens of electronic devices.
Your body is being tricked into thinking it’s daytime even though it’s nighttime which puts you in a state of wakefulness.
The only way to prevent this from happening is to shut off and stop using any electronics one to two hours before you go to bed.
The one exception to this rule is having a smartphone in bed when it’s used as an alarm clock or as a tool to help you sleep better at night.
Here are specific strategies you can try:
- Shut down laptops, tablets, e-readers, and TVs.
- Remove all of your electronic devices from your bedroom.
- If you feel the pull of addiction to your devices, shut off all notifications.
If you must use electronics later in the night, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to artificial blue light:
Your sleep environment
5.1 • Your bedroom is meant only for sleep and sex
Your bedroom should never be used for anything except for sleeping and intimacy, keeping everything else out.
In addition, as much as we love animals, they need to be kept outside of your bedroom.
Their movements are subtle enough to keep waking you up when you’re trying to sleep, and sometimes they carry triggers which induce allergic reactions in some people.
5.2 • Your bedroom is not an office
The sleep experts at A.H. Beard understand that the best way to create the perfect bedroom for sleeping is to train your brain to associate your bedroom with nothing other than sleeping.
“Just as you use your kitchen to cook (not to watch TV), and your bathroom to shower (not to eat dinner), your bedroom should be designed and used exclusively for sleep. When the only activity you complete in your bedroom is sleeping you train your brain to associate the bedroom with sleeping, exclusively.”
If you lie down in your bed and work on your laptop, you are destroying your mind’s ability to relax and fall asleep.
First, your brain is already trained to associate your bed with sleeping. So, when you lie down and try to get stuff done, you struggle to focus on one thing at a time.
Second, you are also training your brain to associate your bed with work. This naturally leads to your brain keeping you alert, meaning you’ll have a harder time falling asleep.
If you do a particular task often enough in a specific location, your brain automatically connects that space to that activity.
Here are some rules and tactics you can use to ensure that your bedroom is purely associated with nothing else but sleeping:
- Physically remove all work-related items (laptops, tablets, planners, documents) from your bedroom.
- No video games, portable consoles, or electronic devices—Your bedroom should be a technology-free zone with no notifications whatsoever. Using your smartphone as an alarm clock or to enhance your sleep are the exceptions.
- No Internet surfing on your smartphone while in your bedroom.
- Don’t bring food into the bedroom.
- Nix the late-night TV. Negative news stories only cause more anxiety. Put the TV in another room altogether.
- Remove anything causing you any amount of anxiety and stress.
The more your brain gets used to this environment, the better your sleep will be.
5.3 • Invest in high-quality sleeping equipment
Now it’s time to go forth and get some comfortable sleeping gear!
Here are some things you should be willing to spend extra money on:
- An extremely comfortable mattress
- High-quality pillows
- Good bed linens / sheets
- Light and loose-fitting pajamas
Test out multiple products and find what works best for your body. Focus on quality and function over the brand name itself.
5.4 • Keep your bedroom super quiet
Being exposed to external noise while trying to sleep will lead to long-term nighttime issues. Noisy disruptions make it harder to fall asleep, and you’ll wake up feeling much worse.
Earplugs are useful but cannot remove all sources of noise, so you’ll want to eliminate anything from your bedroom that causes noise.
These are things like the ticking of a clock, a dripping sink or the movement of pets. If it makes noise, you should consider removing it from the bedroom.
5.5 • Use soothing, relaxing sounds to help you sleep better
If complete silence bothers you as much as small, annoying noises try falling asleep with soothing sounds.
The relaxing sounds will cancel out the surrounding noises nearby or fill the silence of your room and help you achieve peaceful sleep. If you don’t know where to start try the Relax Melodies app where you can play over 150 soothing sounds and mix them to create your perfect soundscape.
5.6 • Keep your bedroom dark
Eliminate every source of light within your home before sleeping and remove anything from your bedroom that emits light. Just the tiniest bit of light is enough to lower your body’s melatonin levels.
Use your window’s blinds to block out all forms of outside light. Buy some opaque curtains if necessary.
Should you need to, use a comfortable eye-mask while sleeping to block the light sources you can’t block.
5.7 • Set your bedroom’s temperature to 60-65°F (16-18°C)
According to the United Kingdom’s Sleep Council, the perfect temperature for falling asleep at night is between 60-65°F (16-18°C).
It’s neither too hot to induce sweating nor too cold to cause shivering.
Your gender, age, location, and medical condition(s) may lead you to use a temperature that is either higher or lower. Experiment until you find the temperature that makes you feel the most comfortable.
Also, don’t be afraid to adjust your surroundings if you can’t change the temperature. For instance, put on more clothes if you’re feeling cold or wear something lighter if you’re hot.
5.8 • Optimize your sleeping posture for better sleep
There is a lot of debate amongst sleep experts on the optimal position for sleeping, and it turns out that each position has its own pros and cons.
The great news is that the only thing that matters is that you’ve found a sleep position that helps you feel most comfortable without experiencing any pain whatsoever.
However, if you wake up and feel any unusual sensations or odd strains in your neck and back, it’s worth your while to re-examine how you position your body at bedtime.
Your nighttime anxiety
6.1 – The more you worry, the longer you’ll stay awake
The more you focus on your inability to fall asleep, the more you end up panicking about it, which makes it more difficult to actually get sleep.
It’s an endless cycle of sleeplessness in which trying harder to sleep makes you sleep less, which in turn leads you to worry even more. It’s an infinite loop of elusive shut-eye!
6.2 – Count sheep (seriously, try it!)
Here’s why it works: You are forcing your brain to pay attention to only one thing while breathing slowly and deeply. If you’re watching sheep jump over fences (or the moon), you won’t be focusing on the anxious thoughts racing around your mind.
Don’t think about the repetitions. Done correctly, you will eventually lose count, and you’ll begin to drift off into a peaceful slumber.
6.3 – Leave your bedroom and do something relaxing
If you are unable to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, leave your bedroom and do an activity that is quiet, free of bright lights, and doesn’t stimulate your mind.
Refrain from watching TV, surfing the Internet, or playing video games because they’ll only stimulate you more.
Experiment to find what works for you. Here are some relaxation techniques that many people swear by:
- Reading a light fiction book or magazine
- Soft music
- Anything boring, relaxing, or repetitive in nature (no difficult tasks)
After ten minutes, you should find yourself unable to concentrate on the activity at hand without dozing off.
At that point, return to your bedroom and let sleep happen.
Supplements and medications
7.1 – Fix your sleep naturally before relying on external aids
Medications and supplements may improve your ability to get uninterrupted rest for a short period.
However, they are not long-term solutions, and they often come with their own side effects.
Abusing them, or using them for anything longer than two weeks, could damage your body’s natural ability to fall asleep on its own.
7.2 – For supplements and medications, use over-the-counter options and follow the instructions
To get you started, here are twelve natural compounds that have been extensively studied by scientists for their sleep benefits:
- Vitamin B6
- Passion Flower
- Kava Kava
- CBD Oil
- Lemon Balm
Try one supplement on its own to assess how well it works for you. When in doubt, speak to a qualified healthcare professional before using these supplements.
Medical help from qualified professional
8.1 – Keep a comprehensive diary of your sleeping habits
Tracking all the things you do throughout your day will open your eyes to every factor contributing to your poor sleep.
That includes your diet, exercise, stress levels, supplements and drugs, when you went to bed, how long you took to fall asleep, when you woke up, and more.
8.2 – Find the root cause of your sleep problems
Seek professional guidance after three to four weeks of being unable to figure out the cause of your sleeping problems on your own.
Your sleep diary will be useful in helping your healthcare professional diagnose the root cause of your sleeping issues.
Some common health conditions have underlying issues that may include (but are not limited to):
- Sleep apnea
- Restless leg syndrome
- Irregular sleep-wake syndrome
- Shift work sleep disorder
- Mental Health (ex. depression)
You are now fully equipped with every science-backed tip under the sun to help you sleep better at night, under the moon.
Every lifestyle choice is enough to make a noticeable difference in how well you sleep and how energized you feel when you wake up.
Now it’s time to take action and make this year your best rested one yet!
If you found this information to be helpful, share this article with somebody in your life who’s having trouble sleeping.