By Gretchen Kast
You know the statistics. More than a third of all adults in the US are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You know the facts. Lack of sleep contributes to heart disease, weight gain, weakened immunity and even memory and mood issues. But knowing the facts doesn’t make it any easier to get the sleep you want and need—and trying to wade through the myriad life hacks and miracle products can sometimes feel impossible.
The truth is, when it comes to forming better sleep habits, there really is no such thing as a quick fix. The most effective solution is to build a better sleep routine—and then really stick to it. “Most of us cannot sleep on command, but routine helps the brain know that it’s preparing for sleep,” says Rebecca Scott, research assistant professor of neurology at the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center. “Our sleep system, along with most other neurophysiological systems, likes predictability and consistency.”
We’ve gathered some of the best, most practical sleep advice and used it to craft a detailed, daily practice that will set you on the right path towards better sleep.
Make a plan to go to bed at the same time every night
Our bodies are regulated by our circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that operates as a sort of internal clock for our waking and sleeping hours. When our lifestyle is properly in sync with this rhythm, not only is the quality of our sleep higher—but all of the body’s functions work better as well.
Sleep experts agree that the key to maintaining the proper circadian rhythm is going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day—no matter what. While it can be tempting to try to make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping in on the weekends, this can actually further disrupt our natural circadian rhythm.
Determining the best bedtime for your lifestyle depends on when you want to get up in the morning. Conventional wisdom says that we should be aiming for eight hours of sleep every night—though newer research has posited that this might not be a hard and fast rule for everyone: anywhere between seven and nine hours is fine (and it’s ok to have more or less every once in a while).
When developing your own sleep schedule, be sure to budget time to get tired. Even at our most exhausted, it is unrealistic to expect to conk out the second your head hits the pillow. Sleep scientist Daniel Gartenberg suggests padding your targeted amount of sleep by half an hour. So if you want to wake up at 7am, that means going to sleep at 10:30pm.
Once you have your target bedtime set, you can start to reverse-engineer a healthy sleep routine—and that begins long before the sun even sets.
2:30 PM : Start Avoiding Caffeine
8 hours before bed
Does this sound familiar to you? You spend the night tossing and turning, and find yourself hitting the wall around 3pm the next day. So you pour yourself another cup of coffee for a quick pick me up. Fast-forward a few hours, and you’re once again tossing and turning.
According to sleep scientist Dr. Michael Breus, caffeine is a stimulant with a “halflife” of roughly eight hours. So even though its effect dwindles over time, it is still in your system long after you’ve taken your last sip. While skipping your afternoon caffeine fix may be arduous at first, the reward is more quality sleep—which will, over time, lessen your reliance on caffeine entirely.
6:30 PM : Stop Exercising
4 hours before bed
This doesn’t mean cut out exercising entirely. In fact, research has shown that getting your body moving during the day has a positive effect on your sleep. Exercise spurs the production of growth hormones that help the body repair itself, and people who do it regularly often report waking up feeling more alert and rejuvenated. Just be sure to schedule your work-outs to end at least four hours before your bedtime, so that your body has time to process the energy before trying to quiet down for the night.
6:30 PM : Be Mindful Of What You Eat
4 hours before bed
Research shows that there’s a clear relationship between food and sleep. Simply put, what you eat and when you eat it matters. While it’s a good idea to stick to a healthy diet overall, what you eat during the four hours leading to bedtime are the most crucial when it comes to sleep quality. We don’t suggest cutting out food entirely before bed, though. In fact, going to sleep on an empty stomach can actually keep you up because hunger can have a stimulating effect on the body. Rather, you should be mindful about what types of food you’re eating.
What shouldn’t you eat before bed?
« Most importantly: don’t eat saturated fat and sugar before you try to sleep
« High-fat foods take longer to digest and can keep you up. On the other hand, your body digests sugary foods too rapidly, causing your blood sugar to spike and crash
« If you have any sensitivities or acid reflux, avoid triggers like spicy foods, citrus fruits and dairy—anything likely to cause bloating and indigestion should be avoided at bedtime
What should you eat before bed?
« Unsweetened cereal with milk
« A banana with a dollop of almond butter
« Low-fat cheese on a whole grain cracker
The best nighttime foods combine the amino acid tryptophan with complex carbohydrates. The tryptophan is converted into melatonin (which regulates your circadian rhythm) and serotonin (which aids in relaxing) in your brain. The carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which helps transport the tryptophan to the brain.
7:30 PM : Cut Out Alcohol
3 hours before bed
For people who have trouble falling asleep at night, alcohol may seem like an obvious solution. It makes you sleepy, right? While a nighttime glass of wine may help you fall asleep more quickly, alcohol has an adverse effect on sleep quality. Since it dehydrates the body, it can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night (whether to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water) and keep you from entering into the deepest stages of REM sleep, when your body is doing the most of its revitalizing. Of course, there’s no need to become a full-on teetotaler; just be sure not to indulge too heavily within three hours of bedtime.
8:30 PM : Get Your Bedtime Ritual Started With A Warm Bath & Cozy PJs
2 hours before bed
“The brain is preparing for sleep about two hours before our actual bedtime,” Rebecca Scott explains. “We literally go from billions of neurons firing up all day to keep us alert, active and engaged, and that waking system has to slowly come down to allow the sleep system to take over.”
It takes time for our bodies to calm down after a long day—and skipping that decompression period will make it much harder to fall asleep when you want to. Even though you should start actively thinking about sleep two hours before bedtime, that doesn’t mean you have to climb into bed just yet. Rather, one of the best ways to signal to your brain that it should start planning for sleep is by taking a bath.
It’s common knowledge that a bath can be relaxing, but there’s also research suggesting that it does more than calm the mind. Because the body’s core temperature naturally drops before sleep, raising your body temperature a few hours before bed can trigger this process and prepare both your body and brain for rest.
It doesn’t hurt to indulge in some spa-like features too. Try adding lavender oil or Epsom salts for a fuller bathing experience. If you don’t have a bathtub—or simply don’t like it—a hot shower with some lavender body wash will also do the trick.
Media mogul turned sleep guru Arianna Huffington swears by the nighttime bath. She follows her soak by putting on actual pajamas—not sweatpants or leggings. Having outfits that are solely dedicated for bedtime can help signal to your brain that it’s time for sleep (instead of the gym or running errands).
9:30 PM : Turn Off Your Gadgets
1 hour before bed
There are multiple reasons why the latest gadgets might be hurting your sleep schedule. First, the blue light that emanates from our computer, phone and tablet screens has been shown to stimulate the brain and delay the release of melatonin—making it harder to fall asleep. But for many people, the issue is about more than just the light. Scrolling through news apps or reading work emails can raise your stress levels. While traditional TVs don’t give off the same light as smaller devices, today’s binge-able shows can still keep you awake no matter what screen you’re watching them on. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that binge-watching has a direct correlation to decreased and poorer quality sleep because popular cliffhanger endings can produce the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which heightens awareness and makes it harder to go to sleep without finding out what happens next.
Avoid these sleep woes by removing the temptation. Don’t keep a TV in your bedroom and end screen time an hour before bed.
9:30 PM : Write A To-Do List For Tomorrow
1 hour before bed
It may seem counter-intuitive: if you’re trying to relax, why start thinking about the long list of things you need to do the next day? But according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, sitting down for five minutes and writing a detailed to do list actually minimizes stress and helps you fall asleep more easily. The researchers theorized that the act of writing down future tasks makes it easier to fall asleep because it reassures your brain that you won’t forget any of them, which in turn helps alleviate stress that keeps people awake at night.
9:35 PM : Read A Book
<1 hour before bed
According to the research of cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. David Lewis, nothing relieves stress quite like getting lost in a great book. “It really doesn’t matter what book you read,” he explains. “By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.” If you really struggle with falling asleep, be sure to stick to reading material that isn’t too action-packed or engrossing.
10:30 PM : Get In Bed And Turn The Lights Out
It’s finally bedtime! By waiting until you are ready to close your eyes to get into bed, your body will learn that climbing under the covers means it’s time to go to sleep. Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine explains the phenomenon simply, “The more time you spend in the bed before you sleep, the more your body gets used to being awake in bed.”
Although this is a simple practice, it’s not always easy to adapt to it. If you still find yourself lying in bed and struggling to fall asleep, there are a few tricks you can try. While everyone is probably familiar with “Counting Sheep,” you may not know about its more effective sibling: “Cognitive Shuffling.” To cognitive shuffle, focus on a simple, emotionally neutral word of at least five letters. Then break down the word letter by letter and imagine as many images as you can that start with that letter. Developed by Professor Luc Beaudoin of Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, Canada, this technique helps your brain focus on pictures rather than words, which can minimize the impact of your worries.
Before your bedtime ritual becomes second nature, you might have to set an alarm to remind yourself to slow down and decompress. Start small by picking one or two steps and really sticking to them—even if you don’t see immediate results. Once those steps start to feel automatic, try to add in a few more. Remember, for most people, it takes a least 30 days of consistency to establish a habit.