Getting enough sleep is one of our most basic necessities for staying alert and keeping our bodies healthy. Unfortunately, not everyone can fall asleep once their head hits the pillow, which is both frustrating and potentially harmful.
If you’ve been struggling to fall asleep or are constantly waking up in the middle of the night, it can start to have detrimental effects on both your mental and physical health. Luckily, there are plenty of things that you can do and habits you can establish that have been proven to help improve your ability to slumber.
Here are some evidence-based solutions for how to sleep better at night.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Our bodies and minds go through a lot during the day, which is why getting an adequate amount of high-quality sleep is necessary to allow us to rest and recharge. The optimal amount of sleep can vary from person to person. Most adults need anywhere from 7-9 hours of sleep for a proper recharge.
But one thing is clear: if you don't get enough sleep every night, you can feel the effects in the morning. For example, you might notice an inability to concentrate, mood swings, or "brain fog" that gets in the way of your daily tasks after a sleepless night.
The effects of sleep deprivation go deeper than grogginess and irritability the next day, too. If you are consistently getting too little sleep, it can start to have major effects on your health. A chronic lack of sleep can interrupt your hormones and promote inflammation. It is even linked to health conditions like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even an increased mortality rate.*
If you have been struggling to fall (and stay) asleep, you might benefit from improving your sleep hygiene. In other words, you can follow better bedtime habits, take a look at your diet and exercise, and other lifestyle factors to help you drift off faster.
How To Sleep Better At Night
1. Follow a consistent sleep schedule.
Setting and following routines are key to finding success in all significant lifestyle changes, and sleep habits are no exception. If you are consistently in bed at the same time every night, your body will likely start to associate that time of the night with sleep, which will help you with your sleep in the long run.
Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time for yourself and stick to it, even during the weekends! It will give you a framework for your day and ensure that you’re in bed when you need to be.
2. Minimize your caffeine intake, especially later in the day.
Many of us tend to reach for a couple of cups of coffee throughout the day to keep us awake and alert. Unfortunately, overindulging in caffeine could come back to haunt you later on while you’re trying to fall asleep.
Your brain has a couple of crucial hormones that determine your sleep/wake cycle, including the hormone adenosine. Adenosine gradually increases throughout the day and causes tiredness. Caffeine is a drug that blocks the effects of adenosine, which can keep you firing on all cylinders during the day. However, that same mechanism could also contribute to a sleepless night.
Try limiting your caffeine intake to avoid this. Make sure that your caffeine consumption happens earlier in the day and/or minimize your serving sizes. It might be hard at first, especially if you’re used to drinking several cups, but a gradual “weaning off” of caffeine could help you drift off sooner.
3. Start winding down earlier.
If you’re on the go from sunrise to sunset, your body might have a hard time settling down and knowing that it’s time to relax and snooze. This is in part due to cortisol, otherwise known as your “stress hormone.” Normally, cortisol keeps you awake and alert during the day and decreases during the nighttime to allow your body to relax and fall asleep. However, if you are still overstimulated later in the evening, it can keep your cortisol levels high and make it harder to relax.
Give yourself a couple of hours every night before bedtime to relax rather than stress. Put on soothing music, practice a self-care routine, and minimize the external stimuli that can keep you on high alert.
4. Put away the screens.
On a similar note, bedtime is a great time to put away the devices.
It might be tempting to scroll through your phone or watch a TV show in a bid to wind down and go to bed, but this can actually be part of the reason that you’re having a hard time falling asleep.
Under normal circumstances, our “sleep hormone” melatonin is released as the sun goes down and the lights go out, which leads to drowsiness. Unfortunately, artificial light, including blue light from your devices, can interfere with this and keep you awake.
Keep your blue-light devices out of your bedroom and set a time for yourself before bedtime to put them away. You can also use special glasses to filter out blue light or install apps onto your devices to minimize your blue light exposure once bedtime rolls around.
5. Consider a melatonin supplement.
If you’re still having a hard time falling asleep, you might consider using a melatonin supplement.
Again, melatonin is one of the primary hormones responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm and getting you drowsy and ready to fall asleep when night falls. Unfortunately, your body might not be releasing enough melatonin for several reasons, including excess light exposure. This makes melatonin supplements a popular solution and has even been used to help people suffering from sleep disorders.
Melatonin is generally safe to take and doesn't have any known adverse side effects. However, you should still consult with your doctor before starting any supplement program to ensure that this is the best move for you.
6. Evaluate your diet.
As with many other health issues, a lack of sleep might also be stemming from a lack of nutrients.
Your hormones and the quality of your diet are intricately linked, and melatonin is no exception. Research has found a link between melatonin and certain nutrients, including tryptophan, carbohydrates, and phytonutrients, which are beneficial plant-based compounds found in many fruits and vegetables.
In addition, there may also be a link between omega-3 fatty acids and melatonin. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is especially important for maintaining brain health. Some research suggests that they play a role in synthesizing melatonin, that drowsiness-inducing hormone so important for sleep.* Because of this, one study found that people who have higher levels of omega-3s tend to fall asleep faster and experience fewer sleep disturbances!
7. Draw a warm bath.
Your body temperature is another critical factor to consider when trying to fall asleep. It fluctuates throughout the day: your body temperature starts to rise as you wake up and go about your day, but at night it begins to cool down as you approach bedtime. This "cooling down" period is essential for initiating sleep.
It might sound counterintuitive, but taking a warm bath one to two hours before bedtime can help augment this process. It draws out heat to your hands and feet and helps your core temperature drop, enabling you to fall asleep. One study found that taking a warm bath or shower before sleeping helped participants shorten the amount of time they needed to fall asleep!
8. Optimize your bedroom.
If your bedroom is also working overtime as your entertainment room and home office, it doesn’t necessarily signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep once you step through its doors.
If you’re having a hard time turning “off” when it’s time to go to bed, try designating your room as a sleep-only zone that you only use when it’s time for bed. This means leaving the devices, distractions, and other stimuli out, especially at night.
You should also make your room as comfortable and relaxing as possible. For example:
Replace bright fluorescent overhead lights with warmer, cozier lamps
Use black-out sheets to block morning sunlight
Keep the temperature cool and comfortable, and use breathable sheets and blankets.
Try aromatherapy - there’s evidence that using relaxing aromatic oils like lavender oil is a cost-effective method that can increase sleep quality.
Make your bed and clean your room frequently to minimize stress as soon as you walk through the door.
9. Try meditation.
Meditation is an ancient practice that is proving to be highly effective for encouraging mental wellness, stress relief, and relaxation. It can work very well for those who struggle with a racing mind and chronic stress that stop them from dozing off at night. Scientists have even found that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool for fighting off insomnia.
There are several different kinds of meditation that you can practice that can help you get a better night's sleep, including body scans, mindfulness meditation, and breathwork. To start, you can close your eyes and try to keep your focus on the sound of your breathing, gently bringing your thoughts back to the sound whenever your mind starts to wander.
If you've never meditated before, you can also find guided meditations for sleep on the internet that can walk you through your meditation practice and help you fall asleep faster. With a little bit of practice, meditation can help improve your mindfulness and your awareness of your own body.
10. Stay active during the day.
Your physical activity and your sleep quality at night are intricately linked. Several studies have found that those who are more active during the day tend to have better sleep at night.
More research still needs to be done to explore the exact reasoning behind this phenomenon. However, we know that exercise can positively impact your hormones, including lowering the levels of your stress hormone cortisol that can keep your mind racing at nighttime and make it harder to fall asleep.
On the other hand, it is vital to note that timing is important. Late-night exercise may actually keep some people awake because exercise can cause a temporary increase in cortisol levels. So to avoid this, make sure that you are getting your exercise earlier on in the day. For example, the morning or early afternoon tends to work well for many.
You may also want to avoid high-impact exercises and stick to gentle movements like walking and yoga. These lower-impact workouts won't cause such large cortisol spikes.
11. Avoid alcohol.
Many people turn to a glass of wine to help them doze off at night, but this is counterintuitive if your goal is to sleep better. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it is a drug that can slow down your central nervous system. This is why many people tend to relax and feel sleepy after a drink or two.
However, just because it can temporarily relax your body and help put you to sleep doesn’t mean that it can increase your quality of sleep. Drinking alcohol can lead to low-quality and/or interrupted sleep cycles, which is why so many people report feeling tired after a night of drinking, even if they were in bed the whole time.
If you have problems getting a good night’s sleep, it’s better to avoid the alcohol altogether.
12. Find active outlets for stress.
Holding on to stress can negatively impact you both mentally and physically, which could be part of the reason that you have a hard time falling asleep. Again, your stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which will prevent you from falling asleep on time.
Besides engaging in regular physical activity to combat this stress response, find other healthy hobbies and stress-relieving outlets like:
- Talking to a friend or professional
- Exploring creative outlets
Coping with your stress in other ways can help your mental health and leave you less likely to be tossing and turning once night falls.
13. Don’t eat or drink too close to bedtime.
Going to bed with a full stomach has been linked to a wide variety of negative health effects including interrupted sleep. Eating too late at night can increase your gastrointestinal discomfort since your digestive system is working to digest that late-night snack. The problem also gets worse if you're eating high-fat foods because there's evidence that it can reduce your REM sleep.
To avoid this, make sure to finish your last meal a couple of hours before you go to bed and minimize the late-night snacking so that your stomach does not keep you awake.
In addition, you may want to avoid drinking too many liquids late at night to avoid being woken up by your bladder throughout the night.
14. Take some of the pressure off of yourself to fall asleep.
This is sometimes easier said than done, but putting too much pressure on yourself to fall asleep is often more likely to have the opposite effect.
Rather than worrying that you aren’t able to fall asleep, try other methods like meditation and going to bed earlier to give yourself ample time to relax properly.
Even though sleeping is one of our most natural instincts, our modern-day stressors can make it easier said than done. Set yourself up for success by setting (and sticking to) a consistent sleep routine.