In celebration of Sleep Awareness Week (April 23–29), MyFitnessPal and Thrive Global collaborated to bring you science-backed sleep advice.
A good night’s sleep seems like it should be simple, right? Sleep is natural and necessary, so sleeping well ought to just happen. But as most of us know, good sleep often doesn’t just happen on its own. For many people, a restful night’s sleep doesn’t come easily.
Here’s the truth: Simply waiting for better sleep to happen is going to set you up for a lot of restless nights and tired, irritable days. Sleep is a performance activity: To sleep well, you have to show up prepared to play.
The good news is the rules of this sleep game aren’t complicated. They’re all easy-to-implement strategies that are based on the fundamentals of sleep hygiene. What’s sleep hygiene? It’s a collection of daily routines and practices that contribute to better sleep at night and more energy during the day.
There are five simple rules for sleep, and they are as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
RULE NUMBER 1: STICK TO ONE SLEEP SCHEDULE
A consistent sleep routine is the single most important habit you can establish to help you sleep better. Why? Sleep has a rhythm, and a regular sleep schedule strengthens and supports that rhythm. The body’s biological rhythms regulate when we sleep and when we’re awake, guided by a master biological clock in the brain and bio clocks throughout the body. A regular sleep schedule helps to reinforce your natural bio rhythms, allowing you to fall asleep more easily, sleep more soundly and wake feeling more energized and refreshed.
Here’s the thing: Not everyone’s bio clock runs on the same time. Some clocks run later and others earlier. This preference for lateness or earliness helps us identify our individual chronotypes. The best sleep schedule is one that is consistent, night after night, and matches your chronotype. If you’re a Wolf, you won’t have a lot of success with a sleep schedule that calls for lights out at 9 p.m. For late-night loving Wolves, that’s a sleep schedule that can lead to hours of restless tossing and turning. Likewise, a Lion shouldn’t plan on staying awake and productive until 11 p.m. Lions are naturally early risers, and their best sleep schedule combines a relatively early bedtime with an early start to their day.
To make the most of Rule number 1 and set a sleep schedule you can really stick with, use your chronotype to help you. If you don’t know your chronotype, it’s fun and easy to figure out by taking this quiz. Knowing your chronotype unlocks the secrets to your best sleep routine — as well as the best times to do most everything you want to accomplish in your day.
Remember, this is the one sleep schedule you will use on a daily basis. That includes weekdays and weekends, school days and summer vacation days, workdays and holidays. Changing your sleep routine with different bedtimes and wake times confuses your bio clock, which results in difficulty sleeping, lower performance during the day and less enjoyment of life. Set a schedule that suits you, based on your chronotype and the demands of your daily life, and stick to it.
RULE NUMBER 2: NO CAFFEINE AFTER TWO O’CLOCK
If you’re on a regular sleep schedule, you will likely find yourself less in need of that late-afternoon caffeine pick-me-up. That’s a good thing, because the second rule of better sleep is: stop consuming caffeine at 2 p.m. Regular, heavy caffeine consumption contributes to disrupted sleep and daytime fatigue.
Caffeine — whether in coffee, chocolate or energy drinks — is a stimulant. Once in the body, caffeine begins to act quickly, taking effect within 25–45 minutes. Caffeine’s stimulant effects also last for a long time. Caffeine is metabolized slowly — it takes 6–8 hours to reduce its stimulant effects by only 1/2. That 4 p.m. coffee boost you have at your desk weekday afternoons? It’s still having a stimulating effect on your body at 10 p.m. or even later. The long-lasting effects of caffeine are highly disruptive to sleep.
Caffeine disrupts the normal rise and fall of melatonin, a hormone that is essential to regulating sleep and wakefulness. You may be familiar with the melatonin rhythm as being influenced by light and darkness, but caffeine and other stimulants ingested at the wrong times can also throw melatonin off its rhythm — and with it, your sleep-wake cycle. Caffeine before bedtime has an even more disruptive effect on melatonin than bright light exposure, according to scientific research.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard patients say, “Caffeine doesn’t affect me. I can drink a cup of coffee after dinner and still fall asleep.” For those of you who think you’re immune to the effects of caffeine, here’s what is really going on. It’s not that the caffeine isn’t having a stimulant effect. You’re probably so sleep deprived that you’re crashing into sleep despite the impact of the caffeine. But the presence of caffeine in your system, and its disruption to your melatonin levels, will interfere with sleep quality, lowering time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep, even if it’s not preventing you from falling asleep.
Some chronotypes tend to be more reliant on caffeine than others. Evening-leaning chronotypes — that’s you, Wolves — show greater use of caffeine and other stimulants as well as more daytime sleepiness, according to research.
If you’re looking to cut back on your caffeine consumption, follow these three steps to do it gradually and avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms:
Step 1: Consume caffeine in your normal way for a week, tracking all the caffeine you ingest, including tea, coffee, soda, energy drinks, chocolate and desserts, and any medications that contain caffeine.
Step 2: In week two, begin to reduce your caffeine gradually, by eliminating about 40 milligrams a day — that’s the equivalent of 1/2 a cup of coffee. Start by eliminating the caffeinated foods and drinks you consume in the latter part of the day.
Step 3: As you adapt to the reduced amount of caffeine in your system, replace some of your other caffeinated drinks with low-caf or decaf alternatives.
You can enjoy caffeine in moderate amounts in the first part of the day, but cut yourself off from coffee and other caffeinated food and drink by 2 p.m. to avoid nighttime disruption. This is a sure-fire way to sleep better at night.
RULE NUMBER 3: STOP CONSUMING ALCOHOL THREE HOURS BEFORE BEDTIME
Alcohol is the world’s most common sleep aid. Unfortunately, it does nothing good for your sleep when consumed close to bedtime. While it’s true that alcohol will make you feel sleepy and may help you fall initially to sleep, the presence of alcohol in your system at night leads to poor sleep quality. Alcohol consumed close to bedtime causes restless, fragmented sleep and alters the amount of time you spend in the different stages of sleep. After drinking, you’re apt to spend more time in deep sleep and not enough time in REM sleep. Drinking at night also does a number on your sleep-wake cycle — inhibiting the release of melatonin and throwing your body’s bio clock off its proper cycle. As with other stimulants and depressants, alcohol tends to be a bigger issue for Wolves than other chronotypes. Evening types are the most likely to overindulge in alcohol and are the most vulnerable to bio-time disruption from drinking at night.
The closer to bedtime you consume alcohol, the more it interferes with your sleep. Once consumed, alcohol metabolizes over a period of hours, depending on several factors including your gender, size and weight, the amount you drink and food you’ve consumed. If you have a drink or two (or three) close to bedtime, that alcohol will affect your sleep throughout the night. You’re more likely to wake frequently in the second half of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep — often because you need to use the bathroom. And, let’s not overlook the effects the next day — fatigue, mental sluggishness, irritability — which can carry over to affect your sleep the next night.
If you have sleep apnea, alcohol can aggravate the condition. That’s because alcohol has a depressant effect on the body’s central nervous system, which leads to greater muscle relaxation, including in the muscles of the head, neck and throat. Even people who don’t typically contend with sleep apnea may experience a narrowing of the airway and sleep-disrupted breathing after drinking moderately close to bedtime. This same exaggerated muscle relaxation also makes you more likely to snore after drinking alcohol in the evenings.
This doesn’t mean you need to abstain from alcohol altogether. To sleep your best, plan to enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine no closer than three hours before bedtime. That’s enough time for alcohol to be metabolized through the body, leaving you ready to sleep more soundly throughout the entire night.
RULE NUMBER 4: STOP EXERCISING FOUR HOURS BEFORE BEDTIME
Exercise is great for sleep. Regular exercise improves sleep quality, helps you fall asleep more quickly and boosts your overall sleep time. It also increases your time spent in deep sleep. But exercising too close to bedtime can undermine your sleep. An evening workout can leave you feeling too energized and amped up to fall asleep on the schedule that is best for you.
A 30-minute session of vigorous aerobic exercise raises body temperature, a shift upward that lasts for about four hours after you’ve finished exercising. Higher body temperature interferes with your ability to fall asleep. A falling core body temperature is one key part of the body’s physiological preparations for sleep. Body temperature begins to fall in the late afternoon, and a dropping body temperature brings about feelings of sleepiness. Exercise that happens too close to bedtime interferes with that natural drop in temperature, and keeps you awake and alert when you want to be welcoming drowsiness. Move your workout time earlier, and you can take advantage of the falling body temperature that happens four hours after exercise to help you fall asleep more easily.
Four hours between the end of exercise and your regular bedtime is enough time to get all the excellent sleep and health benefits of exercise without having your workout interfere with your sleep. To sleep better, don’t skimp on exercise — just make time for it earlier in the day.
RULE NUMBER 5: GIVE THE SUN A HIGH FIVE
Exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning can make you feel refreshed, energized and ready to jump into your day — and help you sleep better at night. Five minutes of sun exposure in the morning resets your body’s bio clock and strengthens your natural sleep-wake cycle. Early light exposure regulates the cycle of melatonin production in your body. Remember, melatonin is strongly influenced by light and darkness. In the presence of sunlight early the in the day, melatonin levels continue to drop, helping you feel alert and focused.
You don’t need to get a lot of sunlight in the morning to have a big impact on your sleep-wake cycle. Just five minutes is enough to send a powerful message to your bio clock, re-setting it to the right time for waking and setting you up for a better night of sleep.
If you can’t get out into the sunlight in the morning, exposure to bright light indoors does the trick. There are many light-therapy tools available that can deliver the right amount of bright light to spur your bio clock into daytime action. But, if it’s possible, give yourself the perfect waking (and sleep-promoting) boost that sunlight provides.
Don’t let another night go by with so-so sleep. Start using these five steps today and make better sleep a part of your daily — and nightly — life. And check out my new book, “The Power Of When,” to learn more about how your chronotype can affect your productivity and life.
Written by Michael Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist who lives in Manhattan Beach, California. Author of two bestselling books, “Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-week program to Better Sleep and Better Health,” and “The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep.”