The Most Practical Steps To Improve Your Sleep

Posted on September 12th, 2013

Image by RelaxingMusic

With all the work that you have to get done during the day, going to sleep might sound like a waste of time. You are already busy with tasks, events, meetings, and other things. Why would you waste 7-8 hours on sleep? The answer is simple and complex at the same time.

The simple answer is that sleep time is the most important time of your day and the complex answer requires detailed scientific explanation of the functions of sleep. However, I want to keep it simple and explain to you why a good night sleep is important for you and what you can do to improve you sleep.

Why Is Sleep Important Anyway?

Mental activity does not stop during sleep. During sleep people alternate between two main (brain) states: slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. In adults, SWS and REM sleep alternate every 90-110 minutes. People awakened from REM sleep frequently report vivid perceptual experiences (dreams); people awakened from SWS often report ideas or thinking.1

During REM sleep, the brain tries to construct possible future scenarios in your life and prepare you for them. During non-REM sleep, the brain creates connections between past and possible future events thereby helping you to learn from your experiences and prepare you for the world that you have to deal with in the morning.

Key functions of sleep

  • Promotes conservation of energy
  • Helps you adapt to your environment and solve problems
  • Rehabilitates the body
  • Consolidates of memory and helps your learn
  • Improves your health in a way that no pill can ever achieve

If you want to become more productive, energized, focused, improve your memory and alertness, you can achieve all of this by improving the quality of your energy renewal which happens while you sleep. Instead of being concerned with managing your time, you should instead focus on how to better manage your energy.2

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

For decades, most people thought that sleeping 8 or 9 hours or more per night is associated with health and longevity. However, a series of large-scale studies conducted in both the United States and Japan suggest a different story. These studies focused on healthy individuals rather than people with depression, stress, or other problem that caused them to sleep less.

The results of the new studies suggest that sleeping 8 or 9 hours per night is not the healthy ideal that we have thought it to be. The researchers have found that the number of deaths that occurred among people sleeping between 5 and 7 hours per night, was much lower than among those who slept 8 or 9 hours.3 However, research findings from Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania showed that people who have 8 hours of sleep had better cognitive performance than people who had 6 or 4 hours of sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans average 6.9 hours on weeknights, which means that many people decrease their productivity and performance as a result of decreased quality and quantity of sleep. Professor Van Dongen suggests that “You don’t see it the first day. But you do in five to seven days. Unless you’re doing work that doesn’t require much thought, you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.4

Many people think that they can make up for the loss of sleep on the weekends, but research studies suggest that this is not an effective way to improve your sleep. Sleeping in on the weekends can actually make you sleepier on Monday morning. By sleeping in on weekends, you change the circadian clock in your brain causing a delay of up to two hours. This delay can make it hard for you to fall asleep on Sunday and even more difficult to wake Monday morning.5

So how much sleep do you really need? The answer lies within your body. Only you can figure out how much sleep you need to stay alert, energized, and productive. Try to find your optimal sleep time within the range of 7-8 hours.

Practical Steps To Improve Your Sleep

  • Set and stick to a sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same times each day.

  • Relax for at least 30 minutes right before going to bed.

  • Dim your lights when it’s close to bedtime.

  • Your sleeping environment should be cool, comfortable, and free of distractions.

  • Treat your bed as a special place of renewal and a stress free zone.

  • If you are still lying awake after 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. Stand up, folder your arms on your chest, close your eyes, and gently rock back and forth in a way that is comfortable to you. Continue to do this until you feel sleepy.

  • Expose yourself to bright light in the morning to get more energized and prepare for a productive day.6

  • At night, avoid stimulants such as caffeinated beverages, chocolate and tobacco. Caffein can decrease the quality of your sleep and cause you to wake up too early.

  • To improve the quality of your sleep, avoid eating large meals right before bedtime.

  • Your bedroom temperature should be within the range of 67-70F° or 19-21C°. Ideal temperature is highly individual, and each person will have a narrow range, so experiment to find your own.7

  • If you take any medication, double check that it has not side-effects that can influence your sleep and consult with your doctor if there are any.

  • Naps are really healthy but only if you take them before 3:00PM and keep them short 15-35 minutes.

  • Regular physical exercise can be one of the best ways to improve the quality of your sleep. Exercise in the morning can help you get the light exposure you need and set your biological clock for the day. However, it is best if you avoid exercising close to bedtime.

  • If you are having problems sleeping because there are too many thoughts in your mind or you get a rush of ideas at night, keep a notebook nearby and write them down. It is better to feel calm knowing that your thoughts are on paper rather than worry about forgetting your thoughts in the morning.

  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Allow enough time to wind down and relax before going to bed. Finish everything that you have to do before you go to sleep. Brush your teeth and finish all the conversations. Right before you put your head on the pillow, stand up right before your bed and fold your arms on your chest. Close your eyes and gently rock back and forth or side to side for 10-15 minutes. You will quickly notice that you begin to relax and feel sleepy.

How To Fall Asleep If You Can’t

This techniques is called sleep induction using your eyes.

  1. Lie on your back in bed, in the dark, place your hands (palms down) on either side of your lower abdomen. Warmth added to the lower abdomen is known to calm people down, which is why they give heated blankets after delivery or surgery.

  2. Shut your left eye only and keep your right eye open, no matter what! The shutting of the left eye (if you are right handed) will help to reduce stimulation to anxiety centers in the more emotional right hemisphere of your brain.

Forcing the right eye to stay open, which it does not want to do if the other eye is shut, acts as a major distractor, the focus on which helps to take your mind off whatever thoughts are keeping you awake.

  1. Breedlove, S. M., Watson, N. V., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (2010). Biological psychology: an introduction to behavioral, cognitive, and clinical neuroscience (6th ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Publishers. 

  2. Loehr, J. E., & Schwartz, T. (2003). The power of full engagement: managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal. New York: Free Press. 

  3. Pinel, J. P. (2007). Basics of biopsychology. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon. 

  4. Jones, M. (2011, April 15). How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With? - The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia

  5. Warshaw, L. A.. With planning, ‘you snooze, you lose’ no longer applies to work week’s sleep debt - Health & Wellness Tips. UT Southwestern

  6. Williams, J. C. (2011, March 7). Annual Sleep in America Poll Exploring Connections with Communications Technology Use and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation. 

  7. Ferriss, T. (2011). The 4-hour body: an uncommon guide to rapid fat-loss, incredible sex and becoming superhuman. London: Vermilion. 

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