By Laine Bergeson
Our busy lives have made it way too normal— even cool — to skimp on sleep. It’s a point of pride for many of us to see how little sleep we can get. There’s no time to sleep! There’s too much to do! Even those of us who prioritize sleep are prone to frequent lapses, binging a TV show or finishing a work project.
But we shortchange our sleep at our own peril. Sleep is so much more than a period of low productivity. Sleep is when our bodies heal, our brain’s detox, and our metabolism resets. It’s when our brains’ process the day’s events and consolidate memories. Not to mention one ironic fact: when we cut corners on our sleep, we’re not more productive during our waking hours. Sleep deprivation leads to waking hours that are less productive than when we are sufficiently well rested. Insufficient sleep and sleep disturbances are associated with decreased productivity, increased absenteeism from work, and more accidents and injuries.
Sleep quality matters, too. When it comes to sleep, both quantity AND quality count.
So even if you’ve started getting more sleep, you might still be suffering if the sleep you are getting isn’t high quality. Maybe your sleep is light or restless or interrupted — and not only are you feeling it at night, when you toss and turn or wake up one (or more) times to pee, you’re feeling it during the day, when you are tired, dragging, irritable, and unable to focus. Plus, there are long-term consequences associated with insufficient sleep and poor quality sleep. Otherwise healthy people who experience insufficient or poor quality sleep for an extended period of time are at increased risk for weight gain, weight loss resistance, high blood pressure, imbalance blood sugar, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.
The big takeaway? It’s time to get a good night’s sleep. Here’s how to tell if your sleep is unsound — and 10 ways to fix it.
Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Night’s Sleep
How can you tell if your sleep is wonky? There are a few telltale signs and symptoms to watch out for, according to the National Sleep Foundation:
- You have trouble falling asleep after climbing into bed. If it takes you more than half an hour to fall asleep after lights out, this can be a sign of poor sleep quality.
- You wake up two or more times during the night.
- When you wake up in the middle of the night, you are asleep for 20 minutes or more before you are able to fall back asleep.
- You have been diagnosed with insomnia or another sleep disorder.
- You feel groggy and yawn a lot the next day.
- You have brain fog and/or you find it hard to concentrate the next day.
- You are irritable, moody, and/or forgetful the next day.
These signs and symptoms can also point to not getting enough sleep. Many times, insufficient sleep and poor-quality sleep go hand-in-hand — and this list of symptoms can be a sign of both.
10 Real Life Ways to Improve Your Sleep
Ready to get the deep, restorative sleep of a third grader? Here are top tips for better sleep:
1. Don’t eat too close to bedtime.
Eating within half-an-hour to an hour before bed is associated with reduced sleep quality. There are likely several reasons why late-night snacking is hard on sleep. For one, the process of digestion may divert physiological resources away from the process of falling and staying asleep. Another factor may be heartburn, which can keep would-be sleepers in pain and awake. Try to keep at least two hours, or more, between your last meal of the day and bedtime.
2. Keep your bedroom cool.
The warmer your bedroom, the less restorative slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep you are likely to get, according to research. To improve your chances of getting more high-quality sleep, keep your bedroom cool at night.
3. Turn the lights off (and get some good blinds).
Ambient light at night — from outdoor lamp posts and neighbors’ windows to glowing phone screens and other electronics — has a negative influence on sleep, perhaps especially for women. Make sure light emitting devices are flipped over, turned off, or left out of your bedroom altogether. And if you live in a metropolitan area with a lot of bright ambient light outside, invest in light-blocking curtains.
4. Embrace the quiet.
Like light pollution in big cities, noise pollution is a similarly pervasive problem — and one that has a proven link to poor quality sleep. Studies show that nocturnal noise pollution “significantly impairs sleep, objectively and subjectively.” There are a variety of ways to help block out nighttime noise, from white noise machines to ear plugs to soundproof foam wedges you can put in your window. Even running a fan, which could kill two birds with one stone by helping keep you cool, can help block street noise and facilitate a better night’s sleep.
5. Commit to a bedtime routine (no matter how small).
Imagine if a toddler was running around, playing, laughing, toddling, all the things that they do in a day — and then, when it was time for bed, a parent just plopped them into bed, flipped out the lights, and walked away. How quickly and happily do you think they would fall asleep? It would be a hard transition, and it is the same for adults. It’s difficult for the body to go from frantically trying to finish a work project or house chores to sleeping with no transition. We sleep better, and we fall asleep faster, when we have a ritual (or two) that tells the body it is time for bed. It doesn’t have to be much — a quick bath, putting a pair of nice pajamas, reading in bed for 10 minutes — just something to signal that sleep is the next thing on the agenda.
6. Don’t drink caffeine past noon.
The buzz we feel from caffeine may wear off in an hour or two, but it circulates in the body for much longer — anywhere from five to ten hours — so switching to decaf drinks after lunch can help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep.
7. Stay off electronic devices before bed.
You’ve heard it one million times by now, but it is worth repeating: the blue light from phone screens and iPads and other devices disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try to tuck away all screens at least an hour before bed.
8. Try not to nap.
Maybe you’re a long-time napper, maybe working from home has got you napping for the first time. Whatever the case, if you’re prone to naps during the day, you may have trouble falling asleep at night. Try to cut out naps altogether or, if you want a short rest, keep your nap brief, 15 to 20 minutes at most.
9. Cut back on alcohol.
Alcohol does a funny thing when it comes to sleep. You conk out faster, but the sleep you get is lower quality, and you are more apt to wake up in the middle of the night and not fall back asleep. If sleep quality is a problem for you, or you wake up frequently during the night, try cutting down on alcohol or giving it up some nights to see if your sleep improves.
10. Get a little sun during the day.
Getting just a short amount of direct sunlight, say 10 to 15 minutes, sometime in the morning or around noon each day can help you sleep at night. The daytime sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm — letting your body know when it is time to be awake and when to sleep. If you don’t see the sun much during the day, make a point to get out even for a brief coffee break. Just make sure it happens before noon, so the sun can benefit you the most — and so the caffeine is out of your system when you try to go to bed!