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Sleep Better

Updated: Aug 22, 2023


Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something by clicking the link, I earn a small commission from the company, at no cost to you. I only recommend items that I have researched and tried myself, and recommend to clients in my practice.



Sleep is one of the three pillars of health, and it is the most overlooked when people start getting into health and fitness. People usually start with nutrition and exercise, and totally forget the sleep portion, or worse: sleep less in order to work out more. Sometimes people sleep worse because of extreme nutrition changes like skipping dinner, or intermittent fasting the wrong way.


Lack of quality sleep ruins muscle gains and workout recovery, and derails your weight control efforts by messing with hormones that control appetite and metabolism. Fatigue/low energy is one of the top reasons people don't work out, and it's a motivation killer for any other goals you have in your life.


So whether you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, here are some of the best practices for improving sleep quality.


To best prime our bodies for sleep, it boils down to 2 different things we need to do: calm down, and to mimic the night time conditions we evolved with. Before the invention of the light bulb and central AC, the daytime was filled with light, warmth, and noise. The night was the opposite: dark, cool, and quiet. Those three things signal sleep to the human brain - read on for how to make it work best for you.



Quick links to sleep better



 

Don't eat too late (or too early)

Dinner should be 3-4 hours before bed. That gives you enough time to digest a full meal properly so your stomach is mostly empty but you shouldn't feel hungry yet. However, if dinner is too early, then expect to start feeling hungry or snackish at around the 4-5 hour mark.

An early dinner only works for people going to bed early.

So if your bedtime is 11 pm, that means dinner should be around 7-8 pm. Plan for a balanced after school/work snack around 4-5 pm to tide you over until dinner - or if you need to have an earlier dinner because of other members in your family, plan for a balanced snack (or even a second portion from dinner) kept around 3-4 hours before bed.


Don't forget to stay hydrated! We start getting thirstier in the evenings, and many people mistake it for food cravings.


 

Limit Alcohol and Caffeine



Caffeine has a 5 hour half life, meaning half of it is still in our system after 5 hours - and for some people it takes more than 9 hours. Caffeine should be limited at least 8 hours before bed time, possibly longer if you're sensitive. For the 11 pm bedtime, that means 3 pm or earlier.


Alcohol can feel relaxing and make it seem easier to fall asleep, but it actually makes it harder to stay asleep, and reduces sleep quality overall. A glass of something before or with dinner should be ok, but try to keep it to 3-4 hours before bed.


 

Reduce stress



Try to limit homework, work, finances, and stressful conversations after dinner - ideally get them done before dinner!


Don't watch stressful tv or stressful video games 1.5 to 2 hours before bed: no Walking Dead, Making of a Murderer, first person shooter games etc.

⚠️DON'T WATCH EVENING NEWS - it's much worse on stress levels because your brain knows it's not fiction.

Watch more calming things like:

Sitcoms - ex: Friends

Cooking - ex: The Great British Bakeoff

Gardening

Home Renovation - ex: This Old House

Most things on Animal Planet, especially documentaries

Nature/Earth documentaries

Documentary style TV shows - ex: How It's Made

Older mellow cartoons like Scooby Doo, Winnie the Pooh, etc


For gamers:

Instead of playing video games, go on YouTube to watch tutorials on the games

If you are going to play a game, go for the more relaxing games or parts of games

Examples:

1. Puzzles like Sudoku, Words with Friends, Solitaire, Wordscapes

2. Calm video games like Animal Crossing, Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Oregon Trail

3. The calmer parts of RPG games like trading, buying, selling, crafting, customizing



Or even more calming than any of the above: reading.

Again, it's better to not read Stephen King or anything super riveting that will keep you up late into the night.


If it's on a digital screen there should be a Dark Mode option.


If it's on a physical book or magazine, use a dim warm colored light to eliminate blue light ⬇️


 


Make it Dark: Eliminate blue light



Before the invention of the light bulb, the only time we saw blue light was from the bright, midday sun. When blue light hits our eyes, it suppresses melatonin production and will even clear it out of our brains, making melatonin supplements useless. Blue light tells us that it is daytime and a good time to be awake and alert - exactly what we don't want right before bed!


Cut out TV, computers, tablets, phones and video games 1 hour before bed. If you can, install blue light filters that automatically remove blue light when the sun sets.

Best blue light filter for desktop: F.Lux


Best blue light filter for Android: Twilight



Consider installing some smart color changing light bulbs. You can set them on timers to turn yellow, orange, and red as it gets closer to bedtime. My favorite is Magic Light, they are much more affordable than the Phillips Hue or other major brands.




How dark is dark enough?


The bedroom should be dark enough that you can't see your hand right in front of your face!


Use blackout curtains and small pieces of duct tape over electrical charging lights as needed. If you still need or want to see the lights to check if things are charging or not, use a tiny piece of red duct tape just big enough to cover the light.


You may also want to consider an eye mask or dark colored t shirt to lay over your eyes.


Night lights should be amber or red in color: the warmer the light, the less blue light there is. There are several available that are purposely designed with zero blue light:


Instead of watching TV to fall asleep, switch to audiobooks or podcasts.

The story still engages your brain but there's no light or movement, both of which wake our brains up. Go for low stress fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, RedWall or fairy tales, books or podcasts on gardening, traveling, cooking, home improvement, pets, arts and crafts, etc.


 


Make it cold



Humans sleep best between 60 and 70 degrees F, so set the AC to hit this temp range by bedtime. On a related note:



Take a warm shower or bath


Warm showers and baths in a dimly lit bathroom are soothing and relax tight muscles, plus it encourages your body temperature to drop afterward, signaling that it's time to sleep.


 


Make it quiet



It doesn't have to be totally silent to fall asleep, and total silence can even be unnerving to people, making it harder to fall asleep. We need to bring overall noise levels down - especially infrequent or irregular noises, or sharp noises like birdsong and sirens.



White noise

Broadband sound aka white noise (or pink noise, brown noise, or other color noises) can dramatically improve how fast we fall asleep, as well as encourage deeper sleep.

These soothing steady sounds help to drown out those sharp irregular noises, and include things like AC and fans, beach waves and crickets.


It can be your actual AC or fan, or generated by an app like White Noise which also has similar sounds like rivers, train cars, wind, rain, and more. YouTube has a whole community dedicated to creating full soundscapes for you to sleep to.



Pets



A notice to all of my fellow animal lovers: they're terrible for our sleep.

At least, most pets that are sharing our bed are almost a guarantee to be disturbed during the night. Dogs and cats don't have the same circadian rhythm as humans. It's normal for dogs to wake up several times a night, where they will get up and move around before lying back down - taking us out of deep sleep in the process. Cats don't seem to have a specific circadian rhythm at all, and many a cat parent has been woken up at 2 am by a playful attack on their toes.


Individuals are different, and there are some (rare) pets that do sleep all night, but most are frequent interrupters of our sleep. Dogs and cats should ideally have their own comfy beds. They can be located in the bedroom (except for the 2 am attackers) but jingly collars should be removed before bed - everyone will sleep better for it!


 

Save your bed for sleeping



In an ideal world, the entire bedroom should be a calming place - not be used for work, study, finances, heavy workouts, video games or anything else stimulating or stressful.


We don't live in a perfect world though, and many people have to do or keep these items inside their bedrooms. At the very least, save the bed itself for sleeping.


The human brain is excellent at making connections and associations. If you use your bed for work or studying, your brain will associate bed with being alert.

On the other hand, not going to bed until you're sleepy can improve insomnia better than prescription meds.


 


Write it down



Journaling is especially useful if you have racing thoughts - putting all of your thoughts onto a page can help to clarify and simplify worries and begin putting you on the path toward resolving them.


Some people prefer the traditional feel of real paper journals, while others enjoy the convenience of a journal app on their phone.


If you are more interested in a journal app, Penzu is one of the most secure encrypted apps on the market today.


If the thoughts are more about things you are trying to remember to do tomorrow, write them into a planner or schedule them into your Google or Apple Calendar for the following day.


 


Stretch it out



Gentle stretching and rolling out tight muscles send a calming message to our brains too - if our muscles are relaxed, so are our minds.

Try a quick YouTube bedtime yoga session for general stretching and relaxation.


If you have specific painful spots, check out YouTube's physical therapy channels for specific guides to fix them. These often benefit a LOT from foam rollers - specifically the ones with ridges and nubs that can massage out knots you didn't even know you had.









Something like this ⬆️


If it's lower back pain or sciatica that's your main issue, usually the cause is tight or weak glute muscles, or likely both if you work in a job that requires you to sit most of the day. Start with the foam roller above, but for such a large muscle you may need to dig in deeper, which requires a lacrosse ball.








Get in a regular habit of stretching and rolling most nights, and you will not only sleep better but have less pain the next day and are much less likely to get injured.


 


Meditate



Meditation for sleeping purposes can mean several things. It can be practicing counting your breaths, or intentionally thinking about calming things, or listening to a guided meditation app like Aura.



Progressive Muscle Relaxation


Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation technique effective for stress, anxiety, and insomnia. It involves intentionally tensing muscle groups then fully relaxing them, group by group.


For an in depth guide, check here.


 

Try monitoring your sleep

If you fall asleep easily and are asleep for at least 7 hours per night but you still feel tired in the morning, try tracking your sleep quality. Most smart watches will track movements and heart rate during sleep, but a smart phone app that records noises during the night can provide a lot more information. Free apps like Sleep Cycle can identify snoring/sleep apnea, coughing, dogs barking, and other audible interruptions that wake you up but your brain is too sleepy to remember properly.


As a side bonus, Sleep Cycle functions as an alarm clock that waits until you're at the right part of your sleep cycle where it's optimal to wake up, leading to more pleasant wake ups and better energy during the day.


 

Natural wind down supplements


Top picks

Safe with all age groups/prescription meds and safe to take daily


Magnesium gummies - Amazing for relaxing and sleep! Magnesium is hands down the best place to start for sleep supplementing. It's so relaxing I actually won't take it before dinner time because I don't want to nap during the day. See more info on Magnesium here.

 

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) tea or extract is well known for having a gentle relaxing effect on the body and mind, and no interactions or issues as long as you're not allergic to daisies. Most sleep research for Chamomile has been done with elderly people, where it has proven to improve sleep quality and faster falling asleep.

As a bonus, Chamomile is also anti inflammatory with gut health benefits.

 

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) tea or extract can improve the time it takes to fall asleep as well as improve depth and overall quality of sleep.

 

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is particularly useful for stress induced sleep difficulties, and helps to reduce stress in general.

 

2-4 oz Tart Cherry juice, a small handful dried tart cherries, or a low sugar tart cherry juice based drink like Green cherry soda or Izze cherry lime soda

 

Acetyl L Carnitine is unique in it's effects because it actually has an energy boosting effect - but it improves sleep quality once we do get to bed. ALCAR is best as a pick-me-up that will actually improve your sleep when you get to bed, and is particularly amazing if your work schedule keeps you awake later or earlier than you would like. Read here for the many benefits of ALCAR.


 

Mostly Safe

Caution with meds, kids, and/or taking daily


These are safe for the most part, but they should be double checked against any prescription medications, and some can lead to dependence or side effects.

 

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a strong anti inflammatory, strong enough to compete with ibuprofen. It's useful for sore muscles and aching joints as well as having it's own brain health benefits that extend to sleep.


Turmeric is generally quite safe but does have some slight blood thinning effects so caution is needed with blood thinners. Large doses of turmeric over a long period of time can negatively impact the liver, but small daily doses and larger occasional doses are fine.

 

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been studied for improving sleep quality. Considered more of a sedative, Valerian should not be combined with alcohol or sedative medications. Common side effects are dose dependent and include headaches, digestive upset, and even insomnia. If you want to try Valerian, better to go for a liquid extract version to better control and reduce doses.

 

American Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) - Useful for tension headaches and stress-related tense neck muscles, Skullcap is a mild relaxant as well as a strong antioxidant with brain benefits for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, anxiety, and other neurological issues.

 

White willow bark (Salix alba) is effective when trouble sleeping is due to pain - headaches, muscle aches, etc. Along with other anti-inflammatory flavonoids, it contains salicin which is the molecular origin of aspirin, so should be used accordingly.

 

Melatonin - Less is more: lower doses are better! Start with 1 mg, and ideally don't take every day. Our body makes it's own melatonin in response to darkness, cool temperatures, and quiet (see above!) If we start taking melatonin daily then our body gets lazy and will stop making melatonin, which makes us dependent on the melatonin supplement. The dependence will eventually reverse if we stop taking melatonin - after some sleepless nights.


Melatonin is more effective when combined with magnesium and other calming herbs.

Start with the Magnesium first, then try a combo supplement like this natural sleep support by E2H. The liquid formulation lets you control the dose better - you may only need a couple of drops to get a good night's sleep.


 

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