skip to Main Content

Nine simple ways to help you feel well-rested every night

Most things that promise to get us fitter, stronger, smarter and protect us from disease, all with minimal effort, are as closely related to the truth as a donut is to a healthy diet. However, all these benefits – and more – are readily available from something each of us already does for one-third of every day: sleep.

Understanding how to optimise your sleep can be confusing. From anecdotes to old-wives’ tales, there are almost as many strategies as there are sleepers. Depending on your goals, your existing lifestyle and your genes, what works like a dream for you may be a nightmare for the next guy.

In an attempt to shine some light into the dark corners of sleep, we’ve jumped into bed with the science to see what secrets it reveals.

Sleep is when we recover and grow. Even the most ardent gym goer understands that actual gains are made in your sleep: what the gym breaks down, the rest afterwards builds up, when the body comes back stronger from its progressive punishment. The same is true of learning, with your brain making sense of its daily dose of stimulation during your dreams.

Anyone neglecting their rest, therefore, gets broken rather than better.
It’s amazing then that so many of us not only neglect to sleep well, but that sleeping for a meagre handful of hours each night is worn by some as a badge of honour. And while a fortunate genetic few may well be abnormally rapidly recharged, chances are you’re not one of them (and neither, probably, is the person proclaiming sleep is for the weak while chucking back their third coffee of the morning).

For the vast majority, if you get six hours of sleep per night for two weeks, your mental and physical performance declines to the same level as if you had stayed awake for 48 hours – and, even worse, you don’t even notice! We sleep less to get more done, but then get less done because we’re sleeping less.

For another group of people, the idea of eight hours or so of undisturbed sleep, after which they wake up full of energy, ready for whatever the day may hold, feels like it could happen only in a dream.

At iamYiam, we believe that a good night’s sleep is within everyone’s grasp. All it takes is the right knowledge, wisely applied, and the right acts made habitual.

Keep reading for more on why sleep is so important, how sleep works, and some simple and scientific tips to supercharge your slumber.

Why is sleep important?

“There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.” – Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter Sleep deprivation, through either not sleeping long enough, or well enough, “contributes to a number of molecular, immune, and neural changes that play a role in disease development… Sleep deprivation also results in significant impairments in cognitive and motor performance which increase the risk of motor vehicle crashes and work-related injuries and fatal accidents.”. In short, if sleep deprivation doesn’t kill you, it’s not going to make you stronger either.

Sleeping less also makes you fatter, because a lower proportion of the energy you burn comes from fat. This can become a vicious cycle, as higher levels of visceral fat (the fat that surrounds your organs and which is linked to diabetes, hypertension, impotence, cancer, heart attacks and strokes) make it more likely you’ll have sleep apnea (i.e. interrupted breathing during sleep) which in turn makes your sleep worse…

As well as making you fat, lack of sleep also makes you stupid. “Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.”

For those looking to pack on muscle, one week of restricting sleep to five hours per night decreased testosterone production by 10–15%. For those more interested in mind over muscle, by cleaning out metabolic waste, sleep plays a crucial role in cleaning out this waste, which not only improves cognitive function, but has been linked to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mental activity can be negative or positive, with each type being processed by a different part of the brain. Sleep deprivation unfortunately affects the negative-processing part more, meaning that sleep deprived people can recall bad memories better than good ones.

In summary, lack of sleep makes you fat, stupid, weaker, and depressed.

Understanding sleep

The key to understanding sleep is to understand its cycles.

At the most basic level, there are five stages – four non-REM stages and one REM stage. Your body recovers and grows during the non-REM stages and your brain does the same during the REM stage. The more recovery you require – because of intense physical or mental activity – the more sleep you need.

Each cycle is typically about 90 minutes long, so a five-cycle night will mean sleeping for 7.5 hours. This varies slightly, with earlier cycles typically slightly longer and later ones slightly shorter, but timing your bedtime by working back in 1.5-hour cycles from when you want to get up is a sensible place to start.
The best time to wake up is after a REM stage. Waking up during a non-REM stage can leave you more tired than if you’d had less sleep but awoken at the end of a cycle.

1

Get your light right

Your need for sleep is controlled by your circadian rhythm, which in turn is predominantly controlled by light. Get the right sort of light at the right time and you’ll be well on your way to improving your sleep.

The region of the brain responsible for controlling circadian rhythm is a tiny part of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). When the lights lower, the SCN kick-starts a chemical chain-reaction that prepares us for sleep, for example by releasing melatonin.

This chain-reaction can get interrupted if your body (chiefly your eyes, but also your skin) gets exposed to light after the sun has gone down. Sometimes, e.g. shift workers, this is unavoidable. A lot of the time, e.g. staring longingly into your phone in the evening, it is not.

The problem is made worse by modern lifestyles that keep our adrenal hormones a bit too excited. More adrenal activity means more melatonin is needed to counteract it. Which is simply beyond what we’re hard-wired to cope with.

Your sensitivity to light is partly determined by your genes. A protein called melanopsin detects light and tells your brain that it’s daytime. There are genetic differences in the melanopsin protein: people with European ancestry tend to have a greater sensitivity to blue light compared to the majority.

The light bulb was invented only in 1880 and we’ve had TVs and smartphones for the tiniest blink of an evolutionary eye, so it’s no surprise that we’ve not yet adapted to our always-on environment.

Artificial light is a wonderful thing, but in the context of improving your sleep, try to think of it like you should sitting – use it only when you don’t have a choice not to.

1) Get outside in the morning – Setting yourself up for a quality night’s sleep starts as soon as you wake up. If at all possible, get outside for a dose of morning sunshine (even on a cloudy day). Aim for 30 minutes within 30 minutes of waking.

2) Sunshine substitutes – If real sunlight is out of reach, perhaps because you’re spending the winter in the Arctic, there are artificial alternatives, such as light therapy units. And of course all that blue light that you should be avoiding later in the day is potentially beneficial in the morning (though this does not mean staying in bed scrolling through Facebook is a healthy way to start the day!).

3) Turn off your phone at night – And your tablet, and your laptop… The blue light produced by your digital prosthetics can ruin any hope of a truly restful sleep. Aim to avoid all blue light between two and four hours before bed. If you must use these devices, be sure to install blue-light blocking software like flux or maybe even get yourself some fancy blue-light-blocking glasses.

4) Turn off everything else too – Even your television’s little standby light, or the digital display on your bedside clock can badly affect your sleep. And there are plenty that would argue your WiFi is better off than on too. There’s a reason professional sportspeople, when staying in hotels before a big game, unplug all the electronics. You should too. If this isn’t possible, invest in a quality wrap-around sleep mask.

5) Blackout curtains – Blackout curtains are a must for any bedroom. Depending on your set-up, you may want to double-up with blinds or additional means of blocking the light escaping from the sides or the top of your curtains.

2

Cut back on caffeine, alcohol and tobacco

What you consume can play a huge role in helping (or hindering) you sleep. Bigger gains are to be made by taking certain stimulants away, rather than adding anything in.

The big three to avoid are caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

Caffeine – be it from coffee, green tea, or chocolate – works, in terms of keeping you awake, less by boosting energy, and more by masking fatigue: your body is trying to tell you that you need to rest, and the caffeine puts your fingers in your ears and starts to sing, helping you to keep on going for a bit longer.

In the short-term, this can be very handy. In the long-term, “we are in danger of chronically elevating our cortisol levels, which, in the long-term, may lead to weight gain, sleep issues and depressing the immune system.”

Caffeine has a half-life of five to eight hours, which means that five to eight hours after drinking your coffee, half of its stimulating power is still in your system. This varies greatly depending on your genetics and how much of a beating you’ve given the receptors that respond to caffeine in the past.

Alcohol may help get you to sleep, but this benefit is negated during the rest of the night. The process of breaking down the alcohol can lead to a decrease in deep sleep, an increase in intermittent waking and delays the REM cycle, so you wake without feeling fully rested.

Tobacco is a no-go in all situations, and its toxins can harm your – and others’ sleep. This is especially important for children, as it can lead to breathing problems and insomnia. Other toxins found in the home, such as cleaning chemicals or mould, can have a similar effect.

“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga

1) Caffeine – Avoid caffeine after 2pm. This is a rule of thumb. Your own genetics may move this up or down by a couple of hours. The best way is to experiment.

2) Alcohol – The ‘right’ thing to do is probably to simply avoid it, but alcohol can have important other benefits such as encouraging socialising that can do more good through reducing stress than the damage done by a couple of glasses. Try to cut out the drinks with no such social benefit. In any case, remember to stay hydrated.

3) Tobacco – Don’t smoke.

4) Purify your home’s air – The best way is to get some help from nature; a particularly good plant for the bedroom is Sansevieria. When you run out of room for plants, think about getting a HEPA filter for some extra help. And be thoughtful of what chemicals you use in your home, and where you keep them.

3

Move during the day

A great way to get a good night’s sleep is to go to bed tired. Not world-weary tired, but post-physical-exertion tired. Not only does the physical activity mean your body will want to rest to recover and grow, but by making you that bit healthier, you’ll also reduce the chances of sleep disrupters like sleep apnea that are linked to being overweight.

But intense exercise isn’t for everyone. Luckily, almost any sort of movement will do.

30 minutes of yoga or stretching have been shown to have the same effect on sleep quality as more intense exercise. Other studies have supported the use of Tai Chi and acupressure for significantly improving sleep quality. Massage also helps.

Timing here is very important, especially with the intense exercise option. Not only does such exercise give you a ‘buzz’ which it can take time to settle down from, but exercise raises your core temperature, which can make it difficult to sleep.

And remember that your body needs longer to recover after heavy exercise, so schedule time for another sleep cycle as close to any particularly heavy exercise as you can.

1) Move! – Aim for at least 30 minutes. From Crossfit to Tai Chi, it doesn’t really matter, just get off the sofa!

2) Timing – Finish intense exercise two to three hours before bed and schedule extra sleep for recovery

4

Food and Drink

We’ve dealt with what not to eat and drink, and it’s worth repeating that cutting out the bad is much more effective than piling on the good.

Diet is, as anyone who’s looked into their own DNA knows, incredibly personal. Beyond the basics like not smoking and avoiding processed foods, what works for one may not work for another.

One universally important point is that if your body is having trouble digesting something, then you’ll have trouble sleeping, because the stress and heat generation of the digestive system will put you in a poor place for sleeping well.

This means avoiding junk food for everyone, and being aware of what foods you do, and do not, process effectively and ensuring you are getting enough vitamins and minerals. Use your DNA results as a guide, supported by personal experience.

And everyone will benefit from staying sufficiently hydrated.

The main things to experiment with are: the size of your meals; your balance between protein, carbs and fat; and the timing of your meals.

It is worth noting that sleep is another good reason not to be scared of carbs. As Chris Masterjohn points out, “carbohydrate, especially high-glycemic carbohydrate, helps push the amino acid tryptophan into your brain so that it can be turned into melatonin later at night.” He adds, “If your liver doesn’t store enough carbohydrate, your blood sugar can drop. This could make it difficult to fall asleep or wake you up, depending on when it drops.”

“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga

1) Eat enough – Being hungry can harm your sleep. Not only could the cravings keep you awake, but if you’re trying to lose too much weight too quickly, the additional stress of doing so could quickly outweigh (or even curtail) any weight-loss benefits.

2) Avoid the junk.

3) Stay hydrated.

4) Get your micronutrients – Your genetics will play a large role in determining your best sources of vitamins and minerals. Green leafy vegetables, and lots of them, are always a good place to start.

5) Eat carbohydrates after exercise – Because activity depletes your carb stores, and you want your liver to store some carbs to better control your blood sugar, you’re best off eating carbs after intense exercise. Also, though carbohydrates spike insulin, if your muscle glycogen stores aren’t full (such as after exercise) the insulin will drive carbohydrates into muscle tissue, not into fat tissue.

6) Eat protein earlier in the day – Protein contains other amino acids besides tryptophan (which signals the release of melatonin). These other amino acids can ‘get in the way’ of the tryptophan making it to your brain. As with everything, though, your experience may be different. In the 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss got his best results from eating fats and protein within three hours of bed!

5

Keep the noise down

This is an obvious one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important! Any external disturbance during sleep is likely to wake you up at a time not of your choosing.

One seldom talked about disturbance is the body sleeping next to you. “People don’t want to talk about it… People do, in fact, sleep more soundly when they sleep alone.” This is a tricky area, because sleeping together can mean a lot more to a couple than a contributor to the quality of that sleep. If sleeping together is seen as a direct sign of the quality of a relationship, then breaking that link could lead to stress-related problems that are worse than the disturbances created by snoring or stealing more than one’s fair share of the duvet. Conversely, however, being comfortable sleeping apart now and then could be seen as a very healthy sign.

1) Headphones – The best way to cancel noise, other than not sleeping in a noisy place, is headphones. Many options are available – look for ones that fill your ear canal to completely shut out external stimuli.

2) Sleep alone – It may be worth a try, especially if you can see it as a sign of how healthy your relationship is.

6

Stay cool

One of the ways the body prepares itself for sleep is to lower its core temperature. Therefore, it makes sense that you don’t want to fight this thermal regulation.

Furthermore, everyone is aware of how difficult it is to sleep well when covered in sweat – a double-whammy of internal and external discomfort.

“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga

1) Turn down the thermostat – The consensus is that you want to aim for 18-21 degrees Celsius (about 64 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit). If this is too cool, consider working towards it, or putting on some socks.

2) Dip your face in cold water – A fast and effective means of cooling down is to submerge your face in a bowl of ice water. Aim for as long as you can hold your breath. Because this is a stressor, do not attempt it if you’re already stressed from other sources. The same goes for a pre-bed cold shower; an alternative being a warm, relaxing bath or shower, followed by going into a cool room – the change in temperature will signal that it’s time to rest.

3) Light clothes can help – In very hot conditions light clothing can save you from lying sticking to the sheets with sweat. In extreme conditions, you may also want to invest in a cooling sheet.

7

Stick to a schedule

“Regularity is vital for setting and stabilizing your body’s biological clock.” – Dr James Maas, Sleep for Success

Like any other good habit, sleep benefits from having a set schedule. The ‘standard’ advice is to sleep between about 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. But, again, there is a great deal of variation between individuals, so experiment and find out what works best for you – and then stick to it.

Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, says each person has a unique internal timing profile called a sleep chronotype – broadly speaking, you’re either a lark or an owl, and that is largely genetically determined. Syncing your internal clock with your external environment is key to sleeping well and staying energised throughout the day.

The quality of your sleep is determined by the environmental factors described above. The duration, for most people, is determined by what time you go to bed, as most of us have daily commitments that force us to get up at more or less the same time every day.

Recall that sleep cycles are typically 1.5 hours long, and that it is better to wake up at the end of a cycle than during one, so work backwards from your waking time in 1.5-hour chunks.

1) Go to bed at the same time every night – And get up at the same time, including at weekends. The only exceptions should be where you are deliberately sleeping longer to get extra recovery from intense exercise, or where you are catching up (as soon as possible!) from unavoidably missed cycles on a previous night. Remember that you can often nap later in the day, which may be much more effective than simply sleeping in.

2) Know if you’re a lark or an owl – To the extent that you can, try to manage your life around your ‘chronotype’. If in doubt, act like a lark.

8

De-stress

This is possibly the most important point of all, though the hardest to implement.

If your head is full of anxious thoughts that you can’t shake off, then it won’t matter how dark and cool your room is or when you last ate – your sleep isn’t going to be great. And worrying about ticking off each of the tips in this article while trying to get to sleep will do more harm than following them would do good.

There is an important difference between stopping and recovering – especially when it comes to winding down from work: if you sit on the sofa thinking about work, or about something else that gets your mental adrenaline pumping, e.g. politics, then you may have stopped, but you are not recovering.

Getting thoughts out of a head, especially unhelpful ones, is harder than getting them in there. One option that has been shown to successfully treat insomnia is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT is designed to help people deal with recurring negative thoughts by reframing them and breaking the vicious cycles into which people can be drawn when the same unhelpful thoughts keep rushing around their minds.

Another popular option is meditation, which can work in a similar way, by helping people to observe unhelpful thoughts come and go without reacting to them. Research by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine even showed that meditating in the morning helped improve sleep in the evening.

Linked to meditation, a focus on breathing (specifically slow and deep breathing) can calm anxious thoughts and make it easier to get to sleep.

Acupuncture is another option that has been shown to help treat insomnia more effectively than some drugs.

1) Stop all work – The first thing to try is to simply stop working. If your bedroom becomes a second office, even if just for the occasional e-mail, you will have a harder time switching off and getting a good night’s sleep. Save the bedroom for sleep and sex.

2) Write down your thoughts – Simply getting your thoughts out of your head and on to paper may be enough to help you sleep. Try keeping a journal and jotting down anything that’s on your mind before bed.

3) CBT – If you’re plagued by recurring anxious thoughts that disturb your sleep, try some cognitive behavioural therapy to break the unhelpful cycles and repattern your brain.

4) Meditate – Learn to observe your thoughts without reacting with meditation. This can be in the morning, or the evening, or both! – whatever works best with your schedule.

5) Deep breaths – When you’re in bed and ready to sleep, try deep breathing through your nose. Aim for five full breaths per minute (for example 10 seconds in and 10 seconds out, or add in a short breath hold between in and out).

6) Nasal strips – If breathing through your nose is difficult, consider nasal strips, especially if you snore or suffer from sleep apnea.

9

The small stuff… don’t sweat it, but try it if it helps

There’s no shortage of gadgets for ‘hacking’ sleep. However, no self-detoxing mattresses or magnetic-field devices or expensive supplements are likely to overcome the effects of spending hours in bed scrolling through Twitter or trying to sleep behind transparent curtains – get the basics right first and worry about the hacking later.

1) Home from home – No one tends to sleep as well away from home, especially on the first night in a strange place. One option is to copy professional athletes like Team Sky’s cyclists, who have been known to take ‘bedding toppers’ with them on their travels – thin layers of foam that have been customized to their individual bodies.

2) Ditch the mattress altogether – In Move Your DNA, Katy Bowman advocates ditching first your pillow, and then your mattress, equating each to orthotics that support your feet in poor positions, rather than working with your natural human function. Why work on perfect posture if you’re kept in imperfect posture every night?

3) What gets measured gets managed – An increasing number of tools are available to measure every aspect of your sleep, from basic apps to high-tech wearables. If you’re interested in knowing if you’ve recovered well enough, then the gold standard is a daily heart-rate variability (HRV) score.

Conclusion

Sleeping well is in many ways a reflection of living well: exercising regularly, eating nutrient-dense foods, and scheduling time to properly recover from physical and mental exertions.

It is telling that the key tactics for sleeping well are the same for managing day-to-day stresses – which in turn further improves your sleep.

Changing your environment is often easier than changing yourself. While genetics and your lifestyle will often work in unhelpful ways, the way you use light, and the temperature and noise of your bedroom are in your control. As is keeping your phone out of the bedroom!

If you’re looking to fast-track your journey to better sleep, the trick, as ever, is to experiment: to see what works for you, in harmony with your goals and your genes. Find your own formula with science-backed recommendations from iamYiam.

  1. Light
  2. Stimulants
  3. Exercise
  4. Nutrition
  5. Noise
  6. Temperature
  7. Schedule
  8. Stress
  9. Extras
Back To Top