The Best Tips For Sensational Sleep
One of my clients recently shared with me that they are battling with sleep deprivation. I bet quite a few of you reading this are, or have, too.
So I want to help.
I’ll do anything in my power to help my clients, and I’m lucky that through the RHP blog, I can reach and positively impact upon many more people than only those I work with in person.
Sleep is absolutely crucial to your health. With a few simple strategies, you can get the high-quality, restful sleep your body and your mind deserves.
Consider this article your ‘go-to resource’ on how to sleep well.
I’ve researched and compiled the best strategies from the top sources I trust and refer to regularly.
By no means have I cracked every single tip (it’s an area I’m working on as well!) but I have seen a profound improvement in the quality and quantity of my sleep since I’ve been consistent with just a few of the gems below.
The 3 key components of seeing progress, regardless of your goals, are training, nutrition and recovery. Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise when it comes to improving your health, performance, and body composition. Regardless of whether your goal in training is fat loss, building muscle, getting stronger, or dominating in the athletic arena, enhancing the quality and quantity of your sleep can pay huge dividends.
Good sleep helps our bodies and minds recover, keeping us lean, happy, mentally focused, and healthy. But chronically bad sleep adds on body fat, screws up our hormones, ages us faster, increases chronic illnesses, and drains our IQ and mojo.
Fortunately, research also shows that returning to adequate sleep can quickly reduce these risks.
So how do we go about getting that replenishing shut-eye?
Create a sleep routine
Optimise your sleep environment
Relax into your sleep position
Wake up well
1. Create a sleep routine
Just like you can’t fire on all cylinders first thing in the morning, you can’t do the reverse at night — going from “on” to “off” in a few minutes. Your body needs transition time and environmental cues to wind down.
Thus, the first step to getting more and better sleep is to create a night-time routine that tells your body that you are preparing to go to sleep. Over time, if you’re consistent, your body will start the process of gearing down automatically.
Keep a regular schedule.
Our bodies like regularity. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and night. While it might be unrealistic to do this seven days a week — especially if you have young children — try to be as consistent as possible.
If you’re consistent, your body will know when to release calming hormones before bed, and stimulating hormones to help you wake up.
You’ll feel sleepy when it’s time for bed and wake up more refreshed, often without needing an alarm.
Keep alcohol and caffeine moderate.
Genuinely restful and restorative sleep comes from deep sleep.
Even though it seems like booze is relaxing, more than a couple of drinks in the evening can interfere with deep sleep, as can too much caffeine.
So limit alcohol to the suggested amounts, and reduce caffeine after 2 pm (caffeine is said to have a 9-hour half-life, so tailor this recommendation to your personal sleep routine.).
Otherwise, although you may “sleep” for 7 hours, your sleep won’t be high quality, and you won’t get the recovery benefits.
Eat and drink appropriately.*
Having a large meal immediately before bed can disrupt your ability to fall and stay asleep. Instead, eat a regular-sized (or even smallish) meal a few hours before bedtime.
A nice blend of protein, carbs and fats will help to keep you satisfied, and might even improve your ability to fall asleep as your brain converts carbs to serotonin
In addition, try to limit your fluids 2-3 hours before bedtime. Drinking too much liquid shortly before bed can result in frequent waking for bathroom breaks.
While total sleep time is important, uninterrupted sleep time is even better.
*See bonus section at the end with Top 10 Nutrition & Supplement Tips For Sensational Sleep!
Clear your brain.
We’ve all done it.
Stared at the ceiling, long after lights-out, obsessing about all the things we’re supposed to do tomorrow, tossing and turning and getting more and more stressed by the minute.
Try this instead.
In the evening, take a few minutes to write out a list of whatever’s bugging you; emails you need to send or reply to, calls you have to make, project ideas, creative thoughts, that thing you should have said to so-and-so…
Whatever is in your brain, get it out and written down somewhere.
It clears your mind for genuine relaxation.
Turn off electronics.
Digital devices stimulate our brain with their light, noise, and mental demands.
Unplug from all screens — TVs, computers, phones, tables — at least 30 minutes before bed.
(If you must read your tablet, switch the screen to the black or dimmer background. And if you’re going to be on your laptop/computer, download a program like f.lux, which decreases your screen’s colour temperature at night.)
Our brain produces melatonin as light levels decrease. Melatonin ensures deep sleep, and may also help regulate our metabolism. If we have too much light at night, we don’t get proper melatonin production.
Stretch / read / de-stress before bed.
What de-stresses you? Do that.
This could include:
- Gentle movement — such as stretching or yoga, or even a slow stroll around the block. Even 5-15 minutes can release tension and activate calm-down chemicals.
- Reading before bed — but make sure it’s not too engaging! Many recommend fiction, but personally, if it’s good fiction, I find it’s hard to put down! I prefer something within my trade immediately before bed. I really enjoy researching and staying ahead of the curve in the fitness profession; I find before bed to be a great time with no other distractions where I can best absorb information.
- Meditation, deep breathing, or other simple relaxation exercises
Go to bed before midnight.
According to some sleep experts, because of the way our natural circadian rhythms work, every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after.
(Whether that’s true or not, or whether it’s even measurable, I’m not sure. But I’ve heard it repeated so often by sleep experts it’s probably worth consideration.)
According to these experts, we’re meant to go to sleep when it gets dark, and to wake when it gets light. Seems the saying about early to bed and early to rise still stands the test of time.
Sleep at least seven hours.
Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. 7 should be your baseline.
If you know you have to wake at 6:00am to get ready for work, then you should be in bed by 10:30pm and asleep by 11:00pm. Also factor in transition time. Don’t stop what you’re doing at 10:59pm and expect to be snoring by 11:00pm. Start moving in the direction of bed by 10:00pm.
Exercising regularly helps normalise circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function.
However, save the intense exercise for during the day if possible — a weights or interval workout in the evening can rev us up and make it tougher to get to sleep.
Take a bath or shower.
While not everyone likes to shower or bathe at night, warm water before bed can help us relax and de-stress, which is key for falling asleep. If you go the warm water route, throw in some magnesium-based epsom salts as magnesium is known to help with sleep.
Some swear by cold water in the evening. The logic is that cold water stimulates a strong parasympathetic nervous system response once the initial shock has passed. A short, very cold shower will do the trick.
Give it a try, and see which works better for you.
2. Optimise your sleep environment
In addition to creating a nightly sleep routine, to help improve your sleep quality and duration, you should ensure that your sleeping environment is actually conducive to sleep.
A few small adjustments can make a big difference here.
Keep the room as dark as possible.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that signals to your body it is time for sleep. Making your room as dark as possible will maximize your melatonin production. Jim Horne, of Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre, says “You need darkness for the brain to secrete melatonin, the hormone that regulates your biological clock”.
Meanwhile, light — particularly blue light, which most electronics produce — inhibits melatonin production and makes it harder to fall and stay asleep (sunsets produce red light).
So how can you limit light exposure?
- Dim lights at night. Install low-wattage bulbs in your bedroom, and keep things as dim as possible in the hour before your planned bedtime. If you leave the bedroom door open, make sure to address any light that comes from another part of the house.
- Cover your windows well. Maybe time to upgrade your curtains or blinds?
- Use a motion-sensitive or dim night light if you need something to illuminate your midnight path to the bathroom.
- Put your phone in another room or flip it face down, turn vibrate off. Cover the lights on your gadgets, especially the blinking ones.
- Cover or dim the alarm clock, or look for one that illuminates only when touched.
- Again, if you have to use a computer late at night, download the software f.lux, which changes the brightness and tone of your screen in time with sunset and sunrise, reducing evening blue light.
Create a relaxing sleep area that is quiet and free of clutter.
Your bedroom should be relatively organized and peaceful.
The sight of clothes strewn all over the floor or furniture, boxes or books toppling over and tangled cords can make you feel stressed and interfere with your ability to relax. Tidying up before hitting the sack cuts your time to deep sleep by 60%. “Leaving clutter around raises your levels of the stress hormone cortisol” according Dr Beata O’Donoghue, sleep medicine expert at The London Clinic, “So it hinders your natural winding down process”.
Set your room to an appropriate temperature.
Most people sleep better when it’s cool, others sleep better at a neutral temperature.
Find what works best for you and do your best to regulate your bedroom to that temperature each night.
Use white noise if needed.
If you live in an urban environment and you tend to pop awake at the slightest sound, then a steady source of white noise could really help.
Using some nature sounds on your phone, or even just turning on a fan (or an old radio to static) can be enough to drown out other noises and lull you to sleep
An air filter can also work well for this purpose, serving double duty by keeping your air cleaner as well.
When it comes to noise, earplugs aren’t always the most comfortable solution, but can be a life saver during travel. Earplugs have the bonus feature of protecting your hearing on planes.
3. Relax into your sleep position
We’ve seen the importance of the right routine and environment for sleep, but what about the ‘act’ of sleeping itself?
The following advanced techniques are highly recommended.
Progressive relaxation is a very simple technique for minimising muscle tension and enhancing relaxation.
Lie on your back, and starting with your feet, progressively contract and relax individual muscle groups. For instance, start with the following:
- Flex your feet for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
- Bring your toes towards your shins for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
- Push your toes away from your shins for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
- Flex your quads for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
Continue this pattern throughout all the major muscle groups, making sure to emphasise the muscles of the face and hands (two areas where we store a lot of tension).
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a critical component of movement and life.
Following your progressive relaxation, place one hand on your stomach and the opposite hand on your chest. Take in a full deep breath through your nose, and try to make sure that the hand on your stomach moves faster and higher than the hand on your chest. Typically do this for 5 repetitions, with each inhalation and exhalation taking about 10 seconds.
Every great athlete/performer does visualisation of some sort – there are countless anecdotes out there.
What you visualise will undoubtedly vary for each individual. However, I’ll share a personal example (that has never failed me!).
Very often, I think about rugby, and then golf.
The rugby switches me off from the day – the satisfaction of burying your opposite number with a big hit or strong carry, the anticipation for the first scrum engagement, a perfectly delivered lineout ball or clear-out at the ruck, working hard for your mates when it matters (backs can insert generic comment about hair, boots, moves etc.)
Then, the golf chills me out – I picture playing a round at any course I know well, visualising ideal execution on each hole and the calm surroundings – I’ve never managed to play the full 18 in my head before I nod off!
It could be anything for you, such as preparing for a squat workout. You may think about every aspect of said workout: what you’re going to wear, the drive to the gym, your warm-up process, how the bar feels in your hands and on your back, how you set-up, successfully perform the repetitions, etc.
The more realistic and detailed you can make your visualisation, the better it will help you in the long-run, and without realising it, help you disconnect from the day’s events and relax into sleep.
Sleep on a firm mattress. Poor mattresses may encourage poor sleeping postures that may be both a distraction and compromise musculoskeletal health. We spend a third of our life in bed, but usually don’t give it a second thought.
- If you sleep on your left side (right hip is towards the ceiling), sleep with a small pillow in between your knees and your knees/hips flexed.
- If you sleep on your right side (left hip is towards the ceiling), sleep with a small pillow in between your ankles and your knees/hips flexed.
- If you sleep on your back, a small pillow beneath the knees may be better than nothing.
Interestingly, Jim Horne of Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre recommends lying on your right side. “Your gullet joins your stomach on the left of your body, so this will aid digestion”. Horne also recommends putting your arms straight out. “This position is optimal for air passage, so your brain gets the oxygen it needs to regenerate during sleep” says Horne. It helps you get more duvet, too…
If you want more information on the “why” behind these recommendations, check out any material from the team at the Postural Restoration Institute.
4. Wake up well
Think of sleep as something that begins the moment you wake up. In other words, what you do during the day will affect what happens that night.
So let’s look at how to wake up.
While a jarring alarm will certainly get us out of bed, it doesn’t exactly start the day on an enjoyable note. Not only that, it jacks up our stress hormones immediately, starting our day in “fight or flight” mode.
Here are some solutions.
Take advantage of natural rhythms.
Sleep occurs in multiple stages, alternating between deeper and lighter sleep. We sleep more and more lightly as the night goes on.
If we wake up at just the right moment in our lighter sleep stages, we’ll feel reasonably good and snap into alertness quickly. But if we’re forced to wake up while in a deep sleep phase, we’ll feel groggy, disoriented, and sleepy — suffering from sleep inertia.
There are many gadgets and apps that will sense your sleep cycles and wake you up when you’re sleeping your lightest.
You can also track your sleep with gadgets and apps like the Fitbit, which will help you gauge where to improve your sleep and wake routines.
Wake up to light.
The human body is designed to get sleepy when it’s dark and to wake when it is light.
However, it is not always feasible to wake up with the sun, and this is especially true if you use light blocking shades to keep your room as dark as possible.
Solution: Use a dawn-simulating alarm clock.
Research shows that when people are slowly roused by gradually increasing light levels, they feel much more alert and relaxed than when they’re woken up by a sudden, blaring alarm.
I’ve heard good things about Biobrite, as it slowly lights up your room, reaching maximum brightness at your wake time.
Increasing light has also been shown to raise cortisol in the morning (which is an important signal to your body to wake up), and to improve sleep quality. It can even decrease depressive symptoms in seasonal affective disorders.
Wake up to soft, slowly building noise.
Some types of alarm clocks (such as the Progressive Alarm Clock app) will also gradually increase noise or music, so that you’re slowly lifted out of sleep rather than being suddenly whacked in the ear with loud noises.
Get moving right away.
While I don’t have any research to support this argument, I believe it helps to put your feet on the floor the minute you wake up.
When your alarm goes off, one of the worst things you can do is hit snooze. Snoozing seems to increase sleep inertia.
Instead, once that alarm goes off, simply sit up and put your feet on the floor. Start shambling towards the bathroom, or anywhere else that isn’t your bed.
There is something magical about movement that seems to speed up the waking process.
Expose yourself to more light.
Whether you wake to a dawn-simulating alarm clock or not, continue to expose yourself to light as soon as possible after waking. This will stop melatonin production and increase your wakefulness.
Throughout the day, get as much light as you can. Most folks can sneak outside for 5-10 minutes. Run errands at lunch or eat outside. Do as much as you can to get that sunshine.
The more bright natural light you can get during your normal waking time, the more your body will know to gear down at your normal sleeping time.
Good sleep is crucial for good health. There are no short cuts, despite what the “sleep hackers” say.
Make good sleep a priority. Your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing will thank you.
Think about good sleep as a 24-hour process. What you do during your waking period will affect your sleeping period, and vice versa.
Reinforce your natural circadian needs. When it’s supposed to be dark and quiet, make things really dark and quiet. When it’s supposed to be bright, noisy, and stimulating, get moving with some bright light.
Give your body and mind transition time. Allow at least 30 minutes (and preferably an hour) in the evening to slowly wind down and prepare for sleep.
Stick to a routine. Bodies love routines and consistency. If your body knows what to expect in your day, it’ll help you wake up and doze off at the right time.
Find the right position for you. Use techniques like progressive relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, visualisation and corrective sleeping positions to set yourself up for successful sleep.
You can’t control your actual sleep. But you can control your sleep behaviours and environment. Take charge of your actions and surroundings, be consistent, and enjoy the Zs.
BONUS! – TOP 10 NUTRITION & SUPPLEMENT TIPS FOR SENSATIONAL SLEEP
#1: Eat More Protein during the Day & Select Carbs at Night
Improving your diet is a priority if you want to sleep well. Research shows that sleep, wakefulness and energy levels are regulated by chemical transmitter pathways in the brain, and we can control those pathways with what we eat. You’ll see that many of the foods and nutrients on this list target those sleep-related pathways in the brain.
Dietary Tip: Researchers suggest that eating a high-protein diet is ideal for achieving overall better sleep, but eating a meal of carbohydrates in the evening can help you go to sleep quickly. Varied effects on sleep have come from higher and lower sugar carbs. Some studies show high-glycemic carbs shorten sleep onset but may negatively affect sleep quality. A smart move is to opt for whole-food carbs rather than anything baked or processed, such as cookies, cake or ice cream.
#2: Vitamin D3
Taking vitamin D3 to maintain optimal blood levels of D3 year-round is a good place to start to get better sleep.
Why D3 Works: The part of the brain responsible for sleep has a large concentration of vitamin D3 receptors, and the entire sleep-wake cycle is disrupted if the receptors are deficient. Vitamin D3 also influences many other hormonal processes in the body that affect body rhythms, including reproduction, metabolism, digestion and cardiovascular health, all of which influence fatigue and sleep regulation.
Supplement Tip: Get your vitamin D3 blood level tested when you get a physical examination, and supplement to raise your level above 60 ng/ml. This will probably require a daily dose of at least 4,000 IU.
#3: Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is extremely delicious – don’t worry, it’s not sour – and studies show it can significantly enhance sleep quality in addition to reducing inflammation and accelerating recovery from exercise.
Why Tart Cherries Work: Tart cherries contain high levels of phytochemicals that raise melatonin, a hormone in the body that induces sleep and aids in the regulation of the body’s rhythms. Melatonin can directly influence your body’s core temperature as well as the sleep-wake cycle, making optimal levels at night-time critical for sleep. Researchers suggest that along with raising melatonin, tart cherries reduce inflammatory markers that inhibit sleep and body regulation.
Dietary Tip: Tart cherry juice provides the perfect dietary alternative to supplementing with melatonin. Choose a pure tart cherry juice without sugar or other juices blended in. The best quality, highly concentrated form is available as a supplement online or at natural foods stores such as Whole Foods.
Take the amino acid taurine to improve sleep. It’s a superior nutrient if you suffer from anxiety and running thoughts that keep you awake. Research suggests that taurine can enhance sleep, and in animal studies it decreases physical activity, indicating a calming effect on the body.
Taurine is only available from seafood, red meat, and eggs – but unless you eat these foods at every meal, you probably won’t get enough taurine. Plus, taurine is easily depleted with stress or intense exercise, so athletes and committed trainees need extra. Vegetarians are at high risk of taurine deficiency.
Why Taurine Works: It raises the chemical transmitter GABA, which has a calming effect on the nervous system. Taurine can lower anxiety and the production of stress hormones that hinder rest.
Supplement Tip: Try taking 2 to 3 grams of taurine before bedtime.
Magnesium calms the nervous system and fights inflammation, high levels of which cause poor sleep.
Why Magnesium Works: Magnesium decreases sympathetic nervous activity, effectively reducing stress and allowing you to relax.
Supplement Tip: Magnesium is present in many foods: dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, legumes, chocolate and rice. However, surveys show that in the Western world, daily magnesium intake since 1900 has dropped by at least a third, from about 500 mg/day to 175 mg/day, so supplementing with high-quality magnesium can help you get optimal sleep.
Avoid magnesium bound to carbonate, oxide or gluconate because they are cheap forms and poorly absorbed. Opt for a form that is easily used by the body: magnesium citrate, glycinate, taurate, aspartate, malate, succinate or fumarate.
Anecdotal reports suggest a topical magnesium cream or oil is the best form for inducing restful sleep. Rub it on the back of your knees a half hour before bed.
Inositol is a form of sugar that is found in citrus fruits and nuts, among other plant sources. It contains negligible calories and may aid sleep by calming anxiety and quieting mental chatter that keeps you up at night.
Why Inositol Works for Sleep: It activates pathways in the brain that stop your mind from racing – think of it like sweeping up the floor of your brain to create order. Research shows inositol activates serotonin and the orexin pathway to calm your brain and help you go to sleep.
Supplement Tip: Inositol comes in powder form. Take it in water about 45 minutes before you want to go to bed. Good results have been reported with doses of 2 to 10 grams.
#7: B Vitamins and Thiamine
Deficiencies in the B vitamins and thiamine are nutrients that have repeatedly been linked with sleeping problems. Folic acid, B6 and B12 are especially important for a tidy mind and the rest it requires.
Why They Work for Sleep: The B vitamins are intricately involved in detoxification in the body; they also lower inflammation and affect brain transmitters. Thiamine also affects brain transmitters and is closely linked with serotonin, so a lack leads to poor sleep.
Supplement Tip: A genetic variation inhibits many people from absorbing non-methylated forms of the B vitamins, which is a primary cause of B vitamin deficiency, leading to poorer sleep and health. Folic acid is the most important B vitamin to obtain in methylated form; many people have good results from a methylated B complex. Thiamine is found in meat, particularly organ meat, so if you’re not big on liver, get a supplement.
Medicinal plants have been shown to help people with insomnia go to sleep and stay asleep due to their sedative and anxiolytic properties. Individual efficacy is hit or miss with each herb – some people have good results, while others don’t. Valerian takes a while to kick in, typically 2 to 3 weeks before people experience better sleep.
Why Valerian Works: Valerian activates GABA, calming the brain in the same way as taurine, although it has a more sedative effect.
Supplement Tip: Herbal teas will give you a very small dose of phytochemicals from valerian and two sleep aids listed in #9. Concentrated liquid extracts will provide a much more potent dose. Inhaling the aroma of herbs can improve sleep, so try aromatherapy if you don’t want to take an extract.
#9: Chamomile and Ginseng
Chamomile has a sedative effect, and although teas are popular, you may benefit from a more concentrated dose in extract form. Research suggests chamomile can calm the brain and help you go to sleep sooner.
Ginseng is known for reducing stress and enhancing brain activity related to the GABA transmitters to support deeper sleep. Ginseng tea is available, as are extracts and capsules.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in the camellia sinensis tea plant and in an exotic form of mushrooms. Research shows that it can reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition and aid in sleep. Anyone can benefit from taking l-theanine, but people who can’t sleep and can’t give up caffeine will find it most useful.
Why It Works: L-theanine works by counteracting the effects of caffeine while increasing levels of GABA and boosting serotonin in the brain.
Supplement Tip: It’d be great if you could just rely on green tea for l-theanine, but because green tea contains caffeine, it’s a no-go. However, if you require caffeinated coffee to keep you going, you may want to switch to green tea to get the caff kick, while boosting l-theanine intake. You’ll probably also find that the stimulating effects of green tea are different from those of coffee.
Beyond that, pure l-theanine supplements are available, as are formulated sleep aids in which l-theanine is bound to magnesium. Anecdotal reports from stressed insomniacs suggest great results from magnesium l-theanine.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this comprehensive resource on how to sleep soundly, and found it useful.
Please do share with anyone else you know will benefit!