What you’ll learn here
Have you been trying to figure out how to sleep better?
If you’re like most people, sleep looks a lot like this: one leg out of the duvet – and it’s too cold. Stick it back in, and you’re now too warm. The next thing you know, it’s now bright outside.
Your mind races with your to-do list that is at least 3 times as long as this sentence, and endless replays of that poorly-worded message you sent to your colleague. As you toss, turn, try out different corners of the bed (and yet still fail to drift off), the following thought is bound to cross your mind:
“Screw it. I only have 3 more hours to go before the day starts. I don’t need to rest anyway … right?”
Well, if you’ve ever clung to your fifth cup of coffee at 3 pm, desperately trying to keep your eyes open, you’d know that it’s not true. But even the best of us need a reminder sometimes. So, allow this article to be yours.
Below, you’ll explore the behind-the-scenes of sleep, why adequate rest is so important, plus a list of evidence-based techniques to help accelerate your journey into zzz land.
What happens when you sleep?
When you (do) fall asleep, your brain does not simply ‘switch off.’ Sleep is not a passive activity in which your body and brain are inactive. Instead, your body and brain do quite a bit of work throughout the night that’s key for your health.
You cycle through all non-REM and REM sleep stages several times (roughly 3 to 5 times) during a typical night.
You begin the night in non-REM sleep. This is also where you spend most of your sleeping hours. Now, non-REM sleep has 3 stages:
- Stage N1: The changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this short period (typically less than 10 minutes), your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow. Your muscles also relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow.
- Stage N2: A period of light sleep before you enter deeper sleep. During this stage (which lasts about 30 to 60 minutes), your heartbeat and breathing slow to a greater extent. Your muscles also relax even further. Your body temperature drops. Brain wave activity slows, with brief bursts of electrical activity.
- Stage N3: The period of deep sleep that you need to feel revitalized and ‘alive’ in the morning. This stage lasts about 20 to 40 minutes, typically occurring in more extended periods during the first half of the night. Your breathing and heartbeat slow to their lowest levels. It is tough to wake someone up when they’re at this stage (i.e. ‘dead to the world’). This is also the most restorative sleep, where:
- Tissue growth and repair occurs.
- Hormones, such as growth hormones, are released.
REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep.
This state recurs about every 90 minutes and lasts for longer later in the night. The first REM period typically lasts 10 minutes, while the final one can last up to an hour.
This is also the state where your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids.
Your brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness. Your breathing also becomes faster, and your heart rate quickens to near waking levels.
Even though you can dream during non-REM sleep, most of your dreaming will be done during REM sleep. Your body becomes temporarily paralyzed as you dream (to prevent you from acting out your dreams!)
And as mentioned earlier, the cycle between non-REM and REM sleep then repeats itself.
With each cycle, though, you’ll spend less time in non-REM sleep – and more time in REM sleep.
Sleep is not a passive activity. Instead, your brain and body do quite a bit of work during sleep to keep you in optimal health. There are 2 parts to sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. You cycle between these 2 states repeatedly throughout the night.
Why is sleep so important?
Okay, so you now know what happens when you rest. But it still doesn’t quite explain why rest is so important to health. Of course, let’s get right into that. By now, you must have caught that many biological processes happen during sleep.
Remember how we mentioned tissue growth and repair in stage N3 of sleep? And – the release of hormones?
Those are just 2 examples.
- Your brain stores new information and gets rid of toxic waste built up during the day.
- Nerve cells communicate and reorganize, which is crucial for optimal brain functioning.
- Your body restores energy and releases health-supporting proteins.
Without these processes, you can’t function properly. And nothing quite drives across the importance of rest like showing what happens when you don’t get enough. So, here goes.
#1: Weight loss can become extra tricky
Here’s some bad news. Poor sleep is strongly associated with weight gain.
This effect of rest on weight gain is believed to be mediated by an imbalance in your hunger hormones. These hormones are namely: ghrelin, which increases appetite, and leptin, which stimulates the feeling of fullness after you’ve eaten.
Unfortunately, a lack of rest does a double whammy to your hunger hormones. It not only elevates ghrelin, but also suppresses leptin (9).
That means you’re not only going to be hungrier – but also less easily satisfied.
Even with better nutrition control by meal prepping, it could be very challenging to cope with the increased hunger.
Hence, more calories. And weight gain. Thus, helping explain why getting adequate rest is one of the most important tips for weight loss.
If you’re interested, find out about all the other helpful weight loss tips I’ve shared.
#2: Your mood can be all over the place
You’re probably well aware of the effects a lack of rest can have on your mood. After a sleepless night … you’re more likely to snap at the Starbucks guy who spelled your name wrong; send out aggressive emails, and post passive-aggressive Instagram captions.
And this is not good.
When resting, your brain increases activity in areas that help you regulate your mood. This includes your amygdala, hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex of your brain. When you’re well-rested, these emotion-controlled areas can respond more adaptively when facing a stressful event (10, 11, 12).
But when you’re not, well. These areas then tend to overreact. Hence – the meltdowns and ugly crying.
Worryingly enough, research also shows an association between poor sleep quality and mental health issues, like depression (13). Poor sleep is even linked to an increased risk of death by suicide (14).
So, if you want to be the best version of yourself mentally, getting enough rest is very important.
#3: You’ll have difficulty concentrating
Get less than enough sleep, and brain fog the following day is almost always a guarantee.
In fact, a 2004 study showed that interns with extended work hours (more than 24 hours) made 36% more serious medical errors than interns who got more sleep (15). Another study even found that a lack of sleep can adversely impact some aspects of brain function to a similar degree as alcohol intoxication (16)!
Why does a lack of sleep cause these issues, though?
Well, it’s because sleep allows your neurons (brain cells) to reorganize. It also allows your brain time to clear out waste from the central nervous system, which allows your brain to work well when you wake (17).
Sleep also contributes to memory function. It helps convert short-term memories into long-term memories and erase unneeded information that might otherwise clutter the nervous system. It’s almost like a much-needed spring-cleaning, but for the brain.
#4: Working out may become more difficult
Trying to break your PBs at the gym? Then a lack of sleep is a definite no-no.
Unsurprisingly, poor sleep quality is linked to poor physical performance.
For example, in a study in over 2,800 women, poor rest resulted in slower walking, lower grip strength, and greater difficulty performing independent activities (18).
That means your physique goals, such as building a bigger butt, would become even more challenging than before.
Also, when you think about it, getting enough sleep is key to being motivated for your workouts (19). Nobody enjoys (or should be, for that matter) going to the gym with half-closed eyes, after all!
Without sufficient sleep, even these science-based workout motivation tips wouldn’t work.
#5: You’ll put yourself at risk of chronic health problems
Honestly, when it comes to the question: “Why is sleep so important?”, the first answer that comes to my mind is always this. Health.
A lack of rest can have a major effect on many health risk factors.
While scientists aren’t exactly sure why, research highlights that people who are short on rest are at far greater risk of heart disease or stroke than those who sleep 7 to 8 hours per night (20).
Poor sleep is also known to affect blood glucose regulation. A study showed that sleep restriction (4 hours per night) for 6 nights consecutively caused prediabetes symptoms in healthy young men (21).
How much sleep do I need?
Now that you know why rest is so important … here comes the next question: “How much sleep do I need?”
Thankfully, there is a precise figure. And that is 7 to 9 hours (24).
Of course, if you’re struggling even to get 5 hours of sleep a day, getting more rest can seem like Mission-Impossible. Don’t worry. Here are a few tips that’ll get you sleeping like a baby soon enough. (A newborn, of course. Because good luck getting a toddler to sleep through the night!)
Getting enough sleep is important, as not getting enough can lead to a whole host of problems, including:
- Weight gain
- Loss of emotional control
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor physical performance
- Increased risk of chronic health problems
Tips on how to sleep better
#1: Avoid bright lights and blue lights
Light regulates the human biological clock (aka the circadian rhythm) through melatonin (25).
Darkness causes your body to produce more melatonin, which signals your body that it’s time to rest. On the other hand, light decreases melatonin production and signals the body that it’s time to wake up (26, 27).
And that’s exactly why you need to steer clear of your electronics late at night. The screens of your TV, laptop, and even mobile phone emit blue light, which disrupts your body’s melatonin production.
Meaning that all that late-night scrolling of your Instagram feed is only making it harder for you to fall asleep (ouch!)
That said, if you’ve got to use your electronic devices at night, consider installing apps which gradually reduce the amount of blue light the screens emit after sunset.
Your partner may hate me for saying this … but you can also wear blue-light blocking glasses a couple of hours before turning in for the night (28). Not the sexiest look, of course. But at least you’ll get a good night’s rest!
#2: Use earplugs
Surprisingly, sounds that don’t wake you up can still impair your sleep quality (29).
If you live near a noisy street, or have neighbors that are particularly active through the night, consider getting earplugs. This way, you’ll block out all disturbances. Nice.
#3: Sleep in a cool room
You probably know just how uncomfortable sleeping in the heat can be. You feel warm, your pits are sweating, and you just can’t fall asleep. Well, of course.
A raised core temperature is linked to poor sleep quality (30).
On the contrary, reductions in body temperature have been associated with reductions in the amount of time it takes to fall asleep (31).
So, if you want to get to sleep quicker, you’ll want to find ways to reduce your core temperature. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to rest in a comfortably cool bedroom. You know what to do now – adjust your thermostat till you find the sweet spot!
#4: Avoid alcohol
This might be shocking news, so be sure to hold onto something. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not help you rest better (32).
Admittedly, alcohol does help you fall asleep quicker – but it reduces REM sleep, which can then lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and even memory issues. Alcohol can even suppress breathing and lead to sleep apnea! And the more you drink before bed, the stronger the disruption.
So, as much as possible, stay away from alcohol before bed-time.
#5: Stay away from caffeine
Ah, caffeine. Given that caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug, you’re probably well-aware of the effect it gives: increased alertness (33).
What makes caffeine a popular workout supplement is exactly what you’re trying to avoid for a good night’s rest.
Now, while many coffee veterans (like myself) can fall asleep with caffeine coursing through our systems, we probably shouldn’t. Even as we slumber, caffeine makes us more alert. And this, in turn, causes our rests to be more shallow.
This is the reason why you should avoid caffeine within 6 hours before bed-time (34).
If you want to find out more about caffeine, here’s a guide on workout supplements you should take for your fitness goals.
#6: Stay physically active
Unsurprisingly, physical activity during the day seems to improve sleep quality (35).
That said, many people are concerned that exercising at night is too stimulating. But here’s the truth. Nightly exercise is better than no exercise when it comes to sleep quality and other health factors.
Of course, individual factors do still play a role. So, if you find that exercising at night disrupts your rest, you should try to find another workout window.
#7: Keep to a regular bedtime routine
Your circadian rhythm follows a 24-hour schedule.
An inconsistent sleeping schedule throws the circadian rhythm into disarray. And impairs the quality of your sleep.
Therefore, going to bed at approximately the same time every night can help improve sleep quality and cut down on the amount of time you take to fall asleep (36).
You can further prime your body for rest by incorporating a bed-time routine into your life. Your routine should be more soothing — many people find reading or even journaling to be a suitable winding down bed-time activity. Just, you know, no intense thriller books (i.e. Stephen King).
#8: Try supplements
Attempted all the above tips with little to no success? Then you can try supplementing with the following:
- Melatonin: Oral melatonin can improve the quality of your sleep (37). It can even help fight jet lag (38). But it’s also important to note that as effective as it can be, it is not a magical pill that allows you to change your sleeping schedule at will.
- Magnesium: Inadequate magnesium can impair sleep. Before you pop those magnesium supplement pills in your mouth, though, take note that magnesium-rich foods (spinach, cashew, almonds, etc.) are numerous (39). And they should be your first option. Be aware that the Tolerable Upper Intake Level for magnesium supplementation in adults is 350 mg. Adverse effects will be observed when this level is exceeded (40). Learn more about micronutrients if you’re wondering why nutrients, such as magnesium, are so important.
- Lavender: Lavender’s scent has been shown to promote relaxation, alleviate insomnia, and improve sleep quality (41). If stress or anxiety is a significant factor that hurts your rest, then lavender may help.
If you’re struggling to get the recommended amount of sleep nightly, the following tips may help:
- Avoid (or cut down on) bright lights and blue lights before sleeping
- Use earplugs to drown out noise
- Sleep in a cool room to lower your body temperature
- Avoid alcohol before you sleep
- Stay away from caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime
- Stay physically active
- Keep to a regular bedtime routine
- Try supplements like melatonin, magnesium, and lavender
Adequate sleep helps you become the best version of yourself
To sum it all up, rest is incredibly important. And you should definitely do more of it – especially if you’re barely getting by on 5 hours a day.
But … if you’ve tried all the above improvement methods with no improvements, seek medical help to ensure that you are not suffering from sleep apnea or another sleep disorder.