Sleeping better at night: The Why and How

photo of sleeping man

Few of us need an explanation of why a good night’s sleep is important, or rather, indispensable. 

But for the skeptics out there, the “why” can easily be explained: A good night’s sleep is essential if we want to maintain our health, wellbeing, and even our good looks (1). Numerous studies and medical evidence has gone to support the positive effects that sleeping well has on almost every aspect of our lives. (1)(2)(3) Without proper rest and a good night’s sleep, our bodies and minds aren’t able to perform optimally, and over time, the effects of continued lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can present themselves in a wide range of health problems; such as a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. (3)(4)(5) It also affects our cognition and behavior, especially that of children and adolescents. (9)

Even without medical studies to validate the importance and value of a good night’s sleep, we all know how it feels to miss out on a good night’s sleep, and yet the evidence suggests that modern society isn’t giving this topic enough attention. (2) We aren’t sleeping as much as we should, our quality of sleep is far from optimal, and it is affecting our health (and waistlines) adversely. (2)(3)

For some of us, however, it’s not a matter of choice. Good sleep evades us. Aside from medical conditions that may require medication or professional intervention to assist in sleeping, sometimes the reasons that sleep eludes us may not be obvious or easy to see, but once we become aware of them, are easily remedied by adjusting our patterns and behaviors throughout the day, and especially at night. 

In this article, we will discuss some likely culprits for the poor quality of sleep, along with possible solutions.

Culprit 1: Too much blue light, not enough sunlight

When dinner has been cleared and the day is all but over, with all its chores and work obligations, few of us do what we are supposed to do; i.e. sleep. Most of us opt to watch a movie, scroll through Instagram on our phones, or read on a tablet. While that is understandable, what you may not be aware of, is how this can adversely affect your sleep cycle. 

Our bodies rely on multiple cues to signal wakefulness and sleepiness; in other words, to know when it’s’ time to sleep and when it’s time to perk up. Two significant factors that affect this are our circadian cycles (7), which regulate waking and sleeping cycles, and relies directly on exposure to daylight and sunlight, and the other is Melatonin, a hormone that is secreted at night-time (and relates to lack of light and exposure to the dark) and aids us in falling asleep. (8)

Shortened daylight exposure (caused by the change in season, or staying indoors most of the day), can affect our cycles, while Blue light emanating from most electronic devices, can affect melatonin levels and compound the problem. 

The solution: Do the best you can to get out and about during the day and get as much light exposure as you can. Go for a walk on your lunch break, sit near a bright window and bask in the light, and avoid brightly lit screens and blue light at night closer to bedtime. Try to cut out screen time right before bed. 

Culprit 2: Too much Caffeine

Some days seem to start and never end, with morning flowing into noon and evening without us noticing, especially for office workers. Meetings run on, and many of us can be found still sipping their morning coffees well into the afternoon. Others enjoy a cup of coffee or strong tea in the afternoon. Unfortunately, that can be counterintuitive when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Caffeine does a great job as a stimulant,(10) boosting our concentration and helping us stay focused and alert, but too much of it, especially if you consume it close to bedtime, can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. 

The solution: Avoid coffee in the afternoon and early evening, and if you must sip on something, opt for a decaf tea or a herbal blend that promotes relaxation, such as chamomile. 

Culprit 3: Not enough regular exercise

Although many people would like to, not all of us find the time and energy to exercise, especially when we are tired. But contrary to what one might expect, a sedentary lifestyle does not promote rest and a good night’s sleep the way exercise does. Exercise stimulates all the body’s systems, physical and mental, boosts our circulation, engages our muscles, and sets the scene for a good night’s sleep. Multiple studies have shown that boosting our exercise levels, improved the duration and quality of sleep, even for insomniacs. (11)(12)

A word of caution, however; for some individuals, exercising too close to bedtime means that the rush of endorphins released by the exercise keeps them awake and makes it harder to fall asleep, so it’s better to exercise at least a few hours before bedtime. 

The solution: no matter what your abilities are, you can start to slowly incorporate more exercise into your daily routine. Make it a regular habit and build up incrementally. You will sleep better for it.

Culprit 4: Heavy dinners

Consuming a heavy meal right before bedtime can be counterproductive in many ways; while satiety may help you to feel sleepy; an overfull stomach and digestive system might then keep you awake, due to indigestion or heartburn, as well as other factors. (14)

Ideally, a bedtime meal would be filling and balanced, leaving you feeling full and satisfied but not overwhelmed. Also, night-time snacking can promote weight gain which in turn adversely affects the quality of sleep. It also provides a distraction, so that we may wind up staying later than intended just to snack. 

The solution: Ideally, consume your last meal 2-3 hours before bed. Allow your body time to digest the meal before you go to sleep. Focus on well-balanced meals that leave you full but not bloated. 

Culprit 5: Anxiety and racing thoughts

We all have worries, stresses, thoughts that circle through our minds, and may keep us up at night. While situations may vary and our troubles may differ, one thing won’t change; and that is our ability to handle challenges without a good night’s sleep. Staying up all night thinking and working through our challenges may feel productive, but it is actually counterproductive. If we do not sleep well our brain function diminishes, our thoughts become foggy, and we are more likely to lose focus. (13) Our mental abilities diminish and a simple problem may appear to grow in complexity. 

The solution: Designate a specific time in your daily or weekly routine to work through any worrisome thoughts and ideas, perhaps even discussing your concerns with a trusted confidante. Another option is to keep a journal or diary, where you record your thoughts and feelings. The most important aspect of this approach is that you make a conscious choice to leave any negative thoughts behind as bedtime nears. Try meditating, reading a book or an article on a light-hearted topic before bed, and avoid triggers that can bring on anxiety. 

Culprit 6: Uncomfortable surroundings 

Is your mattress too lumpy? Is the room too hot, or too cold? Is your pilot light too strong? While we may not give much thought to such minute details in our sleeping space, they may come to play a major role in controlling the quality of our sleep. While we sleep, we go through cycles of deep and light sleep. While we may be oblivious to our immediate surroundings during deep sleep, the majority of sleepers will register these surroundings during their light sleep cycles. A cluttered bedroom, smelly laundry, even the twitching light of electronic devices may all cause disrupted sleep and poor quality of sleep. 

The solution: Declutter your room and invest in a new mattress, replace your noisy fan, and unplug that printer. Whatever means are possible and accessible to you, make sure that you create as serene and comfortable an environment as you can to facilitate a good night’s sleep. 

Culprit 7: Irregular routine

It may not seem obvious, but lack of routine can directly affect the quality of sleep. Our bodies keep to a biological clock that we may not be aware of, and these clocks have a role to play when we feel sleepy. If we have a steady routine and go to bed around the same time daily, timing alone would act as a cue for our minds and bodies to begin the process of readying for bed. While invariably there may be times we are forced to break with our routine, an unpredictable schedule with random bedtimes will adversely affect the quality and quantity of our sleep. 

The solution: Think about your schedule and select a wake-up time that is reasonable for your schedule and lifestyle. Working backward, select a corresponding bedtime time that allows your body the rest it needs and sufficient hours of sleep. Now do your best to stick to these hours, and a consistent routine of sleeping and waking, and take note of how your sleep quality will improve. Tweak the routine if needed, but do your best to adhere to it. Sweet Dreams!


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