How to sleep better is important, because sleep makes us better at everything we do. A lack of sleep can mess with your weight, your emotions, your energy level, and your ability to learn retain information and pay attention. Sleep is also essential to our physical and mental health.
Despite this, sleep is often the first thing we neglect when we have to meet deadlines, party into the night and binge-watch our favourite shows to get the next episode in.
There has been a lot of focus on improving our sleeping habits and the enormous health benefits recently. This is because sleeping disorders are on the rise which is fuelling the ‘sleep tech’ industry. It’s ironic because many people blame technology for the development of these sleep issues in the first place! However, focusing on good sleep hygiene is becoming more important, especially as we learn more and more that sleep is vital to good health and that it is our own life support system preventing and delaying serious illness.
“It is disquieting to learn that vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.” – Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep
Why Is Sleep So Important?
The impact of poor sleep is unmistakable. We can all tell when someone’s had a bad nights sleep or got up on the ‘wrong side of the bed’. People appear agitated, lose concentration quickly, suffer memory lapses, become depressed, feel greater pain and generally are more susceptible to common colds and flu.
There is a direct link for those that sleep less than seven hours a night being more likely to become ill with a common cold or rhinovirus. Not only that, but a lack of sleep also increases your anxiety levels, leads to increased depression and most worryingly, increased suicidal thoughts. Long-term, poor sleep can increase your risk of serious medical conditions such as heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and obesity. Quite simply, lack of sleep is bad for your health.
Twice a year, there is an event that affects one point five billion people’s sleep across 70 countries. It’s called Daylight Saving Time. Losing just a single hour of sleep when the clocks go forward has been proven to literally be heartbreaking.
A study released by Open Heart looked at 42,000 hospital admissions that occurred in the springtime. This is right when we lose hours of sleep for daylight saving. The findings were staggering. There was a 24% increase in heart attacks – the very next day that the clocks went forwards!
It’s not just losing an hour of sleep that can affect you. Healthy, young men, sleeping for just four hours each night end up with testosterone levels equivalent to that of someone ten years older. Similar findings were also found amongst women.
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The Benefits of Sleep
Sleep makes us better at everything. Disruption to it is just assisting your cognitive decline over time. For students (and anyone doing any training), then prioritizing sleep is a must. Having a good night sleep after studying and learning something new, is like your brain pressing the save button and saving it in your memory. It works as a dry sponge, soaking up the new information overnight.
The benefits of sleep and consistent sleep over 7 hours has untold health, learning and productivity benefits. These benefits include:
- Improving and increasing our learning capacity
- Reducing the risk of dementia
- Reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Boosting your immune system
- Reducing stress levels
- Improving your driving and alertness
- Increasing your mental health and awareness
- Improving our physical fitness and recovery from exercise
- Improving your emotional stability
- Potentially assisting weight loss (due to fewer cravings for food and sugar)
The best part of these benefits is that we can get them for free, every single night so long as we prioritise our sleep.
Types of Sleep
There are effectively two types of sleep. NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). NREM allows your body to start calming down moves you into your deep sleep cycle stage. This is the part that enables you to feel rested when you wake up first thing in the morning. It allows you to heal, recover from illness, recover from stress, improve your memory and boosts the immune system.
REM sleep also boosts our memory and learning functions. Making sure you’re getting enough REM is important when learning, as it improves our recall and memory. When we are in REM we dream. The reason for this is because it’s the sleep state when we are closest to full wakefulness.
Whilst there is no empirical proof as to why we dream, scientists are of the opinion that it is our brains processing our memories, thoughts and experiences but also how we process our emotions.
Our Natural Sleep Cycle is the Circadian Rhythm
Our circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock which runs in the background throughout the day for 24 hours. It carries out on our behalf essential functions for us to live.
One of the most important roles of the circadian rhythm is to regulate our sleep. Our circadian rhythm is driven by the ‘master clock’ in our brain which is greatly influenced by our environment, most specifically, light. This is why the day to night cycle has such an impact on our bodies.
When our circadian rhythm is properly ‘in sync’, we will experience proper, restorative sleep. When it is not aligned, it can cause problems such as insomnia and sleep disorders. If you have ever been jet lagged then you know how this feels.
Given how sensitive our master clock is to light, our exposure to artificial light during the evenings can greatly impact our natural rhythm. It can quite literally put us out of sync. That is why it’s important to understand what’s happening to our bodies as we get to sleep. It’s also why it’s so important to learn which technologies are either helping or hindering us as we move towards sleep each evening.
The Stages of Sleep
When we sleep, we do not remain in the same state all night long. Instead, our sleep is made up of numerous cycles which have their own stages. Typically, we will all go through four to six sleep cycles a night. To complicate things further, not all sleep stages are the same length, but on average they last about 90 minutes.
These sleep stages vary from person to person but analysis of the brain during scientific research shows that there are four distinct sleep stages.
Sleep Stage 1
Length: 1-5 Minutes
Other Names: N1
Sleep Stage 2
Other Names: N2
Length: 10-60 minutes
Sleep Stage 3
Other Names: N3, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), Delta Sleep, Seep Sleep
Length: 20-40 minutes
Sleep Stage 4
Other Names: REM Sleep
Normal Length: 10-60 minutes
(from the sleep foundation)
Each of these stages has its own important role to play in allowing the body to recover and develop. Failure to achieve enough in each phase has a deep impact on your emotions, your ability to think, memory and physical health. Neglected over a long period of time and health problems become worse.
Your age, your recent sleep patterns, your alcohol consumption and any sleep disorders you may have can all impact your sleep cycle and quality of sleep.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The average amount of sleep we actually need is driven mostly by our own genetics. The recommended window for optimum sleep is between 7-9 hours, but aiming for around 8 hours is ideal. Less than 7 hours has been shown in studies to lead to a health problem, but more than 9 hours has been shown to have few health benefits. Sadly, any sleep debt we acquire during the week cannot be recovered by sleeping in for longer on the weekends.
Some people boast about not needing any more than four hours of sleep a night. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for example, both stated they do just fine on four or five hours of sleep a night. They both claimed that sleep was a useless and bad use of time. Both went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The likes of Elon Musk and Donald Trump should perhaps take more care of their sleep patterns and follow Amazon founder’s Jeff Bezos’ approach of making sure he gets 8 hours of sleep a night. It might serve them well later in life.
Clinical studies show that successfully treating people in middle age who had a sleep disorder, successfully delayed the onset of dementia by up to 10 years. It would seem that without enough sleep, the brain is unable to wash away toxic proteins in the brain (namely those named beta-amyloid and tau) that are the basis of Alzheimer’s disease.
The amount of sleep and quality of sleep we get actually decreases with age. We need as much sleep in our 50s, 60s and 70s as we do in our 40s. Our brains just reduce our capability to allow us to sleep as long and for as well, so our sleep quality is disrupted but the need doesn’t diminish, our sleep just becomes more fragmented.
Scientists have only discovered recently that we can’t repay sleep debt. What this means, is that you can’t sleep less in the week and hope to pay it back by sleeping longer on the weekends. It just doesn’t work. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule is key to long-term health.
Whilst you may sleep more and the quality might be better on the weekends, you will not repay back that missing sleep time in full. It may only be as much as 50% too. This means you will always carry that sleep debt. The more seep debt we accumulate, the harder it is to pay it back. Over time this then impacts our health and leads to serious medical conditions as outlined above.
The Role of Technology on Sleep and How to Sleep Better
Technology has greatly impacted our sleep habits. Whilst the sleep tech industry is booming, it’s our addiction and habits around technology that have had the greatest impact on our sleep. It’s quite normal for us to check phones in the evening and when we’re in bed. This greatly impacts our natural sleep cycle.
There is growing (and now strong evidence), that using electronic devices before sleep has the same effect as leaving the light on. It effectively wakes the body up. This is still true if the electronic device is enabled in night mode. The closer the screen is to your face, the more your sleep will be disrupted. Dimming the screen brightness may help reduce the effect on the body, but it is still not as effective as switching all devices off.
Laptops, tablets and smartphones emit approximately 30 to 50 lux, which is about half the illumination of ordinary room light. This then affects your body’s circadian clock and suppresses the hormone melatonin, which is the hormone that gives you that sleepy feeling.
As light suppresses melatonin, it makes it harder to fall asleep and delays your body’s natural sleep pattern. The more melatonin you have, the easier it is for you to fall asleep. Those with less melatonin, therefore, find themselves taking longer to fall asleep.
The most disruptive light to the body clock is short-wavelength blue light. The bad news for gadget lovers is that this is exactly what the backlit portable screens and mobile devices shine directly into your eyes.
The best advice to reduce these light waves into the eyes is to shut down the computer, tablets and phones at least one hour before bed. This will reduce the impact these intrusive light sources have on your sleep. In not doing this, we are all teaching our bodies to wake up in the evening instead of winding down and getting ready for sleep. So, if you struggle to fall asleep at night, switch off your devices around 9 pm and if you can, dim your lights. Try this for a week and you will sleep much better.
Screen related sleeping disorders are on the rise. In the past, computers sat on our desks desk and were switched off when we were finished. Now, the computers have landed in our pockets on phones and have even become books and more on tablets. Computers and computer screens are more accessible now more than ever. Many have often stated that they have found themselves looking at a screen for over 10 hours a day. A lot of people use their phones as their morning alarm clock. Device usage is embedded everywhere in our lives, often without us even realising it. For example, to set the alarm on your phone you still need to look at the screen right before bed. A vicious cycle.
It’s not just looking at the screen which keeps us awake either. Sometimes, the information we read (news or messages) or perhaps the game we’re playing on the device, leads to overstimulation. It keeps us awake. Reading a work email with bad news in it right before falling asleep at night will not put you in the best frame of mind for sleep. You’re best leaving emails and messages well alone late at night.
Of course, it’s not just bad news that can overstimulate us. It might be something engaging such as watching a film or binge-watching on your favourite TV series. It’s easy to get sucked in, letting time pass, and with it, time for our restorative sleep.
It is for this reason that sleep tracking and sleep technology is on the rise. They encourage us to set better sleep habits and to improve our sleep hygiene. They also show us how little or how much sleep we’re getting, and how much of a sleep debt we are developing. It’s all to help us take action before bad habits take over.
Here are some of the areas where technology is having a positive benefit on people’s lives and sleep patterns:
Whilst it might seem ‘new-age, the benefits of meditating and meditating for sleep are now well documented. They can help us bring about a calm state of mind before sleeping and help us to relax. The most popular out there are Headspace and Calm which also include sleep stories.
You could also try mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on small details without judgment while practising deep breathing. It has been proven to eliminate anxiety, minimize stress and depression, increase focus and concentration, and develop insights into oneself. Many individuals believe that the feeling of being rested upon waking up is not all in their head – there are studies showing how mindful meditation can alter our brain chemistry resulting in an improved mood upon waking up and increasing the benefits of sleep.
Sleep Tracking and Wrist Wearables
One of the most well-known areas for sleep apps is sleep tracking. These are a collection of apps and technology that track how much you sleep and for how long. They won’t magically improve your sleep, but you’ll get a greater insight into how much sleep you are getting. For some, it can be quite an eye-opener.
Sleep tracking is often available on smartwatches such as those provided by Fitbit or Apple which can also give you a sleep score. Take it with a pinch of salt though, as not all the information will be as accurate as you might think. This is mainly due to the lack of research in this new and emerging area, but will likely improve over time. However, they offer some good advice.
Sleep Buds and Headphones
For some, using sleep buds or headphones at night can positively improve their sleep quality. Bose have their Sleep Buds which work by masking any sound around you. They also play an alarm in the morning which only you can hear so as not to disturb anyone next to you. You can also try earplugs that are equally as good at blocking out sound.
With the advent of noise-cancelling headphones, you can also fall asleep with your headphones on or in your ears. You may find them uncomfortable if you sleep on your side though, which is why Bose sleep buds have become so popular. This is one area of sleep tech that will no doubt expand in the near future as they will work better at shutting us off from our ‘always-on culture.
Light Technology and Routines
It’s hard to stop using your phone. Sure enough, there’s some tech for that! You can actually buy blue light blockers that fix onto your screens and even buy wearable glasses that have been proven to block blue light from phones and tablets from getting into your eyes.
A study from OPO showed that wearing blue light blocking glasses can improve your sleep. You can of course as discussed, dim your lights in the evening. This is best completed a few hours before bed to get your body ready for sleep.
To achieve this, technology found in products such as Philips Hue lighting can schedule lights to dim at specific times of the day. They can also be set to turn on at specific times of day, such as in the morning to wake you up with bright light. They can also be set to change colour, acting like a sunset. They work well at reducing your exposure to bright levels of artificial light right before bed and help you build a sleep schedule automatically.
Technology such as this means you can limit your light exposure through the night. You could, for example, dim the lights if you need to go to the bathroom at night. This means you won’t get blasted with bright white light from standard lighting, which would wake you up. Equally, you can use light within alarm clocks to gently wake you up in the morning so you don’t get a sudden jolt and wake in a panic! The technology surrounding light is growing and will continue to improve as we learn more about the impact artificial light has on our health and sleep routines.
There is also a very low tech solution to artificial light. You could of course try the good old fashioned eye mask to block out all the light in your environment. Just make sure you’re lying down first.
How Can I Get a Better Night’s Sleep?
If you’re wondering how can I get a better night’s sleep, then here are some simple steps you can take to sleep better and ensure you get your full sleep cycles in. After a few weeks, you will find that you start to feel better, have more energy and you’re getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep consistently, each night.
Simple steps to start sleeping better:
When You Wake Up Get Some Sun Light
If you can, first thing in the morning try and get outside and get some natural sunlight on your face. This will be the most natural way you can start your circadian rhythm. Just 30 minutes of sunshine a day, can help regulate your sleep patterns and increase your vitamin D at the same time. A morning walk can also get your metabolism going and improve your mood too, great for achieving a morning boost of energy.
Dim the Lights in the Evening Before Bed
Just as you want to get as much bright light in the morning as possible, if you can, try to dim the lights a few hours before bedtime. This will avoid disrupting your bodies natural melatonin production and put you in that nice, warm, sleepy state.
Switch Off Your Electronic Devices
ake a digital detox each day and leave your devices in another room. This stops the temptation to pick them up. If you must use a device, such as to use a sleep app, then download the track in advance and then put your phone into ‘aeroplane’ mode. There’s nothing worse than receiving a 2 am a phone call or a message when you have to be up for work in the morning. You should ideally stop using all your devices about an hour before bed to allow your mind to relax. This includes your TV.
Create a Sleep Routine
Try as best you can to get up and go to bed at the same time. If you’re not sure at what time to go to bed, then count back 8 hours from the time you need to wake up. This will give you your ideal bedtime. So if you need to get up at 6 am for work, then ideally, you need to be in bed at 10 pm to get your full recommended 8 hours. Once you have your routine, stick to it, even on weekends, to avoid building up a sleep debt.
Don’t Drink Caffeine After 2 pm
Caffeine is a stimulant. It works by temporarily blocking the signal from a vital sleep chemical called adenosine. Your body is constantly creating it. As more adenosine builds up, the more sleepy you feel. By blocking adenosine it keeps us artificially alert, but only for so long. It will eventually breakthrough and you will experience that nasty crash feeling. It’s why you can sometimes get an energy slump at work.
It can take over 10 hours for the effects of caffeine to leave your body, so try not to drink anything with caffeine after 2 pm. You want to make sure you’re feeling nice and sleepy late in the evening, not alert and stimulated. Be mindful of the foods you are eating also. Many foods contain levels of caffeine such as chocolate and even drinks like diet Coke have caffeine in them. All this blocks you adenosine, keeping you wide away when you need to start winding down.
Reduce Your Alcohol
There’s no way to say it nicely, but any alcohol is poison to your body. That said, it’s fun to drink and it’s fun to be sociable too! But just be aware that whilst alcohol can make you drop off to sleep, the quality of sleep you’ll have, will not be great. It can actually take away quality REM sleep, and you may find yourself waking up several times in the night too (even if you actually don’t remember doing this). Of course, waking up to a hangover is not much fun either!
Set a Comfortable Temperature
This might seem an odd one, but many of us use our beds as an extended office. We need our brains to associate our beds with sleep. So when you go to bed, go to bed to sleep. Don’t work from your bed, or use your laptop to write essays and post onto social media. It will not only keep your brain over sensitised but will also teach your brain that this is not a room where sleep happens. Make sure your bedroom is set up with dimmed lights (until morning) if possible, blackout curtains and that the temperature is set ideally around 18 degrees centigrade. We actually sleep better when it’s cooler.
A comfortable temperature is crucial for a good nights sleep. It has been discovered that a comfortable temperature affected sleep quality more than external outside noise. An increased body temperature can actually decrease sleep quality and put you into a more wakeful state.
Get Regular Exercise
Participating in regular exercise reduces insomnia and sleep apnea, but not only that, it increases the time you spend in deep sleep. This is crucial to your mental health and general wellbeing. This makes regular exercise as important as maintaining a healthy diet. You may find that the time of day that you exercise doesn’t impact your sleep quality, but generally, the earlier in your evening you can exercise, the better. It’s all about knowing your body and knowing yourself. Daily exercise is also a good idea. This doesn’t mean heavy workouts, but taking a relaxing walk can really help.
If you need to exercise at night, do so 2-3 hours before bed. Exercising too late will put your body into a state of alertness and disrupt your body’s natural rhythm and cycle into sleep. Of course, you may be shattered from the exercise, but the reality is that it’s best to work out in the day. Your body needs its sleep time to fully recover. You also need to be in a calm relaxed state to fall asleep too.
The type of exercise you do can also help your sleep patterns. Aerobic exercise is one such form. If you engage in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, on any given day you may see a difference in the sleep quality you get that same night. Interestingly, aerobic exercise has also been shown to have similar effects as taking sleeping pills.
Setting Your Hours of Bedtime
Part of sleeping better is accepting that sleep is important to your life each day. You can experiment with different types of technology. For many, a weighted blanket can have a dramatic effect on sleep. It’s a bit like receiving a hug and it stimulates the brain into feeling ‘safe’, allowing you to relax and drop to sleep faster. You could also try different mattresses and blackout curtains. Try and make your bedroom as dark as possible, you will sleep much deeper and fall asleep much quicker and feel much more energised in the morning.
A simple technique in how to sleep better is to ensure you don’t eat a large meal (or even a small meal), two to three hours before bed. Similarly, you should avoid working out two hours before bed. You should make these your hours of bedtime to ensure your body has sufficient time to wind down and start relaxing and preparing for sleep. A bedtime routine is a really good way to make sure you get enough hours of sleep. Creating a bedtime routine is a really good way to increase your general health and wellbeing and can make a real difference to your mood and daytime energy levels.
How to Sleep Better in the Heat
Part of falling asleep well is falling asleep in a nice cool, dark environment. In the summer, this can be next to impossible, especially as nighttime temperatures can approach a real feel of 25 centigrade and more. Many of us during the hot summer nights don’t have access to air conditioning.
With this in mind, here are some tips and tricks to get a better nights sleep in the summer heat:
Keep Out the Heat
During the day, keep your curtains closed on the sunny sides of the house and close the windows to keep the warm air out. When you go to bed, open the windows to let the cool air in and to create a breeze that will move through the house and push out any trapped warm air.
If you can, use light-reflecting blinds which work by reflecting the sun and heat away. You could also place a fan facing out of the window. This will draw out warm air from the house, and push back the hot air entering through the window. This helps cool the house and gets the air circulating.
Don’t Take Naps
If you can, avoid taking naps during the day. This will ensure that come nighttime, you will be very tired and will hopefully just nod off.
Keep Your Sleep Routine
Even if the heat stops you from falling asleep quickly, keep to your sleep routine of getting up and going to bed at the same time. This keeps your circadian rhythm in check.
Remain as Calm as Possible
Just because it’s warm at night, try not to stress. Take your mind off the heat by reading a book or listening to some music. Just because you can’t sleep, don’t start watching TV shows in bed as this will overstimulate the mind and you’ll find it even more difficult to fall asleep.
Keep Drinking Water to Stay Hydrated
Make sure you don’t get dehydrated and keep drinking water throughout the day. Avoid drinking more alcohol just because it’s warm as this can actually dehydrate you further. It will make you feel worse in the morning too.
How to Sleep Better Summary
>Hopefully you now know how to sleep better. Sleep plays a vital part in living a healthy life. If you have any questions about the role technology can play in your sleep patterns, then please don’t hesitate to reach out to us and we can let you know some of the technology we have used and tried over the years, including what worked well and what didn’t.
Just make sure you’re not reading this article at 11 pm at night. Have a good night and sleep well.