Many people experience the occasional night when a busy, anxious mind makes it difficult to sleep. But if this happens to you more often than not, you need to take some steps to correct the pattern. Consistently poor sleep can disrupt many other aspects of your health.
“Sleep is the common denominator across all areas of your well-being,” says Jenna Gress Smith, Ph.D., clinical psychologist with expertise in sleep medicine and founder of AZ Sleep Health. If you’re not sleeping well, your nutrition, activity level, hormone balance, and mental and emotional resilience all take a hit.
Besides the usual advice to power down electronics before bedtime, keep your room dark and cool, and take a warm shower an hour or so before bed, some new studies are adding to the body of research on sleep. Try these five practices for a deeper, more refreshing sleep and improved energy levels during the day.
1. Wake-up and go outside
To regulate the circadian rhythm that governs your 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, recommends getting outside within the first 30 to 60 minutes of waking.
Morning light, which your body can absorb even if it’s overcast, works in two ways, says Gress Smith. “First, it triggers the brain to release cortisol into your system, which acts as a wake-up signal and promotes alertness throughout the day,” she says. “It also starts a timer for the release, or onset, of melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone.’”
This keeps your body’s 24-hour clock on a regular cycle, known as entrainment, and promotes better sleep at night. Ideally, aim for 10 to 20 minutes of morning outside time each day, says Gress Smith.
2. Try resistance training
A number of studies show that regular aerobic activity can help you sleep better. But according to a recent study, resistance training, which works on strengthening muscles, may actually be better than aerobic exercise for improving the duration and quality of your sleep.
While it’s not clear why, the study’s lead researcher has a couple of theories. First, weight training stimulates growth in muscle cells, which boosts your levels of testosterone and growth hormone, both of which have been linked with better sleep. Another is that when you weight train, the microscopic tears to the muscle tissue send stronger signals to the brain to put you in a state of deeper restorative sleep at night.
You can’t go wrong with any type of exercise. But if you’re looking to improve your sleep, try incorporating a few days of resistance training into your weekly workout routine.
3. Address sleep apnea
Research suggests that cutting out ultra-processed foods, in addition to eliminating alcohol and increasing the number of steps you take each day, can dramatically reduce symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and potentially even eliminate it.
Sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of bad sleep, affecting an estimated 1 in 5 people worldwide. The condition occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax and block your airway as you’re sleeping, causing you to stop breathing. These apnea episodes can last for more than 10 seconds and occur many times during the night. Because of the heavy strain it puts on your body, sleep apnea can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
The study showed that after just eight weeks, participants who adopted these healthier habits had a 51 percent reduction in the number of apnea episodes they experienced during each hour of nightly sleep. About 15 percent achieved complete remission of their sleep apnea, and 45 percent no longer needed their CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines.
4. Accentuate the positive
Words of encouragement can have a positive impact on our daily lives. Apparently, they can positively impact your sleep as well. A recent sleep-lab study found that participants who listened to words encouraging relaxation during the night spent more time in deep, slow-wave sleep. They also reported feeling more alert the next day.
How can you turn the sleep-lab study into practices that improve your sleep? Our mind continues to process our thoughts and words during sleep. So about an hour before bedtime, think about your day, says Gress Smith, and write down three good things that happened to you or you were grateful for. “Try to dig deep and avoid a ‘canned’ response,” she says. “Ask yourself ‘What was one thing I did well today?’ or ‘When was a moment that I felt relaxed, calm, or satisfied?’”
Gress Smith also suggests developing your own positive sleep affirmations. She offers some examples: I won’t let my day ruin my night; this is my time to heal, unwind, and relax; restful sleep is essential to my physical and emotional well-being. Repeat the affirmation as you unwind and settle into bed for the night.
5. Have a snack
Have you ever stayed up late and suddenly felt really hungry—and wide awake? “When your blood sugar levels drop, your brain pipes up to let you know you’re out of fuel and then spikes your cortisol, which perks you up,” says Gress Smith.
While going to sleep with a full stomach isn’t a good idea, a snack about 30 minutes before bed can help quiet those hunger pangs. “Your snack should be 70 percent complex carbs and 30 percent protein—for example, an apple with some nut butter or a non-sugary cereal with almond milk,” Gress Smith says.
This ratio of complex carbs and protein is intended to help spike your serotonin, the calming hormone, notes Gress Smith, so you can get a better night’s sleep.