Your Bedtime and Wake Up Time
This is one of the most important tips in the entire guide! It's the number one recommendation that sleep doctor, Matthew Walker, recommends over all other advice.
If there is only one thing you take away from this guide itself, it should be this:
Calculate what time you need to be awake and how many hours of sleep you need. Everyone is different… 7-9 hours is recommended, but choose what works for you.
- Set your bedtime and wake-up time based on this calculation.
- Then, set an alarm 60 minutes before the bedtime you’ve chosen, to give you time to prepare to be in bed, ready to sleep at this time.
Yeah, yeah…we can hear your objections already. "Establish a consistent sleep schedule? Why on earth should I do that? What's wrong with my current schedule – going to bed at a reasonable hour during the week and then staying up late on weekend nights and then 'sleeping in' on weekend mornings?"
The answer is that your body thrives on regular schedules.
Just as your body gets hungry at certain times of the day, when it's working properly, it gets tired and wants to sleep at certain times of the day, too. Not allowing it to do this creates conflicts with your internal "body clock," and causes problems. Such as – dare we say it? – insomnia, and not being able to fall asleep when you DO go to bed.
So give regular sleeping hours a chance. Try it for two or three weeks, and see if it makes a difference in your ability to fall asleep more easily.
The Science Behind How We Fall Asleep
You might be tempted to skip this section, but research shows that we learn best when we have context. Understanding how the body falls asleep is one step closer to helping you actually fall asleep.
What controls your ability to fall asleep?
The state of your sleep health is determined by a number of natural internal and external cycles and how closely you adhere to them.
Sleep is not a singular process. As an internal cycle, it has different stages. Intuitively, you already know this, because you experience the difference between deep sleep (in which you experience nothing – no thoughts, no sensations) and dreaming (in which you experience thoughts and sensory impressions, but not the same as when you're awake).
Your circadian rhythm
Another important cycle related to sleep health has to do with the time of day, and with the changing patterns of light and dark. This cycle is the one most related to the idea of an internal "body clock" that runs in your brain and responds to the external cycles of nature.
The reason you should feel tired at night is because when the sun goes down and the amount of light diminishes, the pineal gland begins to produce the hormone melatonin. Melatonin signals the body that it's time to slow down and go to sleep, and in fact makes the body feel tired so that it can sleep. In the morning when the sun rises, the increase in light signals the brain to stop producing melatonin. This is important because it allows the body to wake up and become energetic again.
Your body's internal circadian rhythm works best when you have regular sleep habits, going to bed at about the same time every evening and waking up about the same time every morning. Varied cycles throw off your circadian rhythm and can cause nighttime insomnia and daytime sleepiness.
The homeostatic sleep drive and the two-process model of sleep regulation
A third cycle that affects sleep has to do with the balance between two different biological mechanisms or processes in the body. As defined by Swiss sleep researcher Alexander Borbély, these two processes are:
- Process C, or circadian rhythm - the body's internal sleepiness vs. wakefulness drive, regulated by its response to nature's external cycles of light and dark.
- Process S, or sleep-wake homeostasis - the sleepiness vs. wakefulness drive created by the presence or absence of hypnogenic (sleep-inducing) chemicals in the brain.
According to this theory, circadian rhythm alone is not sufficient to regulate sleep. There is also a "built-in" set of chemical processes that control sleep, called sleep-wake homeostasis. It operates as a kind of internal sleepiness / wakefulness timer or control, reminding the body chemically that it needs to sleep. The longer we are awake, the more this internal timer tells us we need to sleep, and conversely, the longer we are asleep, the more it tells us we need to wake up.
Using A Sleep Diary
A sleep diary is a daily record of your sleeping and waking habits. Maintaining a sleep diary can help you to measure the quality of your sleep, and pinpoint any factors that might be negatively influencing your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
If you've kept a diary for the after reading this guide, made positive changes in your sleep habits, made sure you are getting the recommended amounts of the important sleep vitamins and nutrients, but still haven't seen positive results - you can use the results of your sleep diary to share with your GP or medical practitioner during a consultation. It's often the first thing they will recommend for someone with a sleep problem, and you'll be one step ahead with getting a helpful diagnosis (if relevant for you).
Perfecting Your Sleep Hygiene
Researchers have identified a variety of practices and habits - known as “sleep hygiene" - that can help anyone maximise the hours they spend sleeping, even those whose sleep is affected by insomnia, jet lag, or shift work. Think of it as easy-to-follow tips for making the sleep of your dreams a nightly reality.
Here are 12 things you should know about getting better sleep; each of these points is based on scientific research from the US National Institute for Health, and could help you to get the most out of your sleep.
Take a read through our sleep hygiene list below and take some time before bed each night this week to implement them. This is your first step in creating the ultimate bedtime routine for you!
12 Sleep Hygiene Tips
Stick to a sleep schedule.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends won't fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning.
Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.
Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2 - 3 hours before your bedtime.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
Coffee, some fizzy drinks, certain teas, and chocolate contain the stimulant caffeine, and its effects can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Therefore, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Nicotine is also a stimulant, often causing smokers to sleep only very lightly. In addition, smokers often wake up too early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
Having a "nightcap" or alcoholic beverage before sleep may help you relax, but heavy use robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. Heavy alcohol ingestion also may contribute to impairment in breathing at night. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
A light snack is okay, but a large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep.
Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist to see whether any drugs you're taking might be contributing to your insomnia and ask whether they can be taken at other times during the day or early in the evening.
Don't take naps after 3pm.
Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Relax before bed.
Don't over schedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual.
Take a hot bath before bed.
The drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax and slow down so you're more ready to sleep.
Create a sleep sanctuary.
Get rid of anything in your bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or warm temperatures. You sleep better if the temperature in the room is kept on the cool side. A TV, cell phone, or computer in the bedroom can be a distraction and deprive you of needed sleep. Having a comfortable mattress and pillow can help promote a good night's sleep. Individuals who have insomnia often watch the clock. Turn the clock's face out of view so you don't worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.
Have the right sunlight exposure.
Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day. If possible, wake up with the sun or use very bright lights in the morning. Sleep experts recommend that, if you have problems falling asleep, you should get an hour of exposure to morning sunlight and turn down the lights before bedtime.
Don't lie in bed awake.
If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
Move on to the second part: How to stay asleep