How to Sleep Better: 15 Tips Backed by Science
“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and strokes, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
…Of course, the ad is not describing some miracle new tincture or a cure-all wonder drug, but rather the proven benefits of a full night of sleep. The evidence supporting these claims have been documented in more than 17,000 well-scrutinized and scientific reports to date. As for the prescription cost, well, there isn’t one. It’s free. Yet all too often, we shun the nightly invitations to receive our full dose of this all natural remedy–with terrible consequences. Failed by the lack of public education, most of us do not realize how remarkable a panacea sleep truly is.” – Matthew Walker, sleep researcher
Sleep is obviously crucial for living a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. It impacts our health, longevity, immunity, self-control, motivation, anxiety, depression, hope, optimism, emotional well-being, our relationships, and on and on.
I’m not going to delve deeply into all the benefits high-quality sleep provides for us. I’ll just tell you that for me personally, as a guy who used to struggle big time with sleep, improving my sleep has been a game changer.
It’s so nice to be able to go to bed at night without that feeling of fear and dread – without feeling anxious about being alone with my thoughts, about not being able to fall asleep, about lying in bed for hours, and so on.
It’s nice to be able to stay asleep throughout the night, and when waking up, to be able to fall back asleep quickly and easily, rather than panic and then lie awake for another unbestimmt Zeit. It’s nice to wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, motivated, and ready to tackle the day, rather than wake up feeling groggy, exhausted, confused, and in a bad mood.
It’s not that I don’t have difficult nights anymore. I still do occasionally. But compared to what a bad night’s sleep used to be in the past, there is simply no comparison. For me, improving my sleep has made my life a lot better.
If you struggle with sleep, or you just want higher quality sleep, read on for 15 science-backed tips.
1. Wake up and go to bed at the same time each day
Your body starts preparing you for sleep and for waking up long before these things actually happen. It’s almost as if the body is saying, “We will go to bed at 10 pm like every day. Let’s get ready to sleep. Let’s release the right hormones. Let’s calm down, relax, and get sleepy.”
According to sleep researcher Matthew Walker, sticking to a regular sleep schedule “is perhaps the single most effective way of helping improve your sleep.”
2. Spend 10-20 minutes outside at sunrise
Your body has an internal time-keeping clock known as the circadian rhythm. The clock’s purpose is to tell every cell in your body what time of day it is and especially whether it is daytime or nighttime.
If the body clock does a good job at that – if your circadian rhythm is healthy and in sync with the outside world – then your entire health is positively affected. You wake up more easily, feel more energized and alert throughout the day, and fall asleep more easily at night. On the other hand, when your circadian rhythm is out of sync, many health problems can occur and your well-being tends to suffer. You also likely still feel tired upon waking up in the morning and too energized to fall asleep at night.
In short, a healthy circadian rhythm boosts your health and well-being (and sleep!). An out of sync rhythm does the opposite.
The #1 factor that synchronizes your body clock with the outside world – and therefore the #1 factor that makes your circadian rhythm healthy or unhealthy – is light. In the past, the body clock knew it was daytime as long as the sun was out. And it knew that nighttime was approaching when the sun went down and it got dark.
The problem nowadays is that we live indoors, under artificial lights. And to simplify things here, there are two main issues with artificial light coming from our lamps, smartphones, laptops, TVs, etc…
- Artificial lights aren’t bright enough to tell the body clock it’s daytime
- Artificial lights are too bright to tell the body clock it’s nighttime
The brightness of a light source is measured in LUX. As you can see in the table below, brightness outdoors changes heavily throughout the day. During the day, sunlight usually provides somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 LUX. It’s really bright, even when it’s cloudy. At night, on the other hand, it’s incredibly dark. Even if it’s full moon, it’s only between .05 and .3 LUX.
So, in nature it’s super bright during the day and super dark during the night. That makes it easy for your body to keep a healthy circadian rhythm.
Now compare that with indoor lighting which is always somewhere between 50 LUX and 500 LUX. This is all day long, regardless of whether it’s morning or evening. It’s never really bright and never really dark. How is your body supposed to know if it’s daytime or nighttime? The body has difficulty figuring it out, and so it also has difficulty figuring out when to make you tired or alert, when to release hormones that increase focus, when to release hormones that make you groggy, and so on.
In short, indoor living makes it challenging to keep a healthy circadian rhythm. That’s why light hygiene is super important nowadays. And that’s why the next four tips all have something to do with light.
The first tip is to spend 10-20 minutes outside at the time of sunrise so that the bright light coming from the sun can tell your body clock that it’s morning.
According to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, this is one of the best things we can do not just for sleep but for our overall health and well-being in general. He explains: “Getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health. It is perhaps the most important thing that any and all of us can and should do in order to promote metabolic well-being, promote the positive function of your hormone system, get your mental health steering in the right direction.”
You can google “sunrise in [name of your city]” and then make it a point to spend some time outside during that time. Personally, I go for a twenty minute walk at the time of sunrise. If it’s thirty minutes after sunrise, or ten minutes before sunrise, that’s also good.
3. Spend as much time outside during the day as possible
Not only is the natural light of the sun a lot brighter than our indoor artificial lights, it’s also full-spectrum and it changes throughout the day. Our body clocks are familiar with the subtle changes of natural light throughout the day and use this information to keep our circadian rhythm in sync. Research suggests that the more natural light we get throughout the day, the better we tend to sleep at night.
Most of us spend 90-95 percent of our days indoors, so even just an additional 30 minutes outdoors can make a big difference. Personally, I try to do activities like eating, reading, or journaling outside whenever possible.
4. Spend 10-20 minutes outside at sunset
The body block recognizes the light spectrum that naturally occurs at the time of sunset and uses this information to begin preparing the body for sleep. Research also shows that viewing light at this time protects us from some of the negative effects of artificial indoor light we’re exposed to in the evening.
Andrew Huberman suggests on a podcast that “it’s pretty essential to get some light in the afternoon as the sun is heading down. Again, you don’t need to see the sun rising in the morning and setting, like crossing the horizon, but it’s the light that comes through when it’s so-called low solar angle, which is just geek speak for circa sunrise and circa sunset. That’s when you get this yellow blue contrast… There’s a beautiful paper that showed that viewing light circa sunset adjusts the sensitivity of the cells in the eye such that it buffers you against some of the negative effects of light late at night. So, I call it sort of my Netflix vaccination — I can watch some late-night movie or TV or be on my screen a little bit later provided I got some sunlight right around sunset.”
Whenever possible, I try to go for a walk or spend some time on my balcony at around sunset. When I need to be on my desk, I make it a point to open the window to at least let some natural light in.
5. Turn down the light at night
After sunset, you want to reduce the light in your environment, especially the blue light as that has been shown to most strongly disrupt circadian rhythm. (Red light has almost no impact on the circadian rhythm, which makes it ideal for evening and nighttime.) Remember that natural light at night is between 0.5-3 LUX, whereas artificial indoor light is usually between 50-500 LUX. If we’re serious about improving our sleep, we need to turn that light down a notch or two.
Here are some of the things you can do to accomplish that:
- Dim indoor lights with dimmer switches.
- Use red light bulbs. There are special light bulbs that don’t emit any blue light that you can plug directly into any outlet. This is really convenient because you can turn off the normal lights at night and just plug these in. There are versions for use in the US and Canada as well as versions for international use. The same website offers other blue-blocking products as well. You can also use himalayan salt lamps or similar products.
- Use apps like f.lux or Iris on your computer to filter the blue light after sunrise. The f.lux website puts it well: “During the day, computer screens look good—they're designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn't be looking at the sun. F.lux fixes this: it makes the color of your computer's display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.”
- Use a phone app that blocks blue light. I use Twilight for Android. If your phone comes with a built-in night mode or blue-blocking application, I suggest using that. It should be said, however, that apps like Twilight do block more than most built-in apps.
- Wear blue-blocking glasses. They may look dorky, but wearing them for 1-2 hours before sleep is super effective. There are many good options available, such as Swanwick, TrueDark, or Ra Optics. Personally, I just use the cheap Uvex ones from Amazon.
You can follow as many of these strategies as you like. If you’re wearing the glasses, the rest is less important. Personally, I do everything: I wear blue-blocking glasses, dim the lights, use a himalayan salt lamp and other red lights, and use blue-blocking apps on my devices.
6. Sleep in a cool room
“A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3C) is ideal for the sleep of most people, assuming standard bedding and clothing,” explains Matthew Walker.
Your body temperature naturally drops at bedtime and then keeps dropping throughout the night, reaching its lowest point approximately two hours before you wake up. If your bedroom is too hot, your body struggles to achieve this drop in temperature, resulting in difficulty falling asleep and a reduction in sleep quality.
Shawn Stevenon shares some cool research on this in his book Sleep Smarter: “…studies have shown that insomniacs (individuals with chronic sleep issues) tend to have a significantly warmer body temperature than normal right before bed. To help combat this issue, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine conducted a study to find a way to cool insomniacs off and then determine if that did, indeed, have an impact on their overall sleep quality. During the study the test subjects were fitted with ‘cooling caps’ that contained circulating water at cool temperatures. What the researchers discovered by the end of the study was pretty shocking.
When the participants wore the cooling caps, they fell asleep even faster than people without sleep disorders. With the caps, the insomniacs took about 13 minutes to fall asleep, compared to 16 minutes for the healthy control group. What’s also interesting is that the patients diagnosed with insomnia ended up sleeping for 89 percent of the time they were in bed, which was the exact amount of time the healthy control group slept in bed.”
If you can’t adjust the temperature in your bedroom, you can try other cooling solutions, such as the cooling mattress pads or sheets by Chilisleep. You can also take a hot bath or shower 1-2 hours before bed (see tip #12).
7. Sleep in a dark room
Research has shown that even very dim lighting can have a negative impact on the circadian rhythm. That’s why many sleep experts recommend sleeping in a room that is as dark as possible. You can use black-out curtaints to achieve this.
8. Sleep in a low-tech room
Electronical devices like lamps, computers, and smartphones emit electromagnetic frequencies that have been shown to reduce our bodies’ melatonin production and potentially interfere with sleep.
Shawn Stevenson mentions two studies in Sleep Smarter: “A study sponsored by mobile companies themselves found that using cell phones before bed caused people to take longer to reach critical deep stages of sleep and they spent less time in deep sleep. This translates to a diminished ability for the body to heal, depressed immune function, depressed hormone function, and poorer performance the following day.”
“A study published in Radiation Protection Dosimetry found that melatonin secretion is significantly disrupted by exposure to electromagnetic fields. The study’s authors concluded that it would be in our best interest if we limit our exposure even to weak EMFs. As you know, melatonin is not just a critical hormone for regulating our sleep; it’s also an important anticancer hormone. With consistent exposure to EMFs, our body’s melatonin production can be thrown out of whack.”
I suggest having as few electronic devices in your bedroom as possible. I also suggest turning off and unplugging anything electrical in your sleeping area and putting your phone in airplane mode.
9. Avoid caffeine within 10-12 hours of bedtime
Caffeine is a stimulant with a half-life of around 5 to 8 hours (depending on an individuals’ unique biochemistry). Several studies suggest that consuming caffeine can significantly worsen sleep quality – even when people are convinced it does not affect their sleep.
In Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson mentions a study which showed that “participants given caffeine at different times (immediately before bed, 3 hours before bed, and 6 hours before bed) all showed significant measurable disruptions in their sleep. What this means is that not only is it not a good idea to have caffeine right before bedtime, but having a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea even as much as 6 hours before bed can cause sleep troubles.”
He continues: “When the participants consumed caffeine 6 hours before bedtime, they had a measurable objective loss of 1 hour of sleep shown via sleep monitor. The crazy part is that the participants didn’t note any subjective difference with their sleep in their sleep journal. Even though they physiologically lost sleep because of the caffeine, they didn’t consciously know it at first! To their own knowledge they were fast asleep, though they weren’t actually dipping into normal ranges of REM and deep sleep according to the sleep monitor.”
That’s why most sleep experts recommend drinking the last cup of coffee at around noon. That’s what I tend to do. I have 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning and then maybe a cup of decaf in the afternoon. (Keep in mind, though, that decaf also has some caffeine in it.)
10. Avoid large meals at night
Large meals tend to elevate core body temperature for several hours, making it harder to fall asleep and harder to enter the deeper stages of sleep. Personally, I try to have my last meal of the day no closer to bedtime than three hours.
11. Avoid alcohol before bed
Matthew Walker explains, “Having a nightcap or alcoholic beverage before sleep may help you relax, but heavy use robs you of 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.”
I tend to experience the negative effects of alcohol on sleep quite strongly. When I drink too much and/or too close to bedtime, I tend to wake up frequently throughout the night. My sleep is also erratic, light, and overall not very satisfying.
12. Take a hot bath 1-2 hours before bed
Taking a hot bath can help you relax and calm down. It also allows your core body temperature to subsequently drop, which makes falling asleep more easy. According to a 2019 review, taking a hot shower or bath one to two hours before bed in water at 40 to 43°C (104 to 109°F) improves sleep quality and reduces the time it takes to fall asleep by an average of 10 minutes.
13. Exercise regularly, but not too late in the day
People who exercise regularly tend to sleep better than people who don’t. For example, Shawn Stevenson shares a study which found that “patients with primary insomnia had a radical improvement in sleep quality when they added in a consistent exercise regimen. The study used a polysomnogram to measure the results. A polysomnogram is a sleep test that records your brain waves, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate, and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements (basically, there are so many wires on you while you sleep that it looks like Spider Man hit you with a web). Here’s exactly what they discovered.
Test subjects who started exercising experienced: a 55 percent improvement in sleep onset latency (they fell asleep faster), a 30 percent decrease in the total wake time during the test, an 18 percent increase in total sleep time during the test, and a 13 percent increase in sleep efficiency (an improvement in the quality of sleep).”
That being said, don’t exercise too close to bedtime because the physiological arousal, rise in body temperature, and release of cortisol can interfere with sleep.
14. Try meditation
There are now many studies showing that meditation improves sleep. Shawn Stevenson mentions two of them in Sleep Smarter: One study “showed that over a 2-month period, sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality, and depression improved in patients who used meditation. The principal investigator in the study, Ramadevi Gourineni, MD, stated, ‘Results of the study show that teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night.’”
“Another study, published in the journal Medical Science Monitor, found that advanced meditators have higher baseline melatonin levels than nonmeditators.”
If meditation is not your thing, you can try similar techniques like Progressive Muscle Relaxation or Yoga Nidra, which have also been shown to reduce stress and improve sleep.
For more on meditation, check out our beginner’s guide.
15. Get a weekly massage
One last time, I’ll let Shawn Stevenson do the explaining: “In a study on chronic pain sufferers published by the International Journal of Neuroscience, it was found that, in addition to decreased long-term pain, test subjects receiving massage therapy experienced improved sleep and an increase in serotonin levels… We all know that massage feels great. But many of us underestimate just how powerful it can be for great sleep. Massage is like a secret key to unlocking your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system and activating your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. When you add in the clinically proven benefits on serotonin production, oxytocin, and reduction of cortisol, it’s no wonder that massage can be so helpful for gliding off to dreamland.”
On Sleep Quality and Procrastination…
A recent study investigated the relationship “between sleep quality during the night and its effect on procrastination at work during the next workday.” The study also looked at whether the relationship was influenced by trait self-control – how good a person generally is at controlling their behavior and emotions (e.g., resisting temptations, being self-disciplined).
Full-time employees from various industries first completed a one-time qustionnaire to assess trait self-control. They then filled out two short questionnaires every day over the course of ten workdays. The first assessed sleep quality and the second assessed how much they procrastinated on a given workday.
The results showed that on days when employees reported lower quality sleep they also reported procrastinating more. However, this was only the case for individuals who scored low on self-control. For participants high in self-control, a bad night’s sleep did not result in more procrastination.
What does this mean? If you’re struggling with procrastination, getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely crucial for you. The more self-disciplined folks may get away with a suboptimal night of sleep, but those of us who are already struggling to follow through on our intentions.. we can’t skimp on it.
These findings are in line with my personal experience. First, improving my sleep quality was one of the most impactful things I did to overcome procrastination. Second, a bad night’s sleep was far more impactful back then (when I had very little self-control) than compared with today. Nowadays, I’m still functional even after a rough night. Back then, a rough night almost guaranteed a very difficult day.