How to get quality sleep (even during challenging times)
Sleep. We can’t survive without it.
But with our busy lives, we never seem to get enough of it.
If you struggle to nod off peacefully and wake up as fresh as a daisy each morning, chances are you’re missing out on good quality sleep.
This might be because you’re stressed and have a lot on your mind.
Or maybe you’re staying up late to study or working a lot of hours and trying to fit a social life in too. You know when you haven’t slept well.
You wake up tired and cranky and find it hard to focus on daily tasks.
But did you know it’s also damaging your health?
You’re always going to be busy, and life can become stressful at a moment’s notice. You still need to sleep well, even during challenging times.
But can you improve your sleep quality when you’re busy and stressed?
I’m going to show you how to fall asleep when you need to, AND how to improve the quality of your sleep, in 10 simple steps.
Why is quality sleep good for us?
There’s a reason sleep is often described as the 3rd pillar of good health, alongside diet and exercise.
While you are asleep, your body is literally resetting, recharging and rejuvenating; improving your immune system so you can heal from injury and fight off infections.
When you wake up from a good sleep, you start your day alert and refreshed.
Sleeping well can also improve your mood by reducing anxiety, irritability and mental exhaustion, and it can even increase your sex drive!
What happens when we don’t get enough good quality sleep?
Do you struggle to fall asleep when you’re stressed or worried about something? I totally do.
Do you lay in bed thinking about stuff for hours, and wake the next day feeling more anxious, angry and cranky?
Your poor sleep doesn’t just affect you the next day; it can put your health at risk.
Studies have shown that poor sleep can contribute to:
- an increased risk of developing diabetes, and an increased mortality rate of 15%.
- an increased the risk of coronary heart disease in women.
- depression, anxiety, and mental distress.
These studies also found that people who slept more were better able to fight infection.
Poor sleep can affect your brain function and your waistline
Did you know not getting enough sleep can affect your memory?
During deep sleep, our important memories become concreted in our brain. Missing this phase of sleep can decrease a person’s ability to learn new things by up to 40%.
Unfortunately, this means if you’re staying up late to study or prepare an important report for your boss, you could be doing your brain more harm than good.
Are you trying to lose weight?
Starving yourself of sleep is going to hinder your efforts, and here’s why.
A recent study found that people who were sleep deprived experienced changes to their metabolism, showed a 13% drop in insulin sensitivity, and gained weight.
So, now you know getting a great night’s sleep is more important than just feeling better when you wake up in the morning.
Let’s unpack some key reasons why you may struggle to get regular quality sleep.
Following this, I’ll walk you through how you can change your sleep patterns, for good!
Why aren’t we getting quality sleep?
Simply getting to sleep is half the battle.
Have you ever wondered why it can be so hard to switch your brain off, shut your eyes, and drift into a deep and restful slumber?
First, let’s look at how sleep works together!
Understanding what happens to your body leading up to and during sleep helps you appreciate just how much your daily habits affect your sleep quality.
When you start to feel tired at the end of the day, two things are happening:
- Your body clock (known as your circadian rhythm) knows it’s your bedtime and starts producing a hormone, melatonin (you may have heard of this as a sleep supplement), which makes you feel sleepy.
- A chemical (adenosine) has been building up in your body throughout the day and starts to peak. This chemical causes drowsiness, so the longer you’re producing it, the more tired you feel.
What happens next is why sleep is so important to your health:
As you drift off, you enter a light sleep where your body temperature drops and your heart rate slows. This is how you rest, heal, and recharge for the next day.
After a while, your sleep deepens, and you cycle through two alternating sleep phases: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM).
These cycles are important for sorting and processing your experiences into long-term memories!
So, if you want to do well at work, in class, or at your next trivia night – you need to experience deep sleep, not just a light slumber.
But how do you do this if you’re not a great sleeper?
There are 3 common reasons why people suffer from poor sleep, and I’m going to show you how to overcome them all.
Let’s explore them together!
1. We simply aren’t getting enough sleep
Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, uninterrupted, to get in those much-needed sleep cycles.
Have a think about how many hours of sleep per night you get. Is it enough?
No matter how busy you are, you need to schedule enough time to sleep.
Don’t stress if this seems like a big ask. I’ll show you how.
2. Our body clock gets confused
That body clock hormone I was talking about, melatonin, is signaled by our brain when we experience darkness.
This is why we get sleepy at nighttime. In daylight, we stop producing melatonin, making us feel more alert.
You can imagine how confused your poor body clock gets if you’re spending a lot of time indoors during the day, away from the sunshine. Or when you’ve got lights on and are staring into your bright mobile devices at night.
You are literally tricking your body into thinking night is day, and day is night. So you’re not getting sleepy when you should.
3. We struggle to fall and stay asleep
Do you struggle to nod off, even when you’re tired?
You’re not alone.
You may wake up in the middle of the night worrying about everything that’s on your mind.
There’s a reason why you can’t just switch off and enter snooze-land.
The state of your mind and body, the foods and drinks you consume leading up to bedtime, noise, light and electronic distractions – these all affect your ability to fall and stay asleep.
But can you overcome all these obstacles and get your sleep back on track?
I’m going to show you how to prepare your body and mind, remove the distractions and set yourself up for the best quality sleep. You deserve it!
Are you ready?
Let’s do this!
My 10 tips on how to improve your sleep (even during challenging times)
1. Stick to the same sleep schedule every day
Have you heard of the terms sleep debt or social jetlag?
This is where we starve ourselves of sleep and then binge sleep later. It doesn’t work—you can’t catch up on sleep over the weekends.
A 2-3 hour difference in our circadian rhythm is torture for our body clocks. You may like to sleep longer on weekends, but the best thing you can do is go to sleep and wake at the same time EVERY day.
2. Work out the best bedtime for you (by following your chronotype)
Do you find it difficult to go to sleep when you want to, or wake up early enough?
It may be because you are not following your body’s chronotype, which dictates what time of the day you’re most alert.
Knowing your chronotype will help you synchronize your body clock with your daily activities and duties to use your time most efficiently.
So how can you get to know your chronotype?
Tip: Take this test and find out your ideal time to wake up and go to sleep!
Once you know what suits you best, it will be much easier to set your body clock to a schedule that you can stick to long term.
3. Limit your exposure to light and sound at night
You know that if you’re getting too much light at nighttime, you’re tricking your body into suppressing melatonin (the sleepy hormone).
But too much light and sound are also very distracting and can stop you from winding down, or getting to sleep while you’re in bed.
Tip: Reduce bright light in your home leading up to bedtime and keep your bedroom dark. Use an eye mask (I just use t-shirts) or blackout curtains if you need to.
Block out irritating noises with earplugs or a white noise machine.
My sleep improved significantly when I started using earplugs!
4. But… what about screen time?
I’ve seen a lot of advice telling people to put their electronic devices away 1-2 hours before bedtime. This can be an unrealistic goal for people who enjoy winding down with screen time entertainment in the evening.
Tip: If watching a favorite show on Netflix is part of your night-time ritual (me!), just try to avoid something that gets you too worked up. The idea is to relax, not get excited. Put your devices on a warm light setting in the evenings.
I also avoid working and attending video calls after 5pm, and resist the urge to spend too much time on my phone at night.
5. Minimize your caffeine and alcohol intake
Do you love coffee? I do too!
In fact, I used to drink so much it left me hyped up and with terrible headaches.
Why is too much coffee unhealthy?
We all know it alerts us and makes us feel awake. This is because caffeine is a stimulant, it helps you bounce out of bed in the morning. But this is unhelpful when you’re trying to wind down in the evenings.
Caffeine doesn’t just keep us from falling asleep, it decreases our amount of deep sleep. The kind we need to cement our memories deep into our brain.
Thinking of an afternoon coffee?
Believe it or not, you can still have caffeine in your body up to 10-12 hours after drinking it, and people’s sensitivity varies greatly. So, keep this in mind if you’re reaching for a second or third cup.
Tip: If you are sensitive to it, only drink caffeine in the mornings. And watch out for hidden caffeine in other foods and drinks like tea, dark chocolate or ice cream. Even decaf has small amounts.
I tried to quit coffee but couldn’t resist the taste and smell, so now I drink only one cup in the morning and look forward to it.
If I have the urge for a second cup, I drink decaf at Starbucks or replace it with warm relaxing herbal tea!
Alcohol also affects your sleep
Drinking alcohol can shift your body into the sympathetic nervous system, which can stop you from winding down enough to fall asleep.
In fact, too much alcohol will only cause you to drift into a light sedation, not a proper sleep. This means you’re missing those crucial sleep cycles.
Tip: If you enjoy drinking throughout the week, I recommend sticking to 1-2 beers or a glass of wine, depending on your alcohol tolerance.
If you start earlier (at lunchtime or in the afternoon), you can enjoy a couple more drinks than on weekdays, without alcohol affecting your sleep. Just make sure you always stay hydrated, and stop drinking 3-4 hours before bed.
6. Pay attention to what you’re eating
Do you get the late-night munchies?
Large meals before bed that are high in carbohydrates can raise your blood sugar, making it difficult to fall asleep.
You shouldn’t go to bed with an empty stomach either, you’ll risk struggling to fall asleep or waking from hunger throughout the night. You need to eat a balanced meal for dinner.
Tip: Stick to whole foods, but nothing too high in protein (as this might make you feel too full and uncomfortable) 2-3 hours before sleep.
If you feel the urge to snack before bedtime, don’t reach for the cookie jar. Instead, try a few nuts or something else that’s light and healthy.
7. Use Feng Shui techniques for better sleep
What does Feng Shui have to do with sleep?
Well, to give yourself the best chance of having a good slumber, your bedroom needs to be a peaceful and relaxing environment. You’ll struggle to wind down in a space where you’re used to being alert or stressed.
Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese practice that focuses on energy and placement in your everyday life to achieve balance.
This philosophy includes removing distractions (including devices that have electromagnetic fields) from your bedroom and creating an environment that welcomes good sleep.
Not at all!
Following Feng Shui is easier than you think.
A lot of us use our bedrooms to watch TV, work or study.
While you might not have somewhere else to put your television, you can charge your phone or tablet out of reach of your bed. (This habit also stops you from rolling over, grabbing your phone off the bedside table and browsing for 20 minutes when you first wake up.)
I had a Wi-Fi router beside my bed, so I moved it to another room, and now practice moving my laptop out of my bedroom before I go to sleep (I put my laptop in the kitchen cupboard so that it will be hard for me to reach).
Tip: Eliminate as many electronics from your bedroom as possible, and try not to study or work in bed. You should also clear away all your clutter each night.
When it comes time to purchase a new bed frame, opt for timber over metal for better sleep.
Check out this guide on sleep practices according to Feng Shui.
8. Practice meditation before bedtime
Do you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something?
Meditation is a great way to help your body get into a restful state, making it easier for you to unwind, clear your mind, and become sleepy.
This is the most powerful sleep tool I use when I feel stressed or anxious leading up to bedtime.
I usually do 5-10 minutes of meditation before going to bed and, when I’m done, I’m so ready to fall asleep. This is a great trick to use if you have an especially busy mind that keeps you awake in bed at night.
Meditation also helps me if I wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.
Tip: Schedule a few minutes before bed to meditate each night. If you’re new to meditation, try these guides to get started:
Insight Timer (free meditation app)
Free guided meditation by UCLA.
MyLife I love this YouTube channel. They also have a paid app (I’m not an affiliate).
9. Stretch your body before getting into bed
Who doesn’t love a good stretch?
This is a great way to fall asleep and get better quality sleep. Not only can it reduce stress and body pain, but it also improves your flexibility, muscle health, and circulation. This means you’re less likely to be uncomfortable in bed.
I suffered from intense shoulder and back pain, which disrupted my sleep.
Stretching worked wonders for my comfort, and I no longer wake up in pain throughout the night.
Tip: You don’t need to stretch for long periods of time. It’s more effective to stretch for a few minutes, a few times a day. If you feel like your body is extra stiff, you can try 20-30 minutes of yoga at the end of the day!
Check out these videos to get started:
Yogini in Melbourne: https://www.youtube.com/user/yoginimelbourne
10. Make sure your room is the right temperature
Don’t you just love feeling snuggled in bed?
But if you’re too hot or cold, you’ll struggle to fall asleep or you’ll wake from discomfort.
Your ideal room temperature should be about 65-68 degrees F (18-20 degrees C). This allows your body’s internal temperature to drop throughout the night, which helps you stay asleep.
Tip: Warm up by taking a bath. I always take a bath 1-2 hours before bed, it’s partly Japanese culture but taking a bath is more effective to warm your body than a shower. This also helps you relax.
+Bonus: Worry time
This is a bonus tip if you are waking up in the middle of the night worrying or feeling anxious about something.
I had trouble waking up at night lately worried about work and my counselor shared a great tip with me which I’ve been following for a week!
So what is that?
It’s called “Worry time”.
Try setting up a “worry time” to focus on all your worries for 20-30 minutes, then let them go.
Here are some good strategies:
1. Set worry time 2-3 hours before you sleep.
2. If you feel worried throughout the day, write down your worries and same them for your worry time.
3. If you start worrying outside of worry time, just remind yourself of the plan you made during your previous worry time.
Since I started “Worry Time” every day, I haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night trying to sort out things.
It’s time to get the sleep you deserve.
Incorporating these tips into your daily routine will help you get your sleep back on track.
You don’t need to try them all at once. Pick 1 or 2 new habits to get you started and build up from there.
Got any great sleep tips? Leave them in the comments below.
But can you improve your sleep quality when you’re busy and stressed?