Science 101

5 Ways to Sleep Better, According to Science

A guide to the best sleep of (and for) your life.

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Sleep, the 36 percent of our lives where we do not eat, drink or reproduce, is vital downtime for the body. If it weren’t, from an evolutionary perspective, we’d sleep less. This third of life is vital for memory consolidation and brain processing, clearing of toxins (like beta-amyloid, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s), rebuilding of metabolic pathways, and general physiological housekeeping. Good sleep can help regulate weight, increase cognitive problem solving, reduce risk of chronic diseases and make you a happier, healthier, more glowing person.

So why does it feel so difficult to get good sleep? Probably because we’re overthinking it.

So why does it feel so difficult to get good sleep? Probably because we’re overthinking it. “It’s really important to be chilled about these things,” says sleep expert Russell Foster, Ph.D., a circadian neuroscientist for the University of Oxford and author of  Sleep: A Very Short Introduction. “Your sleep biology is fine.” From the mouth of the man who wrote a (if not the) book on sleep, it’s calming to know things will be alright. Tonight, you shall slumber. And if you retain nothing else, remember, the number one rule for good sleep is: chill out.

The Science of Good Sleep

And all the main processes of entering sleep start with your brain.

“The flip flop states between consciousness and sleep involve an interaction of all the key brain neurotransmitter systems and multiple brain structures,” Foster says.

This involves two main players: the circadian clock, which provides our “awake-driving stimulus,” and the homeostatic drive, or the “sleep crasher.” This “two-process model” of sleep regulation was proposed by Alexander Borbély at the University of Zurich in 1982.

The homeostatic drive creates sleep pressure, which builds throughout the day, while the clock resists the pressure until it’s ready, then the two systems align and send you off to sleep. Overnight, the sleep pressure resets. Biologically, sleep pressure comes from a number of compounds, most notably adenosine, a breakdown product of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the energy currency of cells. And caffeine, the wakefulness drug of choice, works by blocking adenosine receptors.

Tired people are more prone to remember negative memories, feel more anxious and impulsive and can be less creative and empathetic.

Napping can also reset sleep pressure, so choose your nap timing and length wisely. Foster is on-board for a quick, 20-minute snooze if you feel you need it, but don’t overindulge. “If you’re pushing back sleep pressure with a nap, then you’re going to delay sleep onset at night,” he noted.

And it’s important to note that tiredness can be hugely disruptive. Tired people are more prone to remember negative memories, feel more anxious and impulsive and can be less creative and empathetic, Foster warns. “If you are tired, be aware you are going to make poorer decisions,” he says.

So now, back to being chilled out about this whole thing. Here’s what to do ensure you achieve the sleep you need.

Diet & Exercise

First and foremost, limit or eliminate caffeine consumption after noon. Caffeine has a half-life of three to seven hours, so it can block those adenosine receptors late into the night. Foster also advises avoiding large meals in the evening. You don’t want to go to bed on a full stomach, as eating big meals late in the evening has been linked to weight gain and throws off the natural timing of your digestive clock. Digestion includes shutting down and repairing overnight, so adding new food to the system late “wakes up” and restarts the digestive process. Let it rest while you rest.

Alcohol, too, can disrupt important sleep processes in the brain, as it’s a sedative. So although those few glasses of pinot might sedate you nicely, they’ve also been linked to an increase in sleep disruption.

Vigorous exercise can also benefit better sleep, so long as it’s completed earlier in the day, while light exercise like yoga and stretching can be relaxing and okay to do before bedtime. Another way to promote sleep? Sex, during which the body tends to lose heat, lowering your body temperature and helping you reach a better slumber.

Entertainment & Screens

Although the effects of blue light and its impact on circadian rhythms is a controversial topic, Foster believes screens are not as disruptive as they’re made out to be. Still, he recommends leaving your phone in another room and keeping television out of the bedroom. He also suggests avoiding so-called data from sleep apps that promise to help track sleep, as “they are deeply inaccurate.” The only reliable way to track brain activity is via electrodes connected to the skull, Foster says, which no app can do. Trying to track your sleep will only cause stress, which will hurt your sleep, he says.

Light & Temperature

To keep things moving toward sleep, Foster recommends minimizing light exposure at least 30 minutes before sleep. Bathrooms, which Foster says tend to run very bright, can cause issues at night, as brushing your teeth shortly before bed under a bright light can increase alertness and wake you up. In the bedroom, use blackout blinds if the street light is noticeably bright.

Sleep initiation comes with a slight drop in core body temperature, so work with the body, instead of against it, by keeping the room temperature lower.

Stress & Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can be culprits of disrupted sleep. At bedtime, it’s key to engage in relaxing activities. Meditation. Mindfulness. A casual conversation. Keep the lights low. Listen to calm music. And maybe even light a candle — smell associations can help trigger sleep, Foster says (just be sure to blow out the candle before you fall asleep).

"And if you wake in the middle of your sleep, don’t worry. Biologically, you’re no worse off if you do.” Try your best to stay relaxed and you’ll return to the sleep your body needs.

Consistency in Routine

Everyone is different. Some people need only six hours. Some need nine. Some are night owls. Some are early birds. Your genes are unique. Your clock is unique. Your sleep needs to develop over time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s recommended an infant sleeps for 12-16 hours a day, teens 8-10 hours, and adults 7-9 hours. So, continue to assess whether your routine is working — and then stick with it. The more consistent you are, the better sleep you will get.

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