When it comes to your health and wellness, getting sufficient shut-eye is as important as something like nutrition or exercise. Because at the end of the day (no pun intended), quality of sleep affects your days just as much as it does your nights.
Below, we outline 16 behavioral tips and strategies to try if you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, but remember: everyone's biochemistry is different, which means sleep needs, goals, and struggles are different too. Start with just one or two techniques, see if they work for you, and go from there.
During your nighttime, pre-sleep routine
1. 4-7-8 deep breathing exercise
Inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. It’s up to you to determine the pace.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Breathing exercises like this one help you rest and relax by lowering your sympathetic activation (the body’s fight or flight system), thus making it easier for the sleep process to unfold.
2. Closure of the day exercise
Reflect on your day, make a to-do list for the following day, and address any thoughts that come up. This practice of setting aside time at the end of each day will help you essentially “close up shop” and prevent any free-floating thoughts from arising at bedtime or in the middle of the night.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Although we are generally less distracted at nighttime, the mind may start to kick around thoughts from the day that were not addressed. Completing this “closure of the day” reflection exercise will signal that you have already thought about these things and prevent your mind from running off in thought during dedicated sleep time.
3. Mindfulness exercise
Mindfulness isn’t a relaxation technique per se; what it does is help you be present and more aware in any state that you’re in. We recommend having a loved one read the guide below (alternatively, you can record yourself):
Get comfortable, sitting with your feet flat on the floor if possible. If you feel comfortable, you can close your eyes. Otherwise, soften your gaze to something in the distance. Feel your body sitting in the chair and just notice how that feels for you. (pause) If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the moment. (pause) Now gently bring your attention and awareness to your breath, not changing it but simply noticing it. (pause) Notice what it feels like as you breathe in and notice what it feels like when you breathe out. Again, not changing the pace of your breathing, but just noticing. If your mind wanders, just bring it back. (pause) Now gently bring your attention to any sounds in your environment. Notice the sound of my voice, the hum of any A/C running, or outside noises. (pause) If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back. Now gently bring your awareness and attention back to the present moment.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Mindfulness is a way to pay attention with purpose to the present moment which, in turn, helps you be more present in your everyday life. By calming racing thoughts and observing the active mind, guided exercises like this one may indirectly help you sleep better.
READ MORE: How Stress Affects Your Sleep
4. Engage in other relaxing activities
...such as reading content that isn’t too engaging or taking a warm bath.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Activities that are too stimulating run interference with the onset and maintenance of sleep by increasing the body’s sympathetic activation.
5. Limit blue light exposure to no more than 1-2 hours prior to bedtime
If you’re unable to do so (social media can be SO tempting!), use a blue light blocker app or glasses.
The science behind why this is beneficial: The light receptors in the eyes are linked to the time-keeper in the brain that regulates when we sleep and when we are awake (called the circadian rhythm). Since blue light indicates wakefulness, we do not want to confuse this signal within 1-2 hours prior to bedtime.
6. Also limit bright light exposure to no more than 1-2 hours prior to bedtime
The science here is the same: bright light indicates wakefulness, which can cause sleeplessness, which isn’t what we want come bedtime.
7. Reduce liquids
Ideally 1-3 hours before bed, if possible.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Bathroom breaks can disrupt regular sleep, and addressing liquid intake is the first way to troubleshoot the problem. If it persists, be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider.
READ MORE: The 15 Best + Worst Foods For Your Sleep
8. Engage in light exercise
A mind-body practice such as yoga, qigong, or tai chi would be perfect here.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Engaging in movement allows you to wind down at the conclusion of the day, but you want to prioritize low-intensity exercise. As our friends at Total Shape would emphasize in their fitness plans, this is one way, you’ll avoid getting your heart pumping, which increases core body temperature at a time when it should be dropping in preparation for sleep onset.
9. Make sure the bedroom is a cool and comfortable temperature
If need be, turn on your thermostat/AC or invest in a fan.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Uncomfortable environments are physiologically activating and can run interference with the onset and/or maintenance of sleep. During certain sleep stages, our bodies do not thermo-regulate as much, so if the environment is too hot or cold, it can lead to sleep disruptions. That’s why we recommend making the bedroom a cool, comfortable temperature.
10. Refrain from eating a large meal within three hours of bedtime
If you’re hungry within that window, try reducing the quantity to a small bedtime snack and steering clear of carbohydrate-heavy, high-fat, fried, and/or spicy foods.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Large meals engage the digestive system to work on processing the food. This can be particularly bothersome if the foods have a high glycemic index, since they’ll spike your blood sugar.
If you can’t fall asleep
11. Avoid laying there, “trying” to sleep
If you’re in bed and not sleeping after 20-30 minutes (and not feeling sleepy), then engage in a more restful activity. Examples include reading a non-stimulating book under dim lighting or going to a different room to perform the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Getting out of bed to perform the relaxing activity is ideal, but if this is challenging or impossible, feel free to give it a go in bed.
The science behind why this is beneficial: The act of “trying” to sleep when you don’t feel sleepy engages the body’s sympathetic activation system, which can run interference with sleep.
12. Engage in a progressive muscle relaxation exercise
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in for 4-10 seconds, then relaxing them as you breathe out. Just be sure you’re not tensing to the point of pain or uncomfortable cramping. Relax for 15-20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Stress leads to muscle tension, which makes it difficult for the physical body to relax, which makes you even more stressed. And repeat. And repeat. By engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, you’ll calm your physical body and, as a result, your anxiety levels.
13. Avoid taking naps during the day
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, naps may not be your best bet. That being said, not everyone’s situation is the same. Sometimes people have to nap to help them through the remainder of the day, so if you must, consider if it’s possible to decrease the duration to get enough sleep at night.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Napping during the day decreases the “hunger” for sleep come nighttime.
If you wake up in the middle of the night
14. Avoid clock watching
Turn the clock around before you go to sleep and avoid the temptation to look at the time should you wake up in the middle of the night.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Seeing the time when waking up in the middle of the night or early morning can trigger a feeling of pressure to get back to sleep, thus activating the sympathetic system. Also, if your alarm clock has a screen, the blue light can trigger the light receptors in your eyes which, in turn, signal the timekeeper in your brain to be awake.
15. Limit sleep disruptions from your partner’s snoring
We recommend earplugs or white noise machines. It also may be wise for your partner to discuss his/her snoring patterns with a healthcare provider, as it may be a symptom of a medical condition/sleep disorder like Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
The science behind why this is beneficial: The brain does not shut off at night while we sleep. Instead, it “downregulates” in order to continue being able to respond to threats such as a fire alarm going off. External noises may fragment sleep as the brain gets pulled to attend to the noise and ensure it does not need to respond.
If you wake up too early
16. Stay restful in order to allow any remaining sleep to unfold
If you’re naturally waking up within 1-3 hours prior to your desired wake time, stay restful until then. This can include the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, reading non-engaging content under dim light, or focusing on a time you felt very calm and relaxed (e.g., visiting a museum on vacation, fishing, etc).
The science behind why this is beneficial: In the early morning hours, there is not as much biological pressure to sleep as there was at the start of the night. However, with increased stress or worry, the last bits of sleepiness are suppressed. Engaging in a quiet, restful activity (or the 4-7-8 breathing exercise) will allow for any remaining sleep to unfold if it is going to. Remember, you cannot force sleep, so the goal here is to remain as restful as possible rather than “trying” to get back to sleep.