10 Proven Ways to Improve Sleep Quality
“Please get to sleep,” I plead with myself as I read 1:20 a.m. on my clock. It has been about an hour since I first woke up.
I look at the clock again. It is now 2:20 a.m. and I am still up. My alarm will go off in less than three hours. Not a great way to start Monday. Ugh!
Eventually I drift off to sleep only to be awoken from some crazy dream by my alarm. I hit the snooze button. Just a few more minutes to sleep.
9 minutes later, my alarm goes off again. “I should really get up but just one more snooze time.”
The next alarm goes off and I start to think, “What if I just cancelled my morning clients or didn't show? Isn’t that okay at least once in my life? No, Jen. Get your rear up!” UGH!
Not getting good sleep can be frustrating, depressing, and well...tiring.
It is amazing how important sleep is for our well being. No other activity compares to the 30% or more of our time we spend sleeping. Yet, we often put little care into the quantity or quality of our sleep.
Getting extra rest can seem like you are lazy compared to the person “burning the midnight oil” or not as productive as “the early bird”. And living out the idea that “I’ll just sleep when I am dead” is harmful mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Why We Sleep
I recently read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD. He states that sleep is more important than exercise and nutrition. One, because your body needs that time to reset and repair itself as well as instill or forget memories of the day. Two, if you aren’t sleeping well, you will have less energy to work out and less desire to eat well. Not to mention you won’t be the most productive or available.
Dr. Walker also goes into great detail on how our sleep needs and patterns change as we age. Mid-childhood is when children finally establish a solid nights sleep. Teens don’t get tired until later. Older adults don’t need to sleep less. And it is harder to get quality sleep as we age.
He highly discourages the use of medicine or other sleep inducers as they create a false sleep state, cause medical and cognitive issues, and can be addictive.
So how can we get quality sleep without the aid of medicine or other chemicals? I am going to dive deep into ways to do that, but I’ll first share my sleep story as you may relate.
I’ve always enjoyed sleep. Napping on the weekends in high school or during the day in college. I have always been more of a morning person than a night owl. And this has definitely been the case the older I got with the desire to be in bed by 9 p.m. (earlier if I could) even on weekends. I just dwindle down when it gets late and my friends and family know it. That is me.
I don’t have a problem getting to bed at a reasonable time. It is staying asleep and getting quality sleep that has been a struggle. I wake up several times during the night. Toss and turn trying to go back to sleep. Sometimes getting up for an hour or so to work on things then going back to bed.
My days can be exhausting. I start with training clients at either 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. Monday through Friday. So my alarm goes off at 4 or 5 a.m. And that is later than when I worked at a fitness facility and my commute was much longer than 2 flights of stairs. (I have a training studio in my home and do online training.)
By the afternoon many times, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I would either lay my head down on my desk or lie on the floor in the living area with an alarm set for 30 minutes. A short rest helped me stay awake for my family in the evening.
Sleep Can Get Better
My journey to better sleep has progressed overtime. I’ve discovered what works well for me. Some sleep practices I knew without any additional suggestions and others have come from expert recommendations.
I am happy to report that I’m sleeping better now than I have in years. Or really ever. The more I think about it, my sleep quality in... College? Definitely not good. Young adulthood? It was so-so. After my daughter was born? Absolutely not good.
My sleep quality has improved significantly. Now, I can tell that I could use more sleep. But my quantity of sleep won’t change until the time when I am no longer working with early morning clients. I love training, so I don’t mind getting up that early and getting the day started.
So here are the sleeping habits I use to get more quality sleep. I am listing them in order of when I started incorporating them in my nightly routine. I also give suggestions for how you can apply them. It is all about creating an environment for success.
10 Habits To Improve Sleep Quality
Unfortunately, it took too many years for me to get this right. I hope after you read about my experience you will be off to get a better night's sleep quicker than I was.
View infographic of these 10 ways.
1. Keep the room dark.
I like the rooms where I sleep dark. No glow of a light. Shades closed. When we travel and sleep at a hotel, I use a towel or pillow to block the light coming from the hallway through the bottom of the door. Though I have never used blackout curtains in my bedroom, I also appreciate them when I travel. As a baby, my daughter slept better with blackout curtains. Even at 12 years old, she likes her room dark.
Application: Maybe too much light is keeping you up. Consider removing or covering anything that creates or reflects light. If your bedside clock lights up, flip it to lay face down. Change your curtains to be blackout ones. Keep your bedroom door closed if there is any light from the hall.
2. Use a type of white noise.
I am a light sleeper. Noises outside easily wake me. I need to feel like nothing else is going on in the world around me when I sleep. I either use a white noise app or a fan, especially in the summer months. Again when traveling, we use a white noise app on our phones. I’ve used the radio on a static station. Same for my daughter. As a baby she used white noise. I was concerned about the addiction of white noise and whether I need to adjust to not have it. But from what I have read, if it helps you sleep, use it.
Application: If you find outside noises wake you wake up, you may want to try a white noise app or clock. The White Noise Lite is the free app I use. I prefer the “brown noise”, but my daughter likes the ocean waves. This may be helpful when trying to get good sleep while traveling. Also, a fan can help block out extra noise. The goal is to create a successful sleep environment.
3. Keep the room cooler.
One favorite good sleep memory comes from when we lived in an apartment in North Carolina and would sleep with the window right next to my side of the bed partially open. The cool, crisp winter air felt so good for this expecting momma.
I don’t sleep well when the temperature in the room is too warm or the covers are too thick. I like the air turned down at night, lighter blankets to sleep under, and the use of a fan in the summer months. Sometimes I have to kick one out from under the covers to cool my body down. For the rare nights I get cold, I keep a throw blanket by my bed.
Dr. Matthews states in his book, “Thermal environment...is perhaps the most under-appreciated factor for determining the ease at which you will fall asleep tonight, and the quality of sleep you will obtain.” He goes on to mention that our body temperature needs to drop 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit for initial sleep and the ideal bedroom temperature for sleep of most people is 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Application: If you wake up hot at night, consider dropping the temperature of your room at night. You can either adjust the thermostat, use a fan, and/or open a window. Also, use lighter sheets and blankets. As lovely as big duvets are, using one is like sleeping in an oven for me.
4. Use a snuggle item.
At one point in my early adulthood, I decided I was too old to sleep with a stuffed animal. So I stopped. And my sleep suffered. Not by much, so I kept not using one. Then, I started to realize how I didn't sleep as well when my husband isn’t next to me. He travels often and for long periods of time. So to help me sleep better when he is away, I started putting pillows around me and snuggling with a stuffed bear, Mr. Cuddles, my daughter made for him at Build A Bear. I started to sleep much better when he was away. I felt more snuggled in. And when he is home, I still snuggle with the bear or like to have a pillow next to me. I was briefly concerned about the dependence I mentioned above, but it made me sleep better, so who cares that I am 40 years old and sleep snuggling with something.
Application: You might want to try snuggling down too. It can be like the feeling of your parents tucking you in. It makes you feel safer and therefore sleep better. Try extra pillows around you or a weighted blanket, which have shown to improve anxiety, stress, and sleeping disorders. Don’t be ashamed to snuggle with your cuddly bear. Apparently around 40% of adults sleep with a stuffed animal.
5. Go to bed at the same time.
Going to bed at the same time evolved more after I had a child. She had a bedtime, I needed one, too, in order to get as much quantity sleep as I could. I could easily stay up and work on things, but being so tired during the day I needed to try and get as much sleep as I could.
I have picked 9 p.m. as the time I start getting myself ready for bed on the nights before a work day. It may sound lame but I have a curfew of 9 p.m. and the latest I keep my light on is 10 p.m. As an added bonus, you can decrease your risk for cardiometabolic diseases such as high blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels with a regular bedtime routine.
Application: If you currently go to bed late, first start with the habit of getting in bed earlier. Set a bedtime alarm as a reminder. Move your bedtime back incrementally, if you have a huge jump you want to make in your bedtime.
6. Get a mouthguard.
Neck pain often caused me to wake up in the middle of the night. Also during the day, I would have such neck and upper shoulder tightness. It was painful and would worsen when I was stressed. I also believe I ended up with some TMJ issues because of it.
I am not sure who made the suggestion that I might grind my teeth at night and should see about getting a mouth guard from my dentist. I am thankful for whoever gave me the idea. I spoke with my dentist, got a fitted mouth guard and whoa! What a difference in my sleep and the tightness in my neck and shoulders.
If you aren’t familiar with what a night guard is and how it works, it is essentially a custom molded mouthpiece you wear over the top of your teeth as you sleep a night. It opens the mouth just a little bit to relax the jaw and keeps your teeth from grinding against each other. From the way mine has worn down, I can tell I grind a lot.
Application: If you struggle with tight neck and shoulders, you may be grinding your teeth at night as well. So talk with your dentist. This also leads me to sleep testing. I have never had a sleep study. But if you aren’t sleeping well and you have been told by your partner that you snore at night or stop breathing, talk with your doctor about being tested for sleep apnea.
7. Read a real book before turning out the light.
I have read multiple articles about how staring at a screen prior to turning out the light hurts your sleep. My days were so busy that sometimes I would take my laptop to bed with me so I could write emails, program for clients, work on articles, and other business related things. It was not a good idea to work while I was in bed, but I wanted to abide by 9 p.m. in my bed rule, plus my husband and I have always agreed to go to bed at the same time.
To minimize the impact of screen light, I started opening a book to read before I turned out my light. I may only read a page or two, but it helped me get my eyes off a screen before bed. I am not a big reader. I am also a slow reader. But this habit of reading before bed is helping me get through books I have been wanting to read.
Application: If you tend to look at a screen before going to bed, consider giving yourself a cut off time and pick up a real book or an e-reader, like Kindle Whitepaper. Avoiding using an e-reader on a tablet or phone. As convenient as that is, the blue light from those screens decreases the release of melatonin, which helps you fall asleep, and therefore makes it harder to get tired. You could also use that time to write in a journal.
8. Drink less alcohol.
I started to see that on the evenings I decided to have alcohol, the less quality sleep I got. Once I realized that my sleep was suffering because of drinking alcohol, the less I wanted to have it. I cherish my weekend sleeping and those nights were the ones that were being impacted the most. What am I thinking messing with my longer sleep nights and weekend rest from a full work week? Needless to say, having a couple of drinks wasn't worth my sleep loss. As well as the extra calories it gave me. So, I drink much less now.
The most misunderstood of all sleep aids, outside of prescription sleeping pills, is alcohol according to Dr. Matthews. Alcohol does not put in you a natural sleep state; it acts more like “a light form of anesthesia.” Once asleep, alcohol will fragment sleep and block the brain from producing REM or dream sleep to name a few effects.
Application: Next time you have a couple of drinks, take note of how you sleep. Did you wake up more, wake up not feeling as rested, toss and turn more, have longer periods where you were laying in bed awake? Compare it to how your sleep is when you don’t have any drinks. Desiring to have alcohol every or most nights is a habit that has developed and you will need work on retraining the brain to desire differently. This retraining won’t be easy and will take some effort. To help you be successful, be clear why this is important to you, create a success plan that includes how you will overcome challenges, what environmental changes you need to make, and set up an accountability system.
9. Move your phone away from the bed.
This is another one that I had read multiple articles on how you shouldn’t sleep with your phone next to you. How I continued to justify having it was in case my early morning client texted me to say he or she wasn’t going to make the session then I could get another extra hour or sleep. But then I would wake up multiple times a night and look at my phone to see if I got a text. Occasionally it would happen. But not enough that I needed to keep it there. Deciding to move it away from my nightstand, helped me in a couple of ways.
One, I wasn’t getting as much screen time before bed. Even though my schedule had shifted so I had more time during the day to get my work done and wasn’t taking work to bed with me, I was then aimlessly scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. I had checked the social media multiple times - too many times - during the day, so it wasn’t like I was “catching up”. But it would distract me from getting to my book and therefore also delaying when I turned out my light.
Two, if I woke in the middle of the night, I went right back to sleep. With the phone next to me, I would look at it when I woke up in the middle of the night. And many times I wouldn’t go right back to sleep. Sometimes I would be wide awake for so long I would get up, irritated my alarm was going off in a few hours. Now with not having my phone next to me, I may still wake up about two or three times a night (must be associated with my sleep cycle) and look at the clock next to me, but I go right back to sleep.
Application: Maybe you are like the many Americans who sleep with their phone right next time to them. Making the change keep it away from your bed can be hard. But not having it by your bed at night doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep it in your room with you. Just choose to put it or charge it someplace else. If you keep your phone next to you so you won’t miss an emergency call from a loved one, add those contacts to your favorite list so if they were to call, you will still get it even if your phone is on do not disturb. If you use it for an alarm, see my next point. The need to have it is more mental than necessary. At least in my case.
10. Stop hitting the snooze button.
Getting rid of hitting the snooze button was the main reason I moved my phone away from my bed. I read in Why We Sleep that it is a shock to your heart when the alarm goes off. You are peacefully sleeping and you are suddenly awoken causing a spike in your heart rate. And when that happens almost every day, year after year, that can have a big impact on the heart and increase blood pressure and heart rate. Now add doing that a few times a row most mornings because of hitting the snooze, the damage could be greater.
I have been a snooze hitter for years. I will set the alarm 15 minutes or so earlier than I need so I can hit the snooze button twice before I really have it to get up. It was a trick I played on myself to think I could get more sleep. Then I would finally drag myself out of the bed not feeling very rested...UGH!
So since I use my phone as my alarm, I decided to put my phone in the bathroom for the night. Having it charging in my bathroom helped with both not spending time on my phone before bed as well not hitting the snooze button. The phone on my alarm goes off and I have to get out of bed to turn it off. This has been my most recent change and has been a huge game changer. It not only makes me feel better to not be so attached to my phone, but also I wake up more rested from not hitting the snooze anymore.
Application: Over 50% of Americans hit the snooze button. If you are one and want to make the change to not using the snooze, you could set your alarm for later, put your alarm clock in a different part of your room, or get an alarm clock that requires extra work for you to turn it off. The one shaped like a dumbbell, weighs 30 pounds, and you have to swing 30 times before it shuts off is the best one I have seen. Part with the snooze, wake up more rested, and protect your heart.
Oh, if there is a text from my early client that they won’t make their session, I don’t get back in bed. I still get myself ready and just use that time to work so I have more free time later in the day.
Dr. Walker also mentioned that you should wake up at the same time every day. That you can’t ever catch up on sleep.
While I see the importance, that is one strategy I haven’t tried yet and I’m not sure if I will. As I mentioned before, I cherish my weekend sleeping. I love that I don’t have to wake up to an alarm on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It brings me joy just thinking about it. So at this point, I won’t use an alarm on the weekends to wake up at 5 a.m. I will take my two to three extra hours of sleep and let my body just rise naturally.
Where Should You Start?
There may be several sleep habit tactics you want to try at this point.
As you wonder how you could improve your sleep, take inventory of what your body needs and doesn’t like and how to create an environment to support good sleep.
These habits developed over time for me. So start by trying a couple of them and see if they work for you. Most of us can’t change the total number of hours of sleep we get at night, but we can focus on the quality of it.
Our method with healthy habits is:
- Start small
- Identify challenges
- Create a plan
- Set up accountability
- Evaluate how it works.
You could use our Healthy Habit Starter Guide to get started.
If you want more personalized help, schedule a call to let us help you with this important wellness factor. Yep, we help you with sleep as well as nutrition, movement, and stress.
A word of encouragement for those of you with kids, both your quality and quantity of sleep may not be ideal. In this season of life, get sleep when you can and use the practices listed above when you can.
To getting better quality sleep,