3 Ways You Can Genuinely Get Better Sleep
Nobody feels at the top of their game after getting a bad night’s sleep. If you only got a handful of hours last night (or the sleep you did get wasn’t very high-quality) the next day, you might feel groggy, sluggish, have trouble making connections, and forget basic things — like where your sunglasses are, especially when they’re right on top of your head. But if you have a pattern of sleeping poorly, the problems you might experience go way beyond the next day’s need for an excessive amount of caffeine. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension, higher blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. Yup, it’s that serious.
“I call sleep the ‘shock absorber’ of your life,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist. “Sleep affects every organ system and every disease state. Literally everything you do requires good sleep to do it well — it’s critical for performance and health.”
So in order to learn a few actual, legit ways to get some genuinely better sleep, we spoke with sleep medicine physician Olufunke Afolabi-Brown, MBBS, founder of Restful Sleep MD, a board-certified pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine physician.
1. Learn your patterns — and prep ahead if you’re a night owl
“This is something I do with my clients,” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says. “If you’re trying to lose weight, you can’t just jump on a random diet; you have to think about what works for you. The same goes with sleep.”
Dr. Afolabi-Brown recommends spending one to two weeks using a sleep diary to really understand your current patterns and behaviors. Keep note of what time you get into bed and wake up, and if note any periods you’re awake in the middle of the night, as well. “Study yourself a little bit,” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says. “After that, you can start working your way backwards to set yourself up for successful sleep.” For people who have a lot more energy in the evening and enjoy staying up later, Dr. Afolabi-Brown recommends you work with your natural rhythms rather than try to change yourself.
“Acknowledging your chronotype,” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says. “If your work starts at 9am, there are things you could do in the evening to make your morning much easier. You might pick out your clothes, pack your lunch, have breakfast ready to go, and take a shower at night. This way, you can sleep in as much as possible.”
2. Ease into a wind-down routine
In order to get into the right headspace to really drift off and relax, you need a routine that tells your brain it’s time for bed. There are a whole lot of options for creating a wind-down routine, from the simple (stretching) to the complex (taking a bath with lavender oils and candles), but the most important thing, according to Dr. Afolabi-Brown, is that it works for you.
One option is a “body scan,” a meditation technique in which you focus on your whole body, starting at your toes and working your way up to your head, feeling your muscles slowly relax. But this practice doesn’t work for everybody — and if you want to start a new practice like this, you should take it slowly.
“You need to give yourself time to get used to it,” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says. “Don’t just jump into bed and start a body scan or any other wind-down practice. Sleep should not be work. Body scans can be really helpful for getting your body ready for sleep, but if that’s something you want to do, practice it one or two minutes during the day so you can start getting used to it.”
One downside to just jumping into a new wind-down routine, especially a meditation practice or body scan, is that it might end up producing more anxiety because you’re “doing it wrong.” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says that there’s a good way to get yourself out of this spiral, however.
“If you start to realize that you’re catastrophizing, and you start to feel that anxiety coming, get out of bed,” she says. “Go and do something really boring that can distract you from that spiral.”
3. Don’t reward your brain for staying awake
Dr. Afolabi-Brown recommends that if you do find yourself waking up in the night and have trouble falling back asleep or find it difficult to fall asleep when you first get into bed, you should try to do something that isn’t especially engaging, stressful, or agitating, like folding laundry, or reading an old, favorite book that isn’t very exciting.
She especially suggests that you try not to give into the temptation to watch TV or play on your phone. “If you start watching a show you love or get on social media, your brain gets rewarded for staying awake, and then you want to stay up,” Dr. Afolabi-Brown says.
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