In our last article, “Sleep: The X Factor,” we discussed the importance of sleep for supporting your work in the gym and the kitchen. Most of the time when we think about sleep, we tend to focus on quantity. The question is usually, “Did I get enough sleep?” But laying in bed for 8 hours isn’t the same as getting 8 hours of quality sleep.
What does it actually mean to get good quality sleep? We need to minimize the external stimulation in your sleeping environment, so your body can rest and recover instead of processing & reacting to stressors. Our bodies have certain environmental conditions that will allow us to fall asleep quickly, and stay asleep through the night. Humans have been sleeping for millenia. At no time in human history have there been more ways to mess up your sleep quality, than right now! Here are some practical ways to optimize your sleeping environment, to get the most out of your sleep and maximize the recovery you get overnight.
Tactic 1: Keep your room as dark as possible, & avoid screen time before bed.
Your body is very sensitive to light. Darkness is one of the strongest cues that your body uses to fall asleep and stay asleep. Electricity allows us to enjoy a brightly lit room 24/7, which certainly comes in handy at times. However, extraneous light in your sleep room can prevent you from staying in a deep, restful sleep. Your brain receives information from your body’s sensory organs while you’re asleep — which includes your skin. Your skin has photoreceptors that communicate with your brain just like any other sense. If you have lights on in your sleep room, your skin is telling your brain, “Hey it’s bright in here, that means it’s daytime, we should be awake!” and your sleep quality will suffer. Darken your sleep room as much as possible, and be especially wary of any bright LED lights on your electronics. Cover those suckers up!
The light from electronic screens also has the capacity to trick our brain into thinking it’s still daytime, and prevent restful sleep. Whenever possible, avoid screen time at least an hour before bed. Some newer devices have blue light filters that can also help block some of the sun-like light that cues our brain to stay awake. Apps like f.lux adjust the screen lighting based on the time of day, to spare your eyes from harsh blue light in the evenings.
Tactic 2: Consistent noise volume
This one is pretty simple. Loud noises interrupt your sleep. If you live in a city with lots of traffic, or in an apartment with noisy neighbors, you should take some steps to help those noises blend in to your environment. A white noise machine or simple floor fan can be a lifesaver in these scenarios. You can download a free white noise app on your phone, which is especially handy if you’re travelling and don’t want to haul a fan with you. The idea is to keep the level of noise consistent, so the intermittent car horns, crying babies, and other jarring sounds aren’t as noticeable during the night. Fewer noticeable noises means more rest for your brain.
Tactic 3: Consistency & calming down
Your bedtime routine should facilitate quality sleep, by helping you calm down and let go of the stress of your day. Having a consistent routine helps with this — especially a consistent sleep schedule. One of the best ways to start increasing your sleep quantity and quality is to make sure you’re going to bed and waking up around the same time every day.
The hour leading up to bedtime is an important one. It may take some experimentation to find the activities and routine that work best for you. Find a way to calm down your mind. For some people, this is journaling about their day. For others, reading before bed is helpful. Reading a novel is a great way to escape the stress of your day, and let your mind sink into a more relaxed state.
Many people struggle with anxiety at bedtime. All the things you forgot to do today, or need to do tomorrow, start invading your thoughts and before you know it, you’re wide awake again! One method to deal with this is to keep a small notebook and pencil on your bedside table. Before you turn off the lights to go to sleep, take a moment to write down those things you forgot to do, or the things you’re concerned about for the next day. Now they’re on the paper, and you don’t have to hold those thoughts in your head. Ask yourself this thought — is there actually anything I can do about it right this second? 99% of the time, the answer is no. So let it go! There are also many free meditation apps available that can help you develop a mental routine for bedtime.
Putting it all together
To get started, just pick one of these three tactics and make it your priority this week. Changing your sleep environment takes getting used to, even if the changes are for the better. If you’re used to sleeping with the TV on, sleeping in a totally dark room will feel foreign at first — but it’s worth it in the long run. Commit to trying it for at least a week, and see how you feel. Your brain and body will thank you!