6 Steps to Healthier Sleep

Getting seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep every night is one of the most significant things we can do to improve our health. Better yet, it’s absolutely free. Yet many people are sleep-deprived.

Some of the root causes of sleep deprivation are difficult to fix—like being a parent of young children, a night-shift worker, or someone who suffers from a sleep disorder. But many factors that reduce sleep quantity and quality are easy to fix. Here are my favorite “life hacks:”

Improve your sleep, your health, and your longevity.

  1. Limit your coffee intake to 1-2 cups a day and don’t ingest any caffeine after noon. Do you rely on a cup o’ joe to perk you up during a dreary afternoon at work? You could be damaging your sleep at night. Though we’ve all met folks who can sip espresso after dinner and still sleep soundly, most of us metabolize caffeine much more slowly. Nixing coffee in the afternoons ensures the caffeine is out of your system before it’s time to sleep.
  2. Get yourself into the sunshine during the day. When I work in the garden all day, I sleep very soundly and you probably do too. Here’s why: For most of our human history, we got lots of sunshine during the day as we labored outside, and we slept in almost total darkness at night.

Modern life has changed that pretty quickly over the last 100 years or so, but our bodies and our circadian rhythms haven’t evolved enough to compensate for these drastic environmental changes. Most of us confuse our natural circadian rhythms by working inside offices all day, and coming home to blazing electrical lighting and blue-light-emitting devices at night. To leverage our natural circadian rhythms, we can take simple steps to help our bodies understand when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to be asleep.

Here’s what I want you to do: Every day at midday, take yourself for a 20-minute walk outside. Expose as much of your skin as possible. Don’t wear sunglasses and don’t wear sunscreen during this short walk. Your job is to get vitamin D, help your body understand that it’s daytime, and raise your serotonin levels.

Tip: Sometimes, the busy executives I coach say that such breaks are impossible, but most figure out how to adapt their routines. Some make phone calls during these strolls. Others take a colleague along and use the time to communicate. Some just take the time to think and strategize. Do all you can to implement this hack, and I promise the effects will be transformative for your sleep quality and your overall mood.

  1. Get rid of the blue light before you turn in. Just as you walk at midday to help your body understand that it’s daytime, you must also take concrete steps to help your body understand when it’s nighttime and time to sleep. If you spend your evenings checking emails on your phone, watching movies on your iPad, or reading electronic books, you’re exposing your body to blue light, which inhibits the production of melatonin (the hormone that helps you sleep).

During the one or two hours before bedtime, extinguish any device that is shoving blue light into your face and fooling your body into thinking it’s time to rock and roll. Read print books instead of ebooks, which puts the light source behind you instead of directly into your eyes. Or listen to audiobooks or podcasts.

Of all my hacks for sleeping well, limiting device use is probably the hardest for people to actually do. If you absolutely must be on your devices, alter the settings to warm up the light they emit. Put your Apple devices on Night Shift of f.lux and your Android devices on Twilight. These kinds of tools have timers that automatically shift your devices into the warmer parts of the spectrum at the same time every evening.

Tip: If you experience eye strain or headaches during long work days flooded with blue light, using these tools during the day can help.

  1. Limit alcohol. Yes, craft cocktails or some wine in the evening may make you feel sleepy, but after several hours, alcohol actually acts as a stimulant that disrupts your sleep cycle and awakens you during the night as your body processes the alcohol. If you must imbibe, do so moderately during “cocktail hour”—not later as a “nightcap.”
  2. Make your bedroom completely dark. “Who cares?” you may ask. “My eyes are closed anyway!” Trust me. You will sleep more deeply when it’s completely dark. If you’ve ever slept in a bedroom located in a basement, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Dim anything that emits light, such as the digits on your alarm clock or the steady glow of your phone charger. If there are street lights outside, treat yourself to some blackout curtains.
  3. Drop the temperature by 10 degrees at bedtime. Your body temperature naturally dips in the evening and begins to rise slightly at about 5:00 in the morning. Experts recommend that you keep your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees to coincide with your body’s natural temperature fluctuations and to get the highest quality sleep. I recommend 60 degrees.

Bright Idea: You’ll feel less groggy in the mornings if you awaken during the lighter stages of your sleep cycle. If you awaken naturally without an alarm clock, you’ll typically awaken during stage 1 or 2 of a cycle.

The drawback of conventional alarm clocks is that they don’t know where in your sleep cycle you are. If you download the free Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock and place your smartphone on your bedside table, it will sense your movements as you sleep and intuit when you’re at the lightest stages of your cycle. To set the alarm, you specify the time range you’d like to wake up and the app will pick the best time. It also maps your sleep cycles so that you can see how much deep, restorative, health-giving sleep you are getting during the night. Sweet dreams!