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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in three adults gets fewer than six hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation is linked to car accidents, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, cancer, depression, and even death. Everyone knows that a full night’s sleep (7–9 hours) is important to your health. That’s a given. So why are people so bad at getting the sleep they need?
Long work hours, chronic stress, insomnia, and just plain restlessness keep many people from getting the sleep they need. More serious conditions like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless leg syndrome (RLS), anemia, or thyroid disorders might also keep you from getting the rest you need. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can take control of your sleep patterns with these six tips for a better night’s sleep. And better yet, you can do it without potentially addictive sleeping pills.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in three adults gets fewer than six hours of sleep per night.
- Basic “sleep hygiene” includes things like sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding screens before bedtime, and not eating right before bed.
- If you’re having trouble sleeping, odds are, you’re breaking at least a few of these six rules.
Six tips for better sleep
Basic “sleep hygiene” includes things like sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding screens before bedtime, and not eating right before bed. These tips might seem simple, but don’t underestimate how effective they can be—especially when you combine techniques. If you’re having trouble sleeping, odds are, you’re breaking at least a few of these rules.
1. Go to bed at the same time every night
One of the fastest ways to derail a good night’s sleep is by changing what time you go to bed and wake up every day. There’s a reason they call it the circadian “rhythm.” Even though everyone has a slightly different internal clock—some people are early risers, others are night owls—your body craves consistent sleep. Stick to a set bedtime and wake up around the same time—even on weekends.
A common myth is that you can “catch up” on missed sleep by sleeping 12 hours the next day. Sleeping in doesn’t recharge you like a drained battery. All it does is confuse your body’s natural rhythm and disrupt the chemical and hormonal signals that separate your body’s waking and sleeping functions. Keep the line between sleep and waking hours consistent—whenever that may be—and you’ll likely notice an immediate improvement in the quality of your sleep.
2. Use the bedroom just for sleep
The idea here is similar to the previous tip. Your body craves obvious, consistent signals. Sunlight = Wake up. Late-night = Go to sleep. When you get into bed, the smell (yup), warmth, and soft environment tell your body that it’s bedtime. When you work on your laptop in bed and swipe through your phone while you lie on your side all night, you’re sending mixed messages to your brain. Encourage regular sleep patterns by creating an environment that’s dedicated to sleep.
3. Turn off your phone
If you have trouble sleeping, the number one tip is to stop using screens (e.g., laptop, tv, phone) at least one hour before bed. Your circadian rhythm is tied to sunlight. When you expose your retinas to a non-stop barrage of blue light (the light from your phone and other screens), it stops your brain from making the hormones that put you to sleep. Your brain confuses the light from your smartphone with the sun and keeps you up all night.
On another level, scrolling through endless news feeds and homepages is almost designed to induce insomnia. Your brain isn’t designed for a constant flow of information, especially right before bed. If you absolutely can’t disconnect at the end of the day, take advantage of “night mode” on most smartphones, which automatically shifts your screen’s brightness and color from blue to less harmful yellow light. The visual cue of your phone “going yellow” is a great way to signal that you’re done for the day.
Unplugging at the end of the day not only helps balance out your circadian rhythm, but it also gives your mind and body the time and space it needs to wind down after a full day of activity and experiences. That hour of time might seem small, but it can help more than you can imagine.
4. Get some exercise
Regular physical exercise helps establish regular sleep patterns for a number of reasons, including hormone secretion and plain old fatigue (working out is hard). The secret to exercise-induced sleep is timing. Try to exercise at least four hours before bed so you can wind down naturally.
5. Avoid coffee in the afternoon
Don’t panic. You don’t have to switch to decaf to get a good night’s sleep. It’s more about when you drink coffee.
Even though the initial jolt of caffeine hits your body pretty quickly (in about 30 minutes), the lingering effects can stay in your system for hours. And that’s bad for your sleep. In fact, the half-life of caffeine (aka how long it affects your adenosine receptors) is anywhere from 4–6 hours depending on your sensitivity to caffeine. The average cup of coffee has 80–100 mg of caffeine. So if you drink a cup at 4 p.m., you could still have about 50 mg of caffeine drifting around your brain at 10 p.m.
6. Have an orgasm
Sex before sleep leads to better sleep for both partners—but only if they both have an orgasm. Sex and sleep are inextricably linked—and not just because you do them both in bed. When you have sex, you release a cocktail of sleepy chemicals and hormones—especially if you have an orgasm. Here are just a few of the sleep-inducing chemicals you release when you…well, “release.”
- Oxytocin: Often nicknamed “the love hormone,” oxytocin is responsible for increasing feelings of connection between you and your partner. It also releases “feel good” chemicals like endorphins. This “cuddle hormone” can make you feel great—and super sleepy. Skin to skin contact and orgasm are both excellent ways to encourage the release of oxytocin and get some ZZZs.
- Serotonin: Serotonin is closely linked to sleep and how you process stress. It’s also a big part of the sympathetic nervous system (which regulates the fight or flight response). Serotonin is also the chemical most responsible for getting you into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
- Norepinephrine: This cousin of adrenaline is the other side of the serotonin coin. Norepinephrine makes you fluctuate between REM sleep and other less intense phases of sleep. It seems counter-intuitive, but you need norepinephrine to balance out serotonin in order to get the right amount of deep sleep every night and wake refreshed.
- Vasopressin: This sleep hormone maintains your circadian rhythm (your internal clock), and helps regulate your body temperature, blood pressure, and kidney function while you’re asleep.
- Prolactin: Prolactin is so closely associated with sex (and sleep), that it’s often referred to as “the satisfaction hormone.” Prolactin levels soar after an orgasm, and the powerful sedative effect typically puts people to sleep minutes after orgasm.
Men release six times the prolactin as women when they orgasm, which is why they’re so sleepy after sex. While these chemicals are associated with sleep and orgasm, it’s interesting to note that not all orgasms are created equally. Orgasms from sex with a partner are chemically different from orgasms achieved through masturbation (Brody, 2006). In fact, orgasms during sex release more prolactin than orgasms from masturbation alone. Get your partner involved to get a real good night’s sleep.
The problem(s) with sleep medication
If you’re skeptical of these simple lifestyle changes, you’re not alone. A lot of people go straight to sleeping pills and other medication like zolpidem (brand name Ambien) when they have trouble sleeping. Sleeping pills might seem like an easy solution for insomnia or sleep deprivation since they don’t require any functional changes to your habits or schedule. But there’s no shortcut to sleep—at least not yet.
Sleep is a complicated cascade of biochemical reactions. It involves hormones and signals from receptors and organs throughout your body. Taking a pill that bypasses that elegant series of events in order to “knock you out” misses the whole point of sleep—restorative rest. Your body needs real, quality time to go to sleep and to wake up. It’s a delicate cycle with a lot of moving parts. Grabbing a few hours here and there isn’t going to cut it. And while medication can be useful for certain conditions and circumstances, it shouldn’t be the first arrow in your quiver.
Sleep medications can have serious side effects like weight gain, constipation, dry mouth, and morning hangovers. Sleeping pills are also linked to chemical dependence and dangerous behaviors like sleepwalking, sleep talking and even driving during sleep (Poceta, 2011). If you want to use sleep medication, there’s a better first option than prescription drugs.
Melatonin: the other sleep medication
Unlike other sleep medications, melatonin is a milder chemical that naturally helps with “sleep latency” (aka the time it takes to fall asleep). The research on melatonin is still mixed, but it’s been found to be very safe, and the weight of the research shows that it helps people get to sleep.
Melatonin is also classified as a “dietary supplement,” so you don’t need a prescription to buy it. That makes it a great first step before trying prescription sleep medication. Doses range from half a milligram (0.5 mg) all the way up to 10 mg, but 3 mg before bed is the typical dose. Talk to your healthcare provider about the effects of melatonin to see if it’s right for you.
How to get a better night’s sleep without medication
Despite everything we know about the human body, sleep is still largely a mystery. However, good sleep habits—like regular bedtimes, avoiding caffeine and artificial light before bed, and encouraging hormone production through skin-to-skin contact and orgasm with your partner—can be all the “chemical” assistance you need to get a great night’s sleep.