Sleep Quality

13 Tips for Improving Your Sleep Quality. Practice these cutting-edge sleep strategies to help improve everything from your brain function to your gym performance.

published on bodybuilding.com Oct. 2020

Everyone knows how wonderful it feels to wake up after a refreshing sleep, but you may not know just how critical getting a full night of sleep is to your health and to achieving optimal mental performance.

In his 2014 TED Talk, neuroscientist Jeff Iliff explains that sleep and sleep quality are essential to maintaining brain function. The intense electrical activity undertaken by the brain consumes one-quarter of the body’s entire energy supply. Consequently, clearing waste from the brain is a major challenge. The clear cerebrospinal fluid meets that challenge, flushing waste from throughout the brain and moving it into the blood; however, this only happens in the sleeping brain—never when you’re awake.

How can you improve your quality of sleep? These tips are based on current neuroscience and can help you train yourself into getting more, higher quality sleep.

Tip 1: Get The Right Amount Of Sleep

No one prescription for sleep duration applies to everyone all the time. Still, for most people, 7-9 hours per night is optimal. Finding your own sweet spot for sleep may involve trial and error. The goal is to wake up feeling refreshed, without the need for caffeine or other stimulants, and to feel alert throughout the day. The demands you place on yourself during the day may affect how much sleep you need at night.

Tip 2: Go Dark

The darker your sleep environment, the better. Humans evolved to sleep in total darkness, without the constant humming of electric lights or the emanations of blue light from electronic devices.

Aim to keep your electronics dark when you sleep. If you can’t, cover your eyes with an eyeshade. If light seeps through your windows, try blackout shades.

Sleeping with an eyeshade.

Tip 3: Create A Transition Time

After sunset, dim all the lights in your house so you don’t artificially wake yourself at the wrong time. Install dimmer light switches if you can.

Avoid using electronics before bed. If you want or need to watch an electronic screen at that time, wear blue-light-blocking glasses or use a night light setting that’s amber rather than blue.

Finally, create a daily routine as you transition from waking to sleep. Read using light that isn’t blue, listen to a podcast or an audiobook, or listen to soothing music.

Tip 4: Cool Off

In order to initiate sleep, reach deeper levels of sleep, and stay asleep, your body must be cool and able to control its own temperature. Sleeping in a cooler room with linens to cover your body is the best means to this end. The National Sleep Foundation recommends an ambient temperature of 60-67 degrees for optimal sleep.

Tip 5: Keep It Down

Most people don’t need complete silence to sleep, but they do need to avoid loud, startling noise. If necessary, wear soft foam earplugs to bed, or use a box fan or white noise machine while you sleep.

Putting in ear plugs.

Tip 6: Choose A Comfortable Mattress And Pillows

This can take trial and error; a mattress that’s perfect for someone else may be terrible for you, and vice versa.

Tip 7: Stick To A Schedule

Going to bed at the same time every night should be part of your routine, even on weekends. This allows you to harness the power of your body’s circadian rhythms. Daily exposure to sunlight in the morning also helps anchor your body’s biological clock.

Tip 8: Avoid Regular Napping

If you get all the sleep you need at night, your body and mind will feel sleepy at bedtime and alert during the day. If you nap regularly, your body learns that it’s OK to get tired during the day and there’s no need to get all the sleep you need at night.

If your schedule is unusual and you really need routine naps or to catch up occasionally on the weekend, take them. Just make sure you nap for less than an hour.

Taking a nap on the couch.

Tip 9: Exercise Early In The Day

The more mentally and physically active you are during the day, the better you should sleep at night. Performing intense exercise within a few hours of bedtime can disrupt your sleep. And although it may be tempting when you’re busy, never skip sleep to work out.

Tip 10: Try Blue Light Therapy

If you tend to suffer a midday slump, blue light therapy can help pick you up. Alternatively, head outside and get some natural light, preferably with a brief but brisk walk.

Tip 11: Keep A Journal Or List

For many people, it’s the long list of undone tasks that keeps them awake, the constant thought-churning that stops their mind from relaxing. To counteract that process, keep a journal or list of tasks. Once you’ve jotted down everything, your mind can stop juggling all the information, allowing you to sleep.

Tip 12: Support Your Sleep With Proper Nutrition

Caffeine-containing foods and drinks are among the top sleep disruptors. Foods high in saturated fats cause less slow-wave sleep and more sleep fragmentation.

Pouring a cup of coffee.

On the flip side, eating foods high in fiber throughout the day contributes to deeper slow-wave sleep.

You’ll certainly find that a good night’s sleep improves your workouts.*

No matter what you’re eating, avoid eating too much of it within two hours of going to bed. Big meals can disrupt sleep and cause indigestion. Using alcohol and nicotine within six hours of bedtime can also disturb your sleep.

Tip 13: Take A Sauna Or Hot Bath

People use saunas to relax and recover from intense physical activity, and for numerous other purported health benefits. If you can’t use a sauna, take a hot bath. Once you leave the heat, your core temperature will drop, helping you sleep.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

DIET ADJUSTMENTS DURING THE LOCKDOWN

As lockdown measures are imposed throughout the world, all of our daily routines have been well and truly shaken up. Our activity levels, eating schedules and nutritional habits are likely to change considerably in the weeks and months to come. We need to consider how to redress this balance, how to not lose sight of our goals of weight loss, maintenance or anything else.

Calorie intake

For any weight-based goal, the dietary adjustment we need to consider most of all is tempering our calorie intake based on our new energy expenditure. The calories we harvest from the foods and fluids we ingest are used to produce energy. Or, when our energy needs are met, calories are stored in our blood stream, muscles, fat tissue and so on. Once energy is produced and used, it is lost. It cannot generally be recycled. 

This means that we can alter our bodyweight by manipulating the balance of energy coming into the body, and energy being used for movement and supporting bodily functions. As we are now advised to stay at home, without access to gyms and fitness facilities, our energy expenditure has, most likely, reduced. We now need our calorie intake to match our new normal daily energy expenditure.

The quickest way to adjust our food intake based on our activity to work out our basal metabolic rate (BMR) (i.e. how much energy we burn at rest) and then multiply it based on how our activity level has changed. One rough way to calculate your BMR is to multiply your bodyweight in kilograms by 22 for men, and 20 for women. Next, you multiply your answer by one of the following activity multipliers to get your daily maintenance calorie needs:

Multiply by 1.0-1.2 if you are now sedentary

Multiply by 1.3-1.4 if you are now lightly active

Multiply by 1.5-1.6 if you are now moderately active

Multiply by 1.6-1.7 if you are now very active

Multiply by 1.8-1.9 if you are now extremely active

Being ‘moderately active’ generally means you are doing 10,000 steps a day, and three 90-120 minute weightlifting sessions a week. Keep in mind that these estimates are based on population averages, and the rough BMR calculation works best for people with average weights and fat percentages. Nonetheless, this calculation should give you a good idea of how much you need to consume to stay on top of your weight.

Food environment

A grandiose term for how easily food is accessible to you day to day. Your food environment encompasses the visibility of foods, how easy the foods you have at home are to eat (i.e. do they need cooking first?), their palatability and how calorie dense they are.

Our food environment is typically spread across at least two locations, at home and at work, and can have a huge impact on our desire and likelihood to eat foods. Hall wrote in a 2018 paper that although the continued rise of obesity cannot be pinned on a single cause, “it seems clear that the food environment is likely the primary driver”. 

One of the most widely cited studies examining the impact of food environment was published in 2006 by Wansink et al. This four-week study exposed 40 secretaries to four different food environments within their workplaces – a clear or opaque bowl of chocolate placed on their desk or two metres away from them. When the chocolate was closer, and more visible, participants consumed much more over time. Participants also reported that the chocolates were harder to resist, kept attracting their attention and invaded their thoughts much more when they were closer to them, and more visible.

Wansink et al.’s (2006) study shows that if we want to avoid overeating and poor nutritional choices, we need to control the availability of foods in a way that makes it harder to get hold of and eat highly palatable and calorie dense foods. Instead, we need to make it easier and more enjoyable to access and consume healthy, nutrient dense foods – especially if our goal is weight loss. We can do this in three ways:

  1. Avoiding buying and storing foods that we know we will overeat – typical examples include cookies, pizza, crisps, fizzy drinks and so on
  2. Keeping bowls and food displays filled with fruit and vegetables to make it more likely that you reach for them instead of calorie dense snacks
  3. Buying as few pre-packaged and pre-made foods as possible – instead stocking up on single ingredient foods that require preparation and cooking before they can be eaten

Food experimentation 

We all have a lot more time on our hands, so make the most of it by trying new meal prep methods, recipes, flavours, textures and so on. In doing so, we build up our self-efficacy with food preparation and build up an arsenal of healthy, time-friendly options to choose from when the lockdown is alleviated. 

One of the most valuable tools a meal prepper can have in their kitchen is a slow cooker, and there are hundreds and thousands of healthy meal recipes you can find online. Before long, you will find options that make dieting easier, and more enjoyable – freeing you up to spend less time actively cooking, and more time enjoying a wider variety of dishes.