Trying to figure out how to sleep better is a task for everyone. Whether you've been using a fitness-focused wearable for a while, or just became interested in the topic after Apple said it would add sleep-tracking in watchOS 7, getting a better night's rest is one of the most important things you can do.
I'd know, as I've spent August 2020 working hard to get my sleep in order. But because I'm not a sleep professional (I don't even play one on TV), I got on the phone with Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, Professor of Public Health at New Mexico State University, who backed up what I've encountered adjusting my sleep habits. I also found that he sets even harder limits than I do.
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So, here are the five biggest takeaways I've gained from my conversation with Dr. Khubchandani, including the real-life experiences I've found by obeying this advice and breaking the rules, as I monitor my own sleep on my Apple Watch Series 5.
How to sleep better: Develop a routine and stick to it
Of all the advice we've got, this is the hardest both for myself and my colleagues. But Dr. Khubchandani insists that you need to have the same bedtime and routine every night. This begins with going to bed at the same time, he told me.
"First, I think people have to decide on a regular time of sleep. If you don't have a regular time of sleep, that's a big obstacle to getting good quality sleep. Many people don't even realize that their sleep timing decides their health, their sleep quality, and so on," Dr. Khubchandani said.
"But what about weekends, when you want to stay up later and sleep in later?" I asked. He had nothing for me. And I've seen that he's right. Just because you might have more time to stay in bed or want to sleep, doesn't mean your sleep will be as good. This past Saturday night, I started sleep a little later, at 11 p.m., and slept in til past 9 a.m., but still, my sleep tracker of choice (AutoSleep, $3.99 on the Apple App Store) showed me that my sleep wasn't actually that high quality, with a lot of restless portions.
Once you pick a start time, you shouldn't waver, Dr. Khubchandani said "So if you sleep by 10:00 p.m., it should be 10:00 p.m. every day, and not changing rhythm. Because our brain is like a small computer too, but it's more lively and it doesn't like those changes to the rhythm. And that one thing I think is critical because that's the foundation, that you're maintaining a rhythm."
Again, this can be tough, as I discovered this past Thursday night when I thought I'd beaten The Last Of Us Part 2, but it's ending kept going … and I stayed up later than I wanted to, and found myself with almost an hour less sleep than I'd recorded the night before. You're going to wake up at the same time every day because of your alarm, you can't go changing your bedtime and expect to get as much rest.
Similarly, Dr. Khubchandani told me "last night I had no plans so I ended up watching a movie, and it's just something out of the blue, not planned, and now the whole day I feel drowsy. And those are the kinds of things people should avoid."
How to sleep better: Avoid distractions in your bedroom
The bed is (mostly) a place for sleep, and you should keep it that way to help yourself get to sleep. Back when I had to use my bedroom for more than just rest, my sleep was worse and I'm pretty sure it has something to do with how confused my body got by me spending so much time in a supine position, watching TV, playing video games, before eventually trying to rest.
Dr. Khubchandani said that while "people should avoid all the distraction in their bedroom," which helps make a routine, he's not perfect himself, either. "I sleep with a phone. I also sleep with an iPad," but "those are the things people should avoid." Otherwise, your body won't fall asleep easily, and the "bedroom is a place to sleep and that area should have the least distraction."
I agree with that completely. The thing I've done lately to try to change my habits is I don't do anything in my bedroom, or at least in my bed, unless it's sleeping. If I'm going to have to be in my bedroom for some reason that isn't sleeping, I don't want to be in the bed.
This is especially true if you stare through the emails on your phone or tablet, as Dr. Khubchandani says "your brain gets in active mode and it starts thinking at a higher base and you cannot sleep."
How to sleep better: Cut off the caffeine early
The next thing Dr. Khubchandani told me was something I've been pretty good at for a while, because this one makes sense: avoid any kind of beverage that could keep you awake. "Some people have the habit of coffee, tea, Coke, Pepsi," he noted, before saying, "By evening, those things should stop. Just drink water."
On Thursday, I found myself taking a sip of my cold brew coffee at 5:30 p.m., right as I was signing off, and I grimaced, remembering Dr. Khubchandani's words. "in the evening, people should stop drinking coffee, like when you get out of the office … so your brain starts recovering."
This should be easy for all to agree on. Sodas, energy drinks and all kinds of caffeinated drinks they all have the same goal of giving you energy. And our bodies don't have a switch you can flip to turn off said energy, so it's good to stop as early as you can.
How to sleep better: Earlier dinners mean better rest
This, for me, is the hardest one to stick to, and I think many of us are going to lean toward the later side of Dr. Khubchandani's recommendations. "By 6:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., your dinner should be done," he said, explaining you need the rest of the night for your body's digestion.
I was able to "negotiate" with Dr. Khubchandani to accept that some people won't be able to eat by that time because of their schedules, bringing him to say "8:00 p.m. at the latest." What we should all be trying to avoid, he noted is how "people have such lifestyles right now where they want to eat at 1:00 a.m. in the night, and go to the local store" or the fridge in my face "and pick something to munch on."
Your body won't be settled and calm if you're trying to sleep moments after you down a slice of cold pizza from the refrigerator, right? This is a habit I'm trying to pick up myself, as I almost started eating one of those cheesy breadsticks at 8:30 p.m. last night, but stopped myself before I could bite into it, Dr. Khubchandani's words ringing in my head.
How to sleep better: Sweat yourself to a better night's rest
Exercise, I've found, can be a very important sleep aid. As I have started to get a stronger workout at home using the Ring Fit Adventure game (which makes you sweat a lot more efficiently than my long walks had been), my sleep hours improved as well.
This led me to think that at least for me, I wasn't as tired by the time I hit the bed as I thought I was. Sure, my brain was exhausted from a whole day of processing *gestures vaguely at everything in the world*, but my body still had a lot of energy left in it.
Dr. Khubchandani didn't pitch exercise as one of his keys to sleep, but he noted that it has some correlation: "Yeah, and most people don't have these habits. Unfortunately, if you look at nationwide, a third of the population across the nation today in United States is obese. Only a fifth of the people get enough physical activity. A quarter of the people eat enough fruits and vegetables. And these are some basic measures, but people are too prone to getting a sleep aid but not fixing their lifestyle."
Bottom line: it's all about building good habits
Some of these suggestions might be obvious to some, while others may sound like they'd be really hard to keep up. But can you remember the last time you got really good sleep?
The first day I had amazing sleep during this summer, I came to my home office desk and sat down with a serene energy. It almost felt like I'd been handed one of the Super Stars from a Mario game. I had a great drive to push through the difficulties of the day, and I was a better colleague and friend to the people I communicated with.
And on the days when I don't get as much sleep, I'm liable to be on the wrong side of the "pleasant to be with" coin, and that's not great. So, if you can follow these tips for how to sleep better, you'll learn that having a good routine is worth it — though even the good doctor admits, it's tough to maintain.