If you're wondering how to sleep better tonight, you're not the only one. Whether it's an issue with falling asleep or staying in the zone, the NHS suggest that most people will experience a prolonged sleep issue at some point in their life.
As well as giving the body time to repair itself and gather energy for the day ahead, high-quality sleep helps to improve and regulate most of the body's essential processes, including brain function, the immune system and even bowel movements.
With many of us unable to reach that recommended six to eight-hour milestone every night, and so reap the rewards of a good night's sleep, it's important to know the small changes you can make to your lifestyle to sleep better. Luckily, it can be as simple as creating the best bedtime routine for you or incorporating a new practice like ASMR for sleep.
How to sleep better and for longer, according to the experts
The key to discovering how to sleep better is making sleep a priority in your life, sleep physiologist and founder of The Sleep School, Dr Guy Meadows, tells us. “Work on nailing your sleep routine like you would your fitness regime or job,” he says.
This means taking steps from the first thing in the morning right through to just before you go to bed.
1. Make sure your bedroom is dark enough
Most of us will struggle to sleep if we're exposed to any kind of light, whether it's artificial light in the room or sunshine filtering through a window. Research from the University of Surrey (opens in new tab) explains that this is because light suppresses the production of melatonin (aka the hormone that helps us sleep) and disrupts processes in the body that signal when it's time for sleep.
The study also shows that alongside a lower quality of sleep overall, a lack of melatonin will cause issues for your body's temperature regulation system, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. So if you find you're too hot when you're trying to sleep at night, this could be part of the problem.
“Maintaining a bedroom temperature of 18 degrees Celsius or lower will mimic the body’s hibernation state and help maintain a calmer state of mind,” says Hope Bastine, a resident sleep expert at Simba.
Luckily, it's a simple fix. Make sure that you've got some high-quality blackout blinds (especially in the summer) installed over the windows, or invest in an eye mask to block out the light.
2. Improve your sleep environment
Comfort really is key when it comes to learning how to sleep better, so ensure your sleep environment is as comfortable as possible. For starters, make sure your bedding isn't wearing thin by changing your pillows every one to two years.
While mattresses and duvets have a longer life span–and you'll only need to change these when they become uncomfortable or start to fall apart–pillows aren't as hard-wearing. Low-quality pillows are often also the primary reason why many of us feel uncomfortable when we're trying to get to sleep at night, results from a study by James Cook University (opens in new tab) suggests.
The best pillows will support your head and neck whilst keeping it in a neutral position while you sleep, says Dr Verena Senn, neurobiologist and sleep expert for Emma Mattresses. "Otherwise they can lead to stress on the cervical vertebral structures, which are the seven vertebrae that make up your neck."
If you already struggle with discomfort in this area, it's always best to consult your doctor for advice and specifically look for the best pillows for neck pain.
3. Put down all technology
When you say yes to one more episode of your favorite Netflix show or pick up your phone late at night, you’re affecting the quality of the sleep you'll get, says Dr Senn.
“Social interactions are keeping your brain busy when it's really craving to relax. Take some time away from bright screens to settle your mind.” Instead, Dr Senn suggests reading a book (opting for a physical copy over an e-reader), listening to relaxing music or having a bath.
But most importantly, eliminate any technology from your wind-down routine. As well as keeping your mind busy, the blue light on your mobile phone can be damaging to your sleep cycle. “Modern light sources like phone screens contain a high level of blue light that disrupts melatonin production and throws off our natural circadian rhythms, keeping us awake when we should be sleeping,” reveals Bastine.
This happens because our circadian rhythm needs external signals from the environment around us to know whether it’s time to be awake or asleep, research from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (opens in new tab) explains. Blue light, as well as being a factor in technological light, is also present in sunlight rays and it normally helps us to stay awake and alert throughout the day. But if we are exposed to lots of it in the evening, it can confuse the internal clock and trick our body into thinking we should be awake when actually we should be asleep.
4. Try meditation
Meditation calms the body and the mind as it kickstarts our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's rest and digest functions. When this happens, a specific type of rest called restorative sleep occurs as our sympathetic (aka fight or flight) system's function is no longer the most prominent.
In turn, as a study by Srinakharinwirot University (opens in new tab) in Thailand shows, we also experience lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after meditation so it also helps to reduce stress and aids sleep.
But meditation doesn't have to be a lengthy process. Peer-reviewed research by meditation app Calm (opens in new tab) found that over 85% of participants who meditated for just 10 minutes before trying to doze off reported better and longer sleep.
If you want to give it a try, opt for a sleep guided meditation or a yoga nidra breathing exercise, both of which focus specifically on stimulating the body's parasympathetic nervous system. For the same reasons, bedtime yoga has been proven to help those who struggle to fall asleep at night.
5. Take a sleep supplement
While supplements won't be the cure-all for those looking to learn how to sleep better, if they are used right, they can help us to relax before bed. The most popular supplements for sleep include:
- Valerian root
But there are so many out there and they can come in a range of forms, including pills, capsules, oils and teas.
CBD supplements for sleep have also become especially popular in recent years, due to the legalisation of cannabidiol (CBD) and new research (opens in new tab) on the extract's ability to target common causes of insomnia such as anxiety, stress and pain.
Always consult your doctor before taking any sleep supplements, as if you're pregnant, breastfeeding or taking any other medication they may not be suitable.
6. Write in a journal every day
Stress from the day can build up and keep us awake at night so it's important to try and dissolve it before you go to sleep. "As we get older, we have more mental and physical baggage so our thinking mind can sometimes keep us awake at night," Dr Meadows explains.
“The organic compound adenosine, which helps us to naturally fall asleep, isn’t as present so we're more likely to be wide awake and worry about work or personal stresses.”
While there are many ways to reduce stress, journaling is one of the more successful ones to employ just before bed as it helps you develop an awareness of where the stress comes from. "Labelling what type of stress it is-work, relationship or something else is a great way of telling your brain that you know the stress exists, but it's something you're not able to deal with right now," he says.
Journalling any common nightmares you have and exploring what your dreams really mean can also help put your mind at ease in the evening and tackle any sleep anxiety you could be experiencing in advance of going to bed.
7. Cut down on your caffeine intake
If you're tired, you may reach for caffeine as soon as you wake up and throughout the day to keep you going. But too much caffeine does negatively impact our ability to nod off.
"Caffeine increases vigilance and mental performance," explains Dr Senn. "The most common side effect of caffeine is blocking off processes in the brain that allow the body to sense tiredness, thereby making it harder to fall asleep."
To combat the effects, "aim to drink no more than two or three caffeinated beverages per day and switch to herbal or decaf alternatives after midday," Dr Meadows says. "And if you can't resist a warm drink in the evening, try a sleep tea instead."
8. Experiment with sleep aids
If sleep supplements aren’t for you, there are alternative sleep aids you can incorporate into your bedtime routine to reduce stress and help you relax.
Rather than being ingestible supplements, sleep aids are designed to improve your sleep environment by conquering some of the most common difficulties we face when learning how to sleep better.
This could be something as simple as wearing thicker socks, as a study by Seoul National University (opens in new tab) found that wearing socks to bed helped their participants not only fall asleep faster but also stay asleep for longer. Other popular sleep aids include pillows specially designed to alleviate pressure on the neck, sleep masks to block out light and calming sprays to spritz onto your pillow at night.
9. Exercise and stay active daily
While experts warn that exercising too close to bedtime could disrupt your ability to sleep, longstanding research suggests that exercise is one of the biggest contributors to a good night's sleep.
Exercise is particularly beneficial for those who struggle with insomnia, with research from Universidade Federal de São Paulo (opens in new tab) suggesting that working out before bed actually promotes better sleep than many popular types of sleep medication. Researchers also found that those who exercised fell asleep in half the time of those who didn’t, wakefulness throughout the night in the group decreased by 30% and total sleep time increased by almost 20%.
However, whether exercise will help with sleeping better hinges on the type of exercise you do before bed. Dr Meadows says, "It's best to avoid HIIT workouts too late at night. Instead opt for slow and restorative practices like yoga later in the evening to kickstart the body's rest and digest systems."
And, as Dr Meadows advises, you should still leave at least two hours between your workout and going to sleep to allow your core body temperature to cool.
w&h thanks Dr Verena Senn sleep expert at Emma Mattresses (opens in new tab), Hope Bastine resident sleep expert at Simba (opens in new tab) and Dr Guy Meadows founder of the Sleep School (opens in new tab).
Ciara was the former digital health editor at womanandhome.com, covering all things health & wellbeing from fitness to sleep to relationships. She's always on the lookout for new health trends, innovative fitness gadgets and must-read wellness books.
Originally from Ireland, Ciara moved to London to study journalism. After graduation, Ciara started her career at Goodhousekeeping.com. Ciara qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020, and outside of her day-to-day now runs her own meditation school called Finding Quiet. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.
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