There may be no other frustration in life that’s quite as torturous as not being able to fall asleep when you know you have to.
Especially when you look over at the clock and see it’s almost time to get up.
That means you’re not going to sleep for a lot longer, and you’re going to feel like crap until you do.
A poor night’s sleep feels like a punishment. It can turn a good day bad and ruin the next one before it even begins, but sleeping pills and calling in sick aren’t your only refuge.
We talked to Shawn Stevenson—author of Sleep Smarter (sleepsmarterbook.com) and creator of The Model Health Show, which often features as the top fitness and nutrition podcast on iTunes—for tips to go from restless nights to pleasant dreams.
4 Ways To Sleep Better
“The timing of your workout can make a world of difference for your sleep quality,” says Stevenson. He cites a study conducted by Appalachian State University that compared the effect of workouts done at different times of day. Subjects exercised at either 7 a.m., 1p.m., or 7 p.m.
“The morning exercisers spent more time in the deepest, most anabolic [muscle-building] stages of sleep that night. For some people, it was up to 75% more time.”
Why? Stevenson says it has to do with the hormones cortisol and melatonin. As you may know, cortisol is a stress hormone. It comes with your body’s “fight or flight” response and is naturally high in the morning—peaking between 6 and 8 a.m.—so that you can be alert for the day and get things done. Melatonin is a hormone produced in your pineal gland that helps to induce sleep. Your body naturally releases more of it at night.
“Everything you put in your belly is influencing melatonin production, storage, and utilization.”
There’s an inverse relationship between cortisol and melatonin. “If cortisol is elevated, melatonin is on the ground floor,” says Stevenson. If, however, your cortisol is elevated in the evening—due to stress or activity (such as late-night workouts)—melatonin has a hard time doing its job to relax you.
“If you’re not training already, start in the morning,” says Stevenson, and let cortisol work for you. And if you’re training later in the day and find that you’re not sleeping well, try pushing your sessions up earlier.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But most people have more lights on in their bedrooms than they realize and it’s harming their sleep.
Stevenson points to a Cornell University study where a subject slept in a dark room but had a light the size of a quarter shone behind the person’s knee.
“That was enough to disrupt the sleep cycle,” says Stevenson. “You have photoreceptors in your skin, so your skin picks up light.” Interestingly, moonlight doesn’t have the same effect, but streetlights or a neighbor’s porch light beaming in through your window can hurt sleep quality or keep you up.
“Get some blackout curtains,” says Stevenson. Turn off all electronics or cover them up so your room becomes as much of a cave as possible.
“The gut-brain health connection is huge for sleep quality,” says Stevenson. “Everything you put in your belly is influencing melatonin production, storage, and utilization.” By eating more of the foods that contain the precursors of sleep hormones, you can improve your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and enjoy higher-quality rest.
If you stay up past that time, those enzymes can be used to keep you awake rather than for recovery. “That’s why you get a second wind right before you go to bed, which makes you feel like staying up and watching TV.”
Stevenson recommends fresh, cold-pressed cherry juice, which is a natural source of melatonin, while meats like poultry contain tryptophan. “Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin.” Want some meat-free options? Hempseeds and green, leafy vegetables are good options.
Melatonin is also available as a supplement and has been shown to be effective. A 2013 meta-analysis published in Plos One found that supplemental melatonin decreased subjects’ time to fall asleep, increased the length of time spent asleep, and improved overall quality of sleep. It was also reported that these positive effects did not appear to dissipate with prolonged melatonin use.
That’s the ideal window for most people, according to Stevenson. The body experiences a natural drop in core temperature to facilitate sleep during that period, “and it increases enzymatic activity that helps repair the brain and tissues.”
If you stay up past that time, those enzymes can be used to keep you awake rather than for recovery. “That’s why you get a second wind right before you go to bed, which makes you feel like staying up and watching TV.” By establishing a pattern—ideally, going to bed and waking up at the same time on a daily basis—you train your body to shut down when you want sleep and wake up when it needs to.