Learning how to sleep better has had a huge impact on my overall health and fitness.
For twenty years I was a terrible sleeper. It started when I was a teenager; I would wake up two or three times every night without fail. I was usually pretty tired at school.
In my early twenties, after learning more about fitness and nutrition, I realised how important sleep actually is. So I started researching, changed a lot of habits, and eventually learned how to sleep better.
I now wake up no more than once per night, and I often sleep all the way through.
Before I discuss the habits I’ve formed to improve my sleep, let’s first talk about why you should focus on sleeping better.
How Better Sleep Will Help You Hit Your Fitness Goals
1. Burn More Fat
I’ve written about it elsewhere, but here’s a brief summary of how improved sleep will help you lose fat:
– the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which are involved in appetite regulation, will be in better balance. You’ll, therefore, be less likely to overeat.
– you’ll be more insulin sensitive, which means you’ll be producing less insulin. This makes fat loss easier.
RELATED – How to Lose Fat: 19 Simple Strategies
2. Build More Muscle
You’ll build more muscle if you improve the quality of your sleep.
Recovery from exercise, including lifting weights, happens during sleep.
And protein synthesis improves if you sleep more, which means more muscle mass.
3. Improve Performance
If your fitness goals are performance-related, then you need to sleep more.
There’s a direct association between improved sleep quality and improved performance, both in training and in competition.
There’s also a reduced injury risk, which I can attest to. Although a rare occurrence, I’ve had a couple of clients injure themselves during a training session. Both times they’d been heavily sleep deprived.
Now you understand why you should focus more on sleep, let’s move on to how to sleep better.
How to Sleep Better: 15 Habits Backed Up by Science
How to Sleep Better: General Habits
Here are some general habits you should try to incorporate during the day.
1. Supplement Vitamin D
Your body produces vitamin D as a result of sun exposure, so the link between vitamin D and sleep might not seem obvious.
But the link is actually pretty clear. Vitamin D supplementation helps people with sleep disorders.
If you already spend hours outside every day and you live near the Equator, you probably don’t need to supplement.
But the rest of us do.
Don’t blindly take vitamin D though, as too much is toxic. Talk to your doctor, get your levels tested, and then your doctor will help you figure out how much you should take.
I usually take a dose in the morning.
2. Lift Weights
If you’re reading this blog post, written by a personal trainer, then you probably already lift weights.
But if you don’t lift weights, you need to start. There’s clear evidence that strength training will help you sleep better.
So if you currently just do yoga, Pilates, or group fitness classes, you need to get yourself on to the gym floor.
I know I’m asking a lot here.
And I’m going to admit right now that I don’t meditate.
But if you’re trying to figure out how to sleep better, meditation might be for you. There’s evidence that it helps people with sleep issues.
It doesn’t even have to be in the evening. Download the Calm app and go hide somewhere for 10 minutes every day.
4. No Caffeine for the 8 Hours Before Bed
We all know not to drink coffee in the evening. Caffeine can have a negative impact on your sleep quality.
But it’s difficult to know exactly what time you should have your last coffee
The specific time will vary from person to person. Some people will be able to process and eliminate caffeine a lot faster than others.
For me, and for most people I speak to, 8 hours seems to be the sweet spot. I like to be asleep by 10.30 pm, so I try to have my last sip of coffee before 2.30 pm.
5. Set a Fixed Wake Time
This is how you’re going to reboot your circadian rhythm (your internal clock).
Choose a time and wake up at that time every single day. It doesn’t matter what time you go to bed or what day it is; just set your alarm to that time.
Eventually, you’ll start feeling tired around the same time every evening and you’ll naturally wake up at the same time every morning.
This will be tough for the first few days, but you’ll soon adapt.
How to Sleep Better: Evening Habits
Here are some habits to incorporate within a couple of hours of bedtime.
6. Drink Less Water in the Evening
Drinking too much water in the evening will mean you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to urinate.
And if your home is so dark that you need to switch on a light, your sleep will be further disrupted.
You don’t need to completely avoid water in the evening. Just make you get plenty during the day, and stick to one or two small cups once you get home from work.
7. No More Than One Small Glass of Wine
While alcohol will probably help you fall asleep faster, it will actually make your sleep quality worse.
It’s kinda counterintuitive.
Those two glasses of wine you had last night didn’t do your sleep any favours. Even if you slept for 8 hours, you probably woke up this morning feeling tired and groggy.
Because alcohol will stop you from entering deep sleep, a sleep stage that’s super important for physical renewal.
I don’t like to drink more than one small glass of wine in the evening.
8. Wear BluBlockers
A lot of articles will tell you to turn off all screens an hour before bed, which is dumb because the authors clearly don’t understand people. Who the hell is really going to do that?
My solution: wear BluBlocker glasses for one hour before going to bed.
You’ve probably noticed that your iPhone’s Night Shift makes the screen kinda orange in the evening. It’s orange because it’s emitting less blue light.
The blue wavelength of light stops you producing melatonin, which is a key sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland.
With insufficient melatonin, your sleep quality will suffer.
Now, the problem with relying on activating Night Shift on your devices is that they don’t account for other sources of artificial light in the evening: light bulbs, Kindles, flashing LEDs on routers, TVs etc.
But if you wear those BluBlocker glasses in the evening, you’ll be blocking the blue wavelength of light from everything.
They’re not exactly cheap – around 50 US dollars – but they last a long time. I’ve had mine for 6 or 7 years and they’re still in good condition.
9. Take ZMA
ZMA is a supplement containing zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6. It’s commonly used by bodybuilders and athletes, as they believe it will help them build muscle and/or improve their performance.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence for these claims.
But magnesium is a muscle relaxant, which will put you in a better state to fall asleep. I take a dose every night 10 minutes before bed.
10. Consider Taking Melatonin
Melatonin, in its natural form, is a hormone produced in your brain’s pineal gland. Its role is to regulate sleep.
You can buy melatonin in supplement form in most countries; in other countries, you need a prescription from a doctor.
Supplementing with melatonin was one of the best things I did to improve my sleep quality.
Even following the rest of the strategies in this blog post, I would still wake up once or twice every night. But now that I take melatonin, I wake up once at most.
And I feel like I’m getting deep sleep. For the first time in years, I wake up and actually remember my dreams.
I only take sublingual melatonin; the kind that dissolves under the tongue. My dose is 6g – two 3g pills – 10 minutes before going to bed.
IMPORTANT NOTE: please bear in mind that I’m an extreme example of someone who has always had bad sleep. My mother also has bad sleep, and so does her mother, which leads me to think that it’s something I’ve inherited. I was very reluctant to include melatonin in this blog post because, as a personal trainer, I don’t really have any business recommending people take an exogenous hormone, such as melatonin. So please don’t consider this a recommendation. You really should talk to a doctor before you start taking melatonin because it can interact with other medication you might be taking. I’m just including it on the list because I want to be as open as I can about what I do in my own life.
11. Read Fiction
This is a tip I got from Tim Ferriss a few years ago.
Don’t read nonfiction before bed. You don’t want to be analysing complex subjects when you’re meant to be relaxing.
Instead, read fiction. Stories help me fall asleep. Over the last year, I’ve read the seven Harry Potter books, the five Hitchhiker’s Guide books, and I’m currently reading the entire Sherlock Holmes.
All in 20-30 minute increments in bed before falling asleep.
12. Take CBD (if it’s legal where you are)
CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating cannabis extract. That means it doesn’t make you high.
Taking CBD has the following effects:
– pain relief. A growing number of athletes are using CBD oil to treat the chronic pain that is the usual result of years spent abusing your body. There don’t seem to be any harmful side effects of CBD, unlike with NSAIDs.
And less pain means more/improved sleep.
– anti-anxiety. If you currently experience any kind of anxiety, then CBD might help. And less anxiety usually means you’ll sleep easier.
You should obviously talk to your doctor first before replacing any prescribed medicine.
How to Sleep Better: Habits While Sleeping
Here are some things to do while you’re sleeping.
13. Wear a Sleep Mask
A lot of articles will tell you that you need to shut off every tiny point of light in your room because it can affect your sleep.
And it’s true. Even the smallest point of light will affect your sleep. Go back to the section on BluBlockers where I talk about the blue wavelength of light inhibiting the production of melatonin.
But although this is true, it’s not exactly realistic. We have a lot of gadgets with small LED lights in our bedrooms – fans, TVs, clocks – and covering them all up is a pain in the arse.
So just buy a good quality sleep mask. I’ve found none better than the Sleep Master. It blocks out light entirely.
The only issue is that, in a warm room, it will make you feel too hot. But if you have the temperature of the room under control (see habit number 15 below), it won’t be an issue.
14. Use White Noise
Even a small noise that breaks an otherwise silent sleep environment can wake you up.
So I like to keep the fan on, or the AC. The constant background noise will help you fall asleep.
15. Cool Down Your Bedroom
Nobody can sleep well if the temperature is too high. The best temperature for optimal sleep seems to be around 15-20 degrees Celsius.
If you don’t have AC, at the very least get a fan.
You can also try using a chilli gel pad. My wife bought one for my birthday back in July, just before we got our AC installed. It made a HUGE difference to my sleep.
Those were my 15 essential habits for those looking to learn how to sleep better. Do you have any other habits that have worked for you? Leave a comment below.