How to Get Better Sleep

Hey guys! I’m sure many of you, like me, have just started off a brand new semester in a brand new year. For a lot of students, getting enough good quality sleep is a struggle — I know it took me years of sleep deprivation to finally find what works for me (plus a less stringent schedule — kudos to my high school readers, you guys are roughing it). Here are a few tips that helped me improve my sleep, both in quality and in quantity.

Figure out whether you are a morning bird or a night owl (or somewhere in between).

In high school, I struggled to get enough sleep because I didn’t even begin to get tired until around 11 pm-12 am. Since I had to wake up at 6 am to have enough time to get ready and drive to school, I was running on about 6 hours of sleep per day, max. So of course, I felt groggy and unwell at school, and my concentration — and thus my grades — suffered because of it. But when I started my first semester of college, with my earliest class being at 9:35 am (and only once a week — I started at 10:40 am the rest of the week), I started feeling much more well-rested when I woke up. I was still going to bed around the same time or a bit later than I did in high school, but I felt worlds better. I had noticed this in high school too, on two-hour delay days — even though I got the same amount of sleep, shifting my schedule two hours later made me feel a million times better.

I know that sometimes, especially if you’re in high school or have a full-time job, you are unable to pick when you wake up in the morning. But if you are able, choose your schedule based on what time you naturally start to get tired, and about 9 hours after that time to wake up refreshed. Or, if you can sleep six hours at night and two hours in the afternoon for a nap, schedule that in, like I did in high school. This brings me to my next point…

Find out when your energy is highest and lowest, and try to build your  schedule accordingly.

Though our circadian and metabolic rhythms all follow a similar cycle of wakeful and restful hours, these hours can vary from person to person. Thus, in order to optimize your energy and get your best sleep, you should log your energy levels at each hour of the day to determine when you are most awake and when you are most tired. College Info Geek, a site I highly recommend for any student, posted an article about tracking your “biological prime time” using an hourly energy tracker you can easily create and use on your phone or computer.

Make a Copy
Source: College Info Geek

Once you’ve tracked the times you have the most and least energy, you can build your schedule around this. When I was in high school, I couldn’t change the time I had to wake up in the morning, but I was able to take an online class at the end of the day, which allowed me to leave campus. I used that hour and a half-long block to take a nap, then got up and started working on my homework with renewed energy. Because I was only sleeping about 5-6 hours per night, I found that a 1-2 hour afternoon nap allowed me to clock in my hours of sleep without fighting my body’s natural clock. Plus, instead of coming home from a long, tiring day of school to immediately start on homework, I was able to rest and wake up refreshed and with a clear, focused mind to tackle my studies. (And if you’re in a similar situation, recent studies suggest that an early afternoon nap is naturally built in to our body’s circadian clock, so snooze away!)

In college, I have forgoed the nap and instead opted for waking up around 9-9:30 am for my earliest classes at 10:40. (Luckily, I took nearly all of my general education courses in high school, so I wasn’t stuck with any 8:30 Biology lectures like some of my friends.) By scheduling my classes a bit later in the morning, I have been able to wake up refreshed and prepared for the day.

Follow your body’s natural 90-minute sleep cycle when planning sleep.

It is well known among sleep scientists that your body follows a 90-minute sleep cycle, covering the different phases of sleep. In fact, if you have the chance, try waking up without an alarm — if you woke up naturally, odds are it was a multiple of 90 minutes after the time you fell asleep.

When we plan our sleep around 90-minute cycles, we wake up feeling more refreshed, even if we don’t get the recommended amount of sleep. For example, one doctor says that she sleeps only 4.5 hours total per day — and yet she still feels refreshed, because she pays attention to her natural sleep cycles. If you are sleeping the recommended 7 to 9 hours per day and yet still feel tired, it may be because you are waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle.

There are plenty of websites and apps that can help you figure when to wake up at the end of a natural sleep cycle. Sleepyti.me is a great site that can help you calculate when to fall asleep based on what time you plan to wake up, or vice versa. I also use the free Sleep Cycle app (available for both iPhone and Android), which naturally wakes you up at your lightest stage of sleep within a set interval. It also saves the sleep tracked whenever you use the app, so you can have a graphic display of your sleep over time and the average amount of sleep you get per night.

The Sleep Cycle app home screen, where you set your alarm.
The Sleep Cycle app “wake up phase” settings. Here, you can adjust the period of time in which the app is allowed to wake you up before your set alarm.

No phones in bed.

I know, I know — I’m guilty of this too. But using your phone in bed is a double whammy; first, it weakens the connection between your bed and sleep in your brain and second, it strengthens the connection between wakefulness and sitting in bed, both of which make it harder for you to fall asleep. Most studies seem to suggest turning off your electronics one to two hours before you plan to sleep, to avoid the blue light from their screens suppressing your body’s natural creation of melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy). If you must use screens before bedtime, use a tool like f.lux to change your screen’s lighting from a blue to an orange tint.

Develop a night time routine.

You don’t have to have a ten-step, complex routine like some YouTubers claim to have. Just create a routine that relaxes your body and sends the message that it’s time to sleep. One example is taking a warm shower, putting lotion on your body, then crawling into bed. I personally enjoy reading a book in bed by lamplight for about 30 minutes before I go to sleep. This way, I get to do something I enjoy — reading — that doesn’t make my brain too excited and that can be done in a calm, relaxing environment.

Cut out caffeine, alcohol, and sugar before bed.

An afternoon latte might sound like a good idea at 3 pm, but caffeine has a half-life of 3 to 5 hours — meaning that it could still be present in your body 6 to 9 hours later. In fact, studies have found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime decreased total sleep time by about one hour. That’s seven hours a week, if you drink coffee each afternoon, adding up to a whole night’s sleep lost.

Alcohol similarly wrecks your sleep. Though it works as a depressant, which can make you feel tired, it alters your sleep cycle, cutting out deep sleep and R.E.M. sleep and making you feel less refreshed in the morning.

Image result for alcohol and sleep
Source: UNC Campus Health

Sugary and filling snacks should be avoided before bed too, as they can disrupt sleep and even cause nightmares. Additionally, eating before bed doesn’t allow your body to metabolize what you’ve eaten, so you can gain weight and experience acid reflux. And who likes crumbs in their bed?

Go to bed and wake up at consistent times each day (even weekends).

College students can be particularly bad at this one — why would you wake up at 7 am on days you don’t have your 8:30 am class? But sleeping and waking at consistent times sets your body’s biological clock straight, and eventually allows for you to wake up naturally in the morning (if you’ve ever woken up five minutes before your alarm goes off, this is why). You can adjust the time you go to sleep at night within an hour or so — for example, if it’s a Sunday night, you may go to bed earlier than on a weeknight because you have less immediate homework — but try to wake up at a consistent time each day. Your body will thank you for it.

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