Let’s get it out of the way: “sleeping effortlessly” probably sounds ridiculous to you. If you have a noisy neighbour or you are grappling with worries or plans, falling asleep can, in fact, feel like it requires a great deal of effort. Even things such as a change of season, or the growing number of candles adorning your birthday cake, can impact negatively on sleep!

The good news is that it is in your power to make effortless sleep a reality. By tweaking your lifestyle and attitude to sleep, you can improve your chances of getting good quality rest, regularly. These tweaks may take some effort but, once you’ve overcome the first few days (and nights), they quickly become part of your everyday routine.

We are told that sleep is a natural process that we have little power over, but it has been shown that we give ourselves the best chance of good sleep when we maintain good sleep habits. So, if you’re wondering how you might be able to achieve that effortless sleep night after night, read on for a glance at what the latest sleep research tells us we should be doing.

1. Aerobic exercise can help (but not too late in the day!).

A well-known sleep fix, aerobic (or cardiovascular) exercise has been shown to improve self-reported sleep quality, particularly among the elderly [1]. If you don’t exercise much, even just a 10-minute walk a day might up the odds of sleeping well, as suggested by the National Sleep Foundation[2].

There does indeed seem to be a link between being fit physically and achieving better sleep quality. For example, one study on young women found a correlation between poorer sleep quality and lower fitness measures such as cardiovascular fitness and flexibility [3]. More recently, research has focussed on how obesity might affect sleep, revealing that excess weight can indeed hinder sleep quality both in adolescents [4] and older adults [5].

The key thing in adding exercise to your day is not to let it encroach on your evening routine. Exercising leaves us feeling energised and wide awake which can chase away sleepiness towards the end of the day, thus potentially delaying sleep.

2. Keep your wake-up time consistent. (Even on the weekends!)

Keeping your wake-up time consistent is actually more important than having a set bedtime. Our body clock, one of the two systems in control of sleep, is reset after waking each morning so a steady rising time helps to keep it working well.

3. Re-consider naps.

Whilst research isn’t consistent on whether naps during the day improve or interfere with sleep quality, avoiding naps may be something to try. Letting sleep permeate daytime (when we are supposed to be awake) can confuse both the body clock and the other system managing our sleep: sleep pressure.

Sleep pressure usually builds up over the course of the day—rising from its lowest point in the morning to its peak at bedtime. Topping up on sleep while sleep pressure is meant to be increasing can interrupt this process and, as a result, postpone our bedtime. So there is good logic behind suggestions to keep sleep and wakefulness in separate blocks.

However, there will always be exceptions (some elderly for example [9]) so don’t be afraid to experiment to see what works best for you best.

4. Take care of your mind.

Guided relaxation techniques and meditation have been shown to help sleep set in more quickly and to boost sleep quality. Relaxation techniques in particular have clinical evidence behind them as they are frequently used as part of wholesome psychological approaches to treating sleep problems, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Whilst these techniques may not help on their own if you’ve suffered from poor sleep for a long time, those of us who are fairly good sleepers may still benefit from including them in our routines.

Relaxing in bed with non-engaging music has also been shown to aid sleep. In a couple of studies, the elderly listening to classical music shortly before bedtime achieved better quality sleep [7-8].

5. Limit alcohol and nicotine, especially in the evening.

It’s true that alcoholic beverages can make us feel snoozy, especially in the evening, but the trade-off for this can be poor sleep quality, as alcohol actually disrupts our sleep later in the night. As it’s broken down in our system, our body undergoes a kind of withdrawal which can not only have us waking up through the night, but it can also leave us wide awake hours earlier than our usual wake-up time.

So if quality sleep comes first, reducing alcohol later in the day may help. One study showed even taken at 4pm it can still cause sleep disruption [10].

Nicotine, on the other hand, can leave us feeling more awake than before, which may lead to us taking longer to fall asleep. A large-scale study also indicated that nicotine can reduce sleep quality, especially in those smokers with higher levels of dependancy [6].

6. Smaller meals in the evening.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that certain foods can improve sleep or get us quality sleep, but sleep science does have a view on eating close to bedtime. A big meal is said to be a no-no as it can shift the body’s focus away from preparing you for sleeping as it has to rev up digestion again.

A smaller meal should be broken down quicker thus helping your whole body to get as much rest as possible so that you rise feeling well-rested, as you should after good quality sleep.

Getting quality sleep via these scientifically proven tweaks may require some effort to settle into new routines. However, they should continue to pay off for the rest of one’s life, laying out a red carpet for quality sleep to occur regularly.

Bad sleep habits cause our bodies to become worn. Like an engine without an oil change, we start to break down. 11 Sleep Habits of Successful People

References:
[1] Reid, K., Baron, K.G., Lu, Brandon, Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., Zee, P.C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine 11(9), 934-940.
[2] National Sleep Foundation http://www.sleepfoundation.org/alert/national-sleep-foundation-poll-finds-exercise-key-good-sleep
[3] Lee, A.J., Lin, W.H. (2007). Association between sleep quality and physical fitness in female young adults. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 47(4), 462-467.
[4] Gupta, N.K., Mueller, W.H., Chan, W., Meininger, J.C. (2002). Is obesity associated with poor sleep quality in adolescents? American Journal of Human Biology, 14(6), 762-8.
[5] Hung, H.C., Yang, Y.C., Ou, H.Y., Wu, J.S., Lu, F.H., Chang, C.J. (2013). The association between self-reported sleep quality and overweight in a Chinese population. Obesity, 21(3), 486-92.
[6] Cohrs, et al. 2012. Impaired sleep quality and sleep duration in smokers—results from the German Multicenter Study on Nicotine Dependence. Addiction Biology, doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2012.00487.x
[7] Johnson, J.E. (2003). The use of music to promote sleep in older women. Journal of Community Health Nursing, 20(1), 27-35.
[8] Lai, H.L., Good, M. (2005). Music improves sleep quality in older adults. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 49(3), 234-244.
[9] Tanaka, H., et al. 2002. Short naps and exercise improve sleep quality and mental health in the elderly. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 56(3), 233-234.
[10] Van Reen, E., Tarokh, L., Rupp, T.L., Seifer, R., Carskadon, M.A. (2011). Does timing of alcohol administration affect sleep? SLEEP, 34(2), 195-205.

Featured photo credit: GettysGirl4260via Flickr

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