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The age old question of how to get better sleep has baffled mankind for centuries.
So I decided to finally set the record straight and ask independent sleep expert, Dr Neil Stanley, all the essential questions regarding optimizing sleep quality.
Dr Stanley lectures on sleep worldwide and has been involved in sleep research for over 30 years. So when I sourced questions on how to get better sleep from avid productivity forum members on Reddit, he revealed some mindblowing answers.
Don’t get too comfortable. This will wake you up.
How much sleep do we need?
The first thing to say is sleep need is like height. Just as there are short people and tall people, there are people who are genetically short sleepers and people who are genetically long sleepers.
Needing eight hours to get better sleep is a myth. We are all individual and it’s genetically determined. Anywhere between four and eleven hours can be considered normal. What’s important is that you get the right amount of sleep for you as individual.
So if you’re a ‘four hour a night’ person you need to get four hours a night and if you’re an ‘eleven hour a night person’ you need to get eleven hours.
You can’t change how much sleep you biologically need in any more ways than you can change how tall you are.
The amount of sleep that any individual needs is the amount of sleep that allows them to feel awake, alert and focused throughout the day.
If you feel good and awake during the day, you’ve had enough sleep. If you feel sleepy during the day, you probably haven’t.
How do you find out how much sleep you need?
It’s a trial and error process. If you work a normal daytime shift, at around 11/12 o’clock in the morning you should feel awake, focused and alert.
If you feel like you could put your head down on your desk and have 40 winks you probably haven’t had enough sleep.
The important principle is to listen to your body. There’s no general set time for everybody to go to sleep, wake up or sleep for a certain duration. It’s all about you as the individual.
The problem is most of us don’t go to bed when we’re sleepy, we go to bed when the TV program finishes or when our partner goes to bed.
With any change you make to sleep, it has to be a gradual process. You can’t do something one night hoping it’ll work and then do the complete opposite the next night.
You need to change your sleep patterns slowly to get better sleep. So if you’re trying to either lengthen or shorten your sleep then increasing or decreasing it by 15 minutes a week is the speed you want to be thinking about to find that sweet spot.
Check if you sleep through that period and also analyse how you feel throughout the day. You should be relatively strict with that.
However, if you’re in a situation where you’re feeling awful throughout the day and not able to function then consider adding or removing an hour, then tweaking it by 15 minutes as the weeks progress.
Sometimes, at the weekend I’ll let myself go to bed and naturally wake up. I’ll have a lie-in and sleep for 10 hours but feel awful throughout the day. There’s an argument I’ve let my body sleep and make its own decision so why am I feeling bad?
Your body craves regularity and regular hours of wake-up. The reason for this is your brain and body start waking up around 90 minutes before you actually wake up.
If your brain and body know what time that is they can predict it and make those preparations. That’s why you can naturally wake up a few minutes before your alarm.
Your body may think it’s going to have eight hours (if you’ve been doing that throughout the week) and preps you for that but you sleep on, not allowing your body to make those preparations.
You can oversleep and suffer from what’s known as ‘sleep inertia,’ which causes that feeling of grogginess upon waking and throughout the day.
The most simple and effective change people can make to their sleep is to fix their wake-up time so it’s regular, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
When is the best time to go to sleep and wake up?
Your circadian rhythm is your body rhythm, the thing that governs all the processes that your body undergoes such as sleep wake. There are also rhythms in our hormone production and alertness such as post-lunch dip (where you feel tired after eating).
Everyone has a natural rhythm and combined with the factor of how long you’ve been awake will govern when it’s time to go to sleep.
Studies show most people actually have a clearly defined sleep gate. This is the time threshold that’s ideal for them to fall asleep.
However, it’s almost impossible to know when that is in real life. Essentially, if possible you should go to sleep when you feel sleepy and it doesn’t matter what the clock time is.
The key is to listen to your body and give your body the opportunity to get the sleep it needs. Even if you’re sitting at home and watching TV at 9.00pm and feel tired, at that point you should get in bed and go to sleep.
How can I optimize my sleep?
Essentially, it boils down to three things.
Firstly, to get better sleep you have to have a bedroom that’s conducive to sleep. It needs to be dark so remove all sources of illumination. Use thick curtains or blackout blinds.
Having a comfortable bed is also essential. Fresh air is good for sleep so it’s a good idea to crack the window open during the night, depending on where you live and it’s not going to be freezing.
Quiet is important so earplugs are a good idea.
Your bedroom needs to be quiet, cool and comfortable. The optimum temperature should be 16-18°C or 61-64°F.
This is because you have to lose one degree of body temperature overnight in order to get good sleep. You lose this from your head mainly.
You need to have a temperature gradient. The temperature in the bed can be warm as you heat the bed up anyway just by being in it.
You need the room to be cool just to shift that heat. This is why in the summer it’s more difficult to sleep. Even though the temperature in the room isn’t that high, it’s still more than it should be and doesn’t allow that temperature gradient to happen.
Secondly, you must have a relaxed body. You need to have done something during the day in order to get good sleep during the night.
Physical exercise is an important tool to get better sleep or at least some form of mental work to tire you out.
Finally, a quiet mind is the absolute pre-requisite for sleep. If you’re worried you’ll struggle to fall asleep.
Be it mediation [see my article, ‘Miserable AF? Stop Moaning, Start Meditating, Feel Happy‘], drinking camomile tea, having a warm bath, doing an adult coloring-in book or listening to Pink Floyd — do anything that relaxes you.
Set aside 45 minutes before bed.
Also, avoid blue light from computer and phone screens one hour before bed. Blue light suppresses the release of melatonin (the body’s signal to start the cascade of processes to fall asleep).
If you stare at a screen before bed you will take longer to fall asleep, have worser quality sleep and feel sleepier the following day.
People use apps that strip out the blue light. However, some people turn the screen brightness up and bright light has just as bad a negative affect on sleep as blue light.
If you’re going to use a light then use nothing more than a standard bedside light. To get better sleep, programmable wake-up lights can be of use where you can set them to slowly get dimmer and turn off at the time you want to be asleep.
When I go to bed at 10pm and get up at 5am I feel better than going to bed at 12am and getting up at 7am. Why? Is this related to the concept of ‘early birds’ and ‘night’ owls and if so, can it be changed?
How much sleep we need is genetically determined but also when we need sleep is genetically determined.
There’s the concept of morning people and evening people. Some people respond better to going to bed earlier and getting up earlier and some going to bed later and getting up later.
Researchers at the University of Surrey, England, actually found there’s a gene that’s responsible for people being night owls.
However, there’s only a small percentage of people fixed to that. Around 50 percent of people lie in the middle with no particular strong preference so they have an opportunity to experiment.
If you want to know whether you’re an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’ to enable you to get better sleep, see the Horne and Östberg ‘morningness-eveningness’ questionnaire. This test indicates whether you have a strong preference for going to bed and waking up early or late, or sit somewhere in the middle.
What is the ’90-minute rule’ and does it work? If so, how strict do you need to be?
The 90-minute rule is the idea that we sleep in 90-minute cycles and that you need to get a certain amount of cycles per night to get better sleep.
You can buy apps that ‘magically’ wake you up after five 90-minute periods. The problem with this theory is our sleep cycles (going from light, to deep, into dreaming sleep) are actually of variable length.
An individual’s sleep cycle can be between 70 and 110 minutes. So something that works on a strict 90-minute rhythm can be hugely inaccurate over five 90-minute periods.
If it’s 20 minutes shorter at 70 minutes, it could be out by a huge 100 minutes by the end of the night which could be very detrimental.
Essentially, if you give your body the right amount of sleep, you will wake up in REM sleep which means you’ll get the number of sleep cycles your body needs.
It goes back again by trialing it and judging how you feel rather than adhering to this strict 90-minute rule.
If you’re getting 6-7 hours a night on weekdays and feel tired, is it better to top up with a couple of extra hours on weekends?
There’s divided opinion on this. There was a study out recently stating you need to catch up on sleep at the weekend.
However, that’s because it’s ‘catch-up’ sleep. You’re depriving yourself of sleep during the week and therefore needing extra sleep at the weekend.
You could flip that research on its head and say you should be getting enough sleep during the week and therefore not need to catch up on sleep at the weekend.
If you’re in a situation where you’re in a sleep debt throughout the week, you can’t repay the entire debt during the weekend but you can repay some of it — and that’s better than nothing.
Regardless, it’s best not go into sleep debt in the first place.
If I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep one night, what should I do the next day (e.g. try taking a nap in the middle of a day, or try sleeping earlier?)
If it’s just one night, your body is pretty resilient. However, if you feel sleepy during the day a 20-minute power nap will help you.
You may also use coffee to give you a boost.
But the best remedy is listen to your body and go to bed when you feel sleepy, even if it’s half an hour before your usual bedtime, then still wake up at your regular time the following day.
Can I change my circadian rhythm by going to bed and waking up the same hour repeatedly?
You can’t change your circadian rhythm. You can force your body to wake up earlier but whether that will allow your body to feel at best during the day is doubtful.
It’s not going to be good for you so unless there’s a pressing reason to do that then there’s no point because you’ll only be sub-optimal.
Is CBD oil [hemp oil] an effective tool for improving sleep quality?
There’s varying evidence as to whether cannabinoids have a benefit to sleep or not. However, if it relaxes you that can only be a good thing.
Whatever relaxes you will help you sleep.
Check out Part 2 of Dr Neil Stanley’s interview here. It features what you should do if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to bed, how to get more will power to get out of bed and many more methods to help you get better sleep.