Getting enough sleep — enough quality sleep — isn’t only a health necessity, either; it can also help you perform better mentally, physically, and sexually, and it can certainly make you a lot happier! So let’s review some of the sleep-improvement methods available to you.
Sleep better, exercise more. Exercise more, sleep better. Is either true? Both? Even well-run studies don’t always agree, partly because they don’t always focus on the same population. A 2013 study in 11 women suffering from insomnia found that better sleep led to more exercise, but that more exercise didn’t lead to better sleep. Conversely, a 2014 review reported that better sleep didn’t lead to more exercise, but that more exercise led to better sleep.
Sleep better, exercise more. This statement probably applies only to people who want to exercise in the first place — people who might skip a workout if a bad night made them too tired. Skipping workouts isn’t the only problem, however. A 1989 review found that, even when they found the will to exercise, sleep-deprived people got tired faster. And of course, when exercising brings pain, a bad night makes it all the more tempting to skip a workout or shorten it; and indeed, a 2014 study in 119 chronic-pain sufferers found that bad sleep led to less exercise. Finally, a 2008 study found that bad sleep could also lead to worse exercise (lesser power output).
Exercise more, sleep better. This statement is backed by most studies. Although the exact mechanisms are not yet clear, physical activity during the day seems to improve sleep quality, especially in times of stress. Many types of exercise — from meditative movement, such as yoga and tai-chi, to something more intensive, such as aerobic exercise or resistance training — have the potential to improve sleep quality, as well as mood and overall health.
But exercising at night is bad, right? Well, yes and no. Physical activity does raise your core temperature, which we’ve seen isn’t conducive to sleep, but that increase is temporary. Exercising also increases your production of epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), but that increase too is temporary and so shouldn’t affect your sleep unless you jump directly from the lifting bench to your bed, without even taking the time to shower.
So, in the end, the most likely sleep-related drawback of night-time exercise is its potential to disrupt your circadian rhythm, since your body associates activity with day. However, it appears that exercising at any time, even at night, is better (with regard to sleep quality) than not exercising at all.
Everyone is different, though, so if you discover that exercising too close to bedtime disrupts your sleep, try finding another workout window.
2. A consistent sleeping schedule
Your body is a giant clock that counts each second and records every year. Most physiological processes follow a 24-hour schedule, based on clues such as temperature and light (which is why artificial light reinforces the tendency to keep an inconstant sleeping schedule).
This 24-hour schedule is your circadian rhythm, and by throwing it into disarray, an inconstant sleeping schedule is likely to impair the quality of your sleep. Going to bed at approximately the same time every night can improve sleep quality as well as reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep.
To further consolidate your circadian rhythm, a bedtime routine can help — by signaling your body that it’ll soon lie down for sleep. This routine can be as simple as showering and brushing your teeth, or it can involve a set amount of time spent reading or meditating.
Your bedtime routine shouldn’t include any activity that strongly stimulates the senses, such as playing games. Finally, keep in mind that the screens of your TV set, cell phone, and computer all produce blue light, and that blue light disrupts your production of melatonin, a hormone that signals your body that it’s time to sleep.
The absence of blue light signals your body to produce melatonin, which in turn signals your body that it’s time to sleep. For that reason, it is important that you avoid blue lights during the two hours before bedtime. If you’ve taken that step and the others described above yet still have trouble falling asleep, you could try taking melatonin as an oral supplement.
Oral melatonin may help alleviate insomnia, reduce sleep latency, and improve sleep quality, including in children and the elderly. It can also help fight jet lag, and so is especially popular among frequent travellers.
Don’t imagine, however, that oral melatonin will allow you to shift your sleeping schedule at will, regardless of where you live. When all is said and done, light is still a stronger regulator of your body’s melatonin rhythm (the circadian rhythm of your body’s production of melatonin). The good news is that, according to studies lasting between one week and one month, supplementing melatonin doesn’t seem to affect your own production.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that many melatonin supplements don’t have the amounts indicated on their labels — some have much less, which is bad.
Lack of magnesium, a dietary mineral that plays an important role in the brain, can result in abnormal neuronal excitations leading to impaired sleep. Supplemental magnesium has been shown to improve sleep quality in the elderly, who tend to have relatively low magnesium intakes.
While the elderly are especially at risk, magnesium deficiency isn’t unknown in younger people — notably athletes, since magnesium is lost through sweat. Yet getting your Recommended Daily Allowances should be easy: magnesium rich foods are numerous and can fit all kinds of diets.
If you still feel the need to supplement, keep in mind that supplemental magnesium is more likely than dietary magnesium to cause adverse effects, which is why the FDA fixed at 350 mg the Tolerable Upper Intake Level for magnesium supplementation in adults. Also, you may want to avoid magnesium oxide: it has poor bioavailability (rats absorbed only 15% in one study, humans only 4% in another) and can cause intestinal discomfort.
Among the many possible causes for lack of sleep, two of the most common in our modern world are stress and the simple fact that many people don’t schedule enough time for sleep on a daily basis, instead hoping to “catch up” during the weekend (a strategy with very limited efficacy).
No powder or pill will allow you to cram eight hours of sleep into six hours, unfortunately, but some supplements might help mitigate stress. One of them is magnesium, presented above, though supplementing with magnesium will only help if your body’s levels are low. Another is lavender, whose scent was shown to promote relaxation, alleviate insomnia, and improve sleep quality.