Use Science To Get Better Sleep (And Need Less)

Many of us struggle to get enough sleep every night, but is the sleep we get any good? While it’s important to get enough sleep, better sleep is a stronger ally than more hours of sleep. We sat down with a sleep expert and a stack of studies to help you get a better night’s sleep and need less in the process. Here’s what to do.

Why Getting Enough Sleep Is Hard

You need sleep, and the chances are good you aren’t getting enough as it is. This guide will help you improve the quality of your sleep so you can survive on less, but that won’t help if you don’t know how much sleep is right for you to begin with. The truth is each of us needs a different amount of sleep to be productive, and the notion that “8 hours” is essential is at best a guideline, not an outright rule. In fact, some research suggests that sleeping too much can actually be harmful to your health. Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI.

We’ve discussed how to create and maintain a good sleep schedule and ditch a dysfunctional relationship with sleeping, so if you’re having trouble sleeping, make sure to follow that guide first. Our goal in this post is to walk you through improving your sleep so you reach the point where you can fine tune and dial back the amount that you get to match what you really need. You’ll spend less time tossing and turning, and more time getting truly restful sleep.

Why Better Sleep Beats More Sleep

We frequently hear about the dangers of too little sleep, but there is also research that suggests too much sleep can be a problem too. One study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research concluded that quality of sleep is more important than quantity of sleep when it comes to feeling rested and rejuvenated.

So where does that leave us? First, start tracking your sleep, and find your perfect bedtime. There are great apps that can help. Eight hours of sleep is worthless if you spend all of it tossing and turning, or you only sleep for half of it. Trying to fix poor sleep habits by going to bed earlier is like trying to lose weight by spending more time at the gym without actually changing the duration of your workout. Once you’ve learned to optimise your time, you’ll see better results.

The Keys To Quality Sleep

Optimising your sleep depends heavily on three things: preparation (building good sleep habits), environment (tweaking your surroundings for optimal sleep), and timing (getting the sleep you need when you need it). We sat down with Dr Nitun Verma, a Stanford University trained specialist in sleep medicine and Medical Director of the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders in Freemont, to come up with some tips to help you improve the quality of your sleep so you’ll need less in the long-term. Photo by Joi Ito.


The first step is to build the habits that will help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and be more comfortable while you rest. These habits include: Photo by Dreaming Poet (Shutterstock).

  • Exercise regularly. The goal here isn’t to wear yourself out, but The National Sleep Foundation has said exercise in the afternoon can improve sleep in the evening. Specifically, morning or afternoon exercise helps you fall asleep faster with less trouble. Just be sure not to exercise right before bed, as that had the opposite effect.
  • Set a kinder, gentler alarm. Ditch your incredibly loud, annoying alarm clock and try something new that will make waking up easier and more natural. Grab an alarm clock app that will wake you to music or soothing sounds, or try a wake-up light that slowly increases the light level in the room as you approach your wake-up time.
  • Ditch the alcohol, cut out the caffeine and watch the cigarettes. A study published in 1994 examined all three of these issues, and concluded that alcohol can be relaxing and help you get to sleep, but it’s damaging to the sleep cycle once you’re unconscious. The end result is a choppy, restless night where you wake more frequently than you would. Caffeine has a different effect. It lengthens the second phase of your sleep cycle (where your brain starts reorganising itself and processing the day) , which is great for naps, but not for a night of deep sleep. Caffeine shortens phases three and four, where REM sleep and dreaming occur. Cigarettes can be relaxing in small doses, but too many keep you awake and prevent the onset of sleep.
  • Cut back on screen time. We’ve mentioned it before, but study after study affirms that electronic devices harm our sleep cycles. Dr. Verma suggested turning off your gadgets at least one to two hours before bedtime, even those e-ink devices. Two hours is best, but admittedly impractical for many people. “The screens on tablets/phones/TVs are so bright, they can confuse the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN,” he explains. “Bright light too late at night can confuse the brain into thinking it is 2pm when it is 2am. Even if sleep occurs, it will not be as deep, and therefore less restorative.”
  • Meditate before bed. We’ve shared one sleep-oriented meditation method designed to help you fall asleep, but there are many others. Try visualising a dream you’d like to have, or if you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, relax, focus on sleeping, and try to visualise where your dream left off.
  • Improve your evening ritual. Your evening ritual is important, and if you’re not working in everything from a snack (you don’t want to go to bed hungry, you’ll wake up or sleep restlessly) to going to the bathroom (waking frequently to go to the bathroom can lead to shallow sleep all night and throw off your sleep cycle), you may suffer for it. Start a healthy “sleep routine” of winding down that starts long before your head hits the pillow.


Before you lay down to sleep, you should also make sure your environment is conducive to a good night’s rest: Photo by Alliance

  • Make sure your bed is actually comfortable. We’ve said this several times before, but put your money where your time goes. Since most of us will spend an average of 24 years of our lives asleep, your bed deserves serious investment. Buy the right mattress, pick some good pillows, and choose comfortable sheets. Don’t underestimate the power of a more comfortable quilt or a pillowtop over your old mattress. Your bed is important, and you should make sure it improves your sleep.
  • Adjust the temperature. Some studies have shown that the optimal sleeping temperature for most adults is between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius. Much warmer than that and you start having difficulty with insomnia.
  • Filter out the light. LEDs and standby lights from electronics can cause just as much havoc with your sleep cycle as a glowing phone or tablet screen. We’ve already banished your electronic devices, but make sure to cover up that pulsating light on your laptop while it’s charging too. Cover up those lights on your cable box, TV, or any other devices in standby near your bed while you’re at it. There are products for this, but tape will do just as well. If you live somewhere that’s highly lit at all hours (as I do), invest in a sleeping mask. Whether you shell out for the expensive adjustable kind that mould to your face and have cushions or just grab a discount-store mask that’s essentially cloth with an elastic band, it will do wonders for your sleep. Plus, if you work off-hours and have to sleep through sunrise or during the day, it will help you get better rest.
  • Cut out the distractions. Kids waking you up? You may not be able to do much about that, but if your phone is waking you up, buzzing with notifications or new emails, it’s time to turn it off, set some quiet hours, or set it to silent when you go to bed. If your neighbourhood is noisy and that keeps you from sleeping, try a white noise generator or some soothing music to drown it out and help you rest.


For the best possible sleep, you really should go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Debate rages over the concept of “sleep debt” and whether it can be “paid off” by sleeping in, and different experts say different things about it.

Dr Verma suggests an alternative: “An often overlooked way for people to optimise their sleep is to wake at the same time every day, or at least within the same hour. So rather than oversleep on off days, waking at the same time and then taking a nap allows the extra sleep without disrupting the normal wake/sleep schedule.”

He continues: “Many of my patients have such a different weekday/weekend wake schedule that they are experiencing the same sleepiness that people who are jet-lagged. Even two hours difference hurts, especially if they are already sleep deprived.” If that’s the case, and you still don’t want to adjust your sleep schedule, our tips on beating jet lag can help.

Get Help From The Experts

Finally, if you’re having trouble getting quality sleep, or even if you sleep for long periods and don’t feel rested, it may be time to talk to your doctor. There could be any number of medical issues causing your sleep problems, all of them treatable. You may be suffering from chronic insomnia, which is treatable with mild sedatives. You could also be suffering from sleep apnoea, or some other undiagnosed condition that, once treated, can turn the hours you get into the most restful you’ve ever had. Ultimately, the only way to know for sure is to check with your doctor, and possibly submit to a sleep test that’ll settle the issue once and for all. Photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer.

Once you have your sleep issues sorted out, whether by the professionals or through our tips above, you can start to fine tune the amount of sleep you actually get to make sure you only take away as much as you actually need. If you’ve been sleeping nine or 10 hours because it’s the only way to feel rested, making these changes can help you start to trim the amount of time you need to sleep. Bonus: you’ll get extra hours in your day to do the things you want to do, and your mind and body won’t be worse for wear as a result.

Dr. Nitun Verma, MD is a specialist in sleep medicine and the Medical Director of the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders in Freemont. He has offered his tips for better sleep here before, and he graciously volunteered his expertise for this piece as well. We thank him.

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