1. Bright light exposure in the morning
The blue light spectrum of light acts as important zeitgeber. While this equaled sunlight during most of our history, today not everybody can get sunlight exposure on a daily basis. However, also exposure to artificial blue light in the first part of the day improves mood and sleep quality [2,3,4,5]. This is also an effective remedy for winter depression, which is basically a lack of bright light exposure.
- Expose yourself to direct sunlight in the morning and during the day: E.g. walk for 15-30 minutes outside when you wake up (without sunglasses).
- If this is difficult: Use a blue light emitting lamp (>=10k Lux) and expose yourself for 15-30 minutes in the morning. They not only exist as artificial dawn simulator and can replace your morning alarm but also as easy-to-use earplugs (I delight in using both).
2. Wake up gently
During sleep we cycle through different stages of sleep. When woken up during deep sleep we can feel very groggy independent of total sleep time. You feel much more alert and performant when you wake up in a light sleep phase. The so called sleep inertia can be reduced with the following.
- Use a smart alarm (if you still need to use one) that only wakes you up in a light sleep phase (such as sleep cycle) or one that takes you slowly to a lighter sleep phase (such as an artificial dawn simulator). I personally use this dawn simulator.
3. Consistent meal and workout times
Make sure that your meal and workout times are consistent as sleep quality is impaired by an irregular lifestyle .
- Keep your meal and workout times within a 2 hour window: E.g. 13:00-15:00.
- Keep your bedtime within a 1 hour window: E.g. 22:00-23:00.
4. Limit bright light at night
Bright light at night acts similar as bright light in the morning, it keeps you active and suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. This is not what you want at night as it significantly impairs your sleep quality. Therefore limit bright light after sunset.
Action steps pre-bed:
- Avoid or minimize the use of blue-light emitting electronics such as computers, smartphones or tablets after sunset due to their disrupting effects on your biorhythm.
- If you must use them install f.lux on your devices respectively activate “night shift” on your apple products. Both tools decrease the blue light spectrum at nighttime. Set the light intensity at night as low as you find comfortable.
- Use low-lighting at home instead of bright, fluorescent lighting.
- Put orange tinted blue light blocking glasses on until you go to bed, as realistically we will all be exposed to some artificial light at night. They impede the effect of blue light on melatonin production .
Action steps in bed:
Have your bedroom literally pitch-black. You should not be able to see anything, not even your hand in front your face. Even one night of dim light exposure decreases working memory & brain function.
- Use blackout curtains.
- Cover up or remove anything that emits light: Electronics, like phone, alarm or AC. Even the standby light of your TV.
- Wear a face mask to block light, if you can’t make your bedroom pitch-black.
- If you go to the bathroom during the night do not turn on bright light or wear blue light blocking glasses.
5. Ditch stimulants
Stop smoking. The consumption of tobacco not only impairs health but also your sleep.
Avoid (excess) alcohol. This one is a slippery slope. It is true that having a drink before bed — a “night cap” — often does help people fall asleep. However, while it makes it easier to fall asleep, it actually reduces the quality of your sleep and delays the REM cycle. So you fall asleep faster, but it’s possible that you’ll wake up without feeling rested. It’s probably best to improve your sleep through other methods before resorting to alcohol to do the job.
Avoid caffeine (at least after noon). Generally, the negative effect on sleep is underestimated. A single double espresso consumed 16 hours before bedtime still negatively impacts sleep quality. That means that the effect of caffeine on sleep exceeds the direct effect, as saliva caffeine concentration is close to zero already at that time point.
- For optimal sleep eliminate caffeine completely. You might need to cut back slowly if you have been consuming large amounts over several years.
- If you cannot live without caffeine, eliminate caffeine at least 30 days. After 30 days you might add back 1-2 cups before noon to see if you tolerate it well.
- If you tolerate caffeine 1-2 cups before noon are fine (ideally on an empty stomach to increase the absorption). Experiment: There is a large variability between individuals regarding the speed of caffeine metabolization and its effect on sleep impairment. The individual gap can range from 6 to 10+ hours before going to bed.
6. Prime your bedroom
Create an environment that is beneficial to sleep.
- Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. Avoid working there and eliminate all distractions such as TVs, (smart) phones or laptops and any disorder.
- Get the right mattress. Too soft mattresses can cause back pain while harder surfaces can treat low back pain. The majority of us sleeps best with medium hardness . Your subjective comfort is a reliable indicator for a good mattress.
- Get the right pillow. Similar to the right mattress the optimal pillow should be rather harder than too soft . Generally, you can trust your subjective comfort.
- Optimize your room temperature. The optimal bedroom temperature for perfect sleep is around 19 °C (66 °F). Have it rather colder than too warm. Temperatures below 10 °C (50 °F) and above 24 °C (75 °F) will degrade sleep quality.
- Get fresh air. Ventilate your bedroom pre-bed or open your windows at night for high oxygen and low carbon dioxide levels. You might consider a humidifier in your bedroom if you sleep with closed windows during winter to combat too dry air.
- Block out any noise at night. Exposure to environmental noise at night compromises sleep quality [2,3,4]. Generally, irregular noises (such as church bells) impair your sleep far more than regular noises (such as a fan). Use earplugs and/or a white-noise machine to block them out. You might even consider changing your bedroom or improving its noise isolation.
- Limit your exposure to man-made electromagnetic fields (EMF). Turn off your WLAN at night and remove your smartphone from the bedroom. At the very least switch it to flight mode.
7. Fluids and nutrients pre-bed
Optimize the intake and timing of fluids and nutrients before you go to sleep.
- Time your last meal 2-4 hours pre-bed for optimal sleep. Don’t go to sleep overly hungry or overly full.
- Eat carbs & protein (little fat) at night. Carbs at dinner tend to improve sleep [2,3] as they cause significant after-meal sleepiness and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode). Carbs and protein can increase the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Dairy protein seems to be more beneficial than other protein. Best sources of carbs are ‘safe starches’ such as potatoes or rice, wheat products such as bread do not have a beneficial effect on sleep.
- Don’t drink too much before bedtime. This (obviously) reduces the needs to go to the bathroom at night. The so called ‘nocturia’ impairs sleep quality.
- Magnesium pre-bed. Sufficient intake of the essential mineral magnesium is related to an increase in testosterone and sports performance. The intake of magnesium can also improve sleep quality [2,3]. If you supplement, it should be in the form of more bioavailable magnesium citrate, chloride, lactate or aspartate (not oxide). The standard dose is daily 200-400mg.
8. Move during the day
Exercise and activity have a tremendous positive effect on your overall well being. Done during day, they also make it easier for your body to calm down at night. However, avoid exercising late and leave a time window of 2 to 3 hours to let your nervous system wire down before bedtime. Detailed recommendations will be covered in a future article, basic recommendations are the following.
- Intermittent movement. Generally, integrate as much light activity into your day as possible. Stand for half of your day, take a standing break every 30-45 min, aim for walking 10’000 steps a day.
- Resistance training or other high intensity training: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, or 30 sets of highest intensity activity per week, or some combination of the above.
9. De-stress & relax
Stress can impair your sleep to a great extent. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of insomnia cases are emotion or stress related.
- Warm shower before bed. Thermoregulation directly impacts your sleep. A warm shower or bath has a relaxing effect and significantly improves your sleep quality.
- Use relaxation techniques. If you have trouble finding inner peace and calm at night, relaxation therapies can significantly improve your sleep [2,3]. Proven methods include daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, and keeping a gratitude journal. Meditation is especially effective in resetting your mood state and your stress level.
- Avoid stressful and emotionally upsetting conversations or activities at night. This includes working late. Create an emotional buffer between the rest of your day and the 30-45 minutes prior to bedtime. Read a book or listen to music.
10. Nap at midday
Use naps strategically. If you missed sleep at night a midday nap is a good way to reduce your sleep deficit. You even can use it tactically to compensate for little sleep each night.
There are further measures you might want to consider, if previous action steps are not sufficient to make you fall asleep within 20 minutes.
Try GABAergic supplements, if it is stress that keeps you awake (and meditation is not sufficient to relax you). Supplement with Phenibut or Valerian  to induce the neurotransmitter GABA that calms you down.
Try Melatonin, if it is not stress that keeps you awake. Supplementing the sleep hormone melatonin improves sleep quality and reduces sleep latency without any significant side-effects or addiction [2,3,4]. It is especially effective against jet lag and shift work. Do not use melatonin without actually improving your sleep hygiene as e.g. bright light exposure still has disrupting effects on your sleep. The best is to start with a minimal dose and work up to a higher one. The benefits are not dose-dependent – taking more will not help you fall asleep faster.