When you wake, do you feel refreshed and ready to tackle your day? Or, do you wake up feeling exhausted? Do you toss and turn at night, waking at the slightest noise or movement? If so, you might be a light sleeper.
While most of us have trouble sleeping once in a while, some people experience light sleep many nights of the week, seriously affecting their health, work, relationships, and daily life. In fact, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic light sleeping problems.
Not getting the recommended amount of sleep can have serious short and long-term impact on your physical and mental health. Sleep disruptions can cause weight gain, a lowered immune system, impaired concentration and memory, slower reaction time, errors, and accidents. Studies have even shown that low sleep quality impairs our cognitive and motor functions, the same way that drinking too much alcohol does.
The quality of your sleep is affected by a number of internal and external factors. Genetics, age, and lifestyle play significant roles in the type and length of sleep stages and sleep cycles you experience. For light sleepers, the consequences of low-quality sleep can be distracting at the least and dangerous at worst. But there are many ways to improve your sleep. Here are some of our favorite tactics for conquering light sleep problems.
How to Get the Best Sleep Possible
1. Create a sleep environment that is dark and quiet. When it’s dark at night, your eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired. Your brain, in turn, sends a signal to your body to release melatonin, which makes you sleepy.
2. Give some thought to your bed’s comfort level. Research shows that your mattress, pillow, and bedding can greatly impact sleep quality by reducing joint and back pain. One study found that a bed suited for your body type can improve sleep quality by 60%.
3. Lower the bedroom temperature. Bedroom temperature has been shown to affect sleep quality even more than external noise. If the room is too warm, it can interfere with your body’s natural nightly temperature dip and make you more restless through the night. Research suggests that your bedroom should be between 60-67 degrees and that temperatures above 75 degrees or below 54 degrees can interfere with sleep.
4. Consider taking a melatonin supplement. Studies show that taking melatonin has a major impact on sleep quality and quantity. Just be sure to read the dosage recommendations on the label. Start slowly to determine the amount that’s right for you, and take the supplement about an hour before bedtime.
5. Avoid alcohol and over-the-counter sleep medications. Research shows that those who drink before bed woke more frequently and experienced lighter sleep during the second half of the night, preventing the Level 3 and 4 sleep that restores our body and mind. In every person, alcohol metabolizes at 0.016% per hour. So, you can do the math. The more heavily you drink, the earlier you should stop drinking.
6. Avoid late-night eating, especially high-calorie foods and those that cause heartburn. This disrupts the natural release of melatonin and serotonin, which relieves anxiety and improves time spent in REM sleep. Instead, try eating a complex carbohydrate 2 to 4 hours before bed. Choose a whole grain snack like popcorn, oatmeal, or a whole grain cereal. Also consider having a little lowfat cottage cheese or milk, both of which contain tryptophan, or a fruit such as tart cherries, bananas, or oranges, which contain melatonin.
7. Establish a consistent bedtime schedule. After awhile, your brain will automatically cue you that it’s time to start feeling tired. If you don’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing. Read a book or listen to soothing music. Then, go back to bed when you’re tired.
8. Set up a relaxing bedtime routine. The routine tells your brain that it’s time to prepare for sleep. Try dimming the lights, taking a warm bath, playing relaxing music, lighting a lavender candle, or whatever works for you.
9. Consider a technical shutdown 2 to 3 hours before bed. The blue light emitted from computer monitors, tablets, TVs, and smartphones closely mimics the light emitted by the sun, causing our bodies to lower production of sleep-inducing melatonin. In fact, an article in Scientific American says, “The light from our devices is ‘short-wavelength-enriched,’ meaning it has a higher concentration of blue light than natural light—and blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.”
10. Try practicing deep relaxation techniques. If you wake in the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep, try systematically tensing and releasing of each individual muscle in your body one at a time may help. Start with your toes and slowly proceeding toward your scalp while breathing deeply and concentrating on the stress leaving your body as you exhale.
11. Keep a journal. If a life event, like moving or a new job, is the source of your light sleeping problems, get the worries out of your mind and down on paper. Store your journal by your bed, and if a stressful thought occurs, take it out of your mind and commit it to paper. You can readdress that stressor in the morning, if needed.
12. Address the stress. If you think that your light sleeping issue is stress-related, try to figure out what’s stressing you out. If it’s situational, consider making some life changes. If it’s not, it might be time to consult a mental health professional who can teach you how to change your thought patterns or who can determine if medication is needed.
13. Consider other supplements that are scientifically proven to help you relax, reduce stress, and sleep better, but make sure to try them one at a time.
Plant-Based: Ginkgo, Valerian Root, Lavender, Passion Flower
Amino Acids: Glycine, L-Theanine, Tryptophan
14. Keep a sleep diary. This will help you identify day and nighttime habits and patterns that might be contributing to your light sleep problems. Keeping a sleep diary is also especially helpful if you decide to see your doctor or a sleep expert. Your diary should include:
- The times that you went to bed and woke up
- Total hours you slept and and an estimate of how much of that time you had quality sleep
- Amount of time you spent awake and what you did (got out of bed, watched tv, drank a glass of milk, meditated, etc.)
- Types and amount of food, liquids, caffeine, or alcohol you consumed before bed, and the times at which you consumed them.
- Your feelings and moods before bed (happiness, sadness, stress, anxiety)
- Any drugs or medications taken, including dose and time of consumption
A sleep diary can pinpoint day and nighttime habits that may be contributing to your problems at night. After keeping the diary for a week or two, you might notice, for example, that when you have more than one glass of wine in the evening, you wake up during the night.
15. Wake at consistent times, even on weekends. Irregular sleep patterns can confuse your circadian rhythm, causing you to lose quality sleep. Eventually, once your sleep/wake cycle is consistent, you might not even need to set a morning alarm!
16. Get some morning sun. Our eyes have special receptors called melanopsin that help us wake up and stay alert. They work in conjunction with our hypothalamus, which controls your circadian rhythm, also known as your sleep/wake cycle. Together, they play a role in triggering the release of serotonin in the brain – the neurotransmitter that helps regulate natural sleep cycles. Getting plenty of bright light early in the day, preferably within one hour of waking will help you feel more energetic, and sleep more soundly at night. Sleep Specialist Dr. Michael Breus wrote: “How much sleep we get and how well we sleep is profoundly affected by light [and] exposure to light at the right time of day can actually help your sleep.”Recently, scientists at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigated how daylight exposure affected the health, including nighttime sleep, of a group of office workers. The study revealed that the employees who got more sun, through office windows, slept an average of 46 minutes more than their coworkers who did not have windows. They also had more energy during the day. So, if possible, snag a desk by a window and if you don’t have access to sunlight, consider purchasing a light therapy box to use indoors. Also, try taking a walk outside on your morning break without sunglasses, which filter the full-spectrum light and confuse the signal received by your brain.
17. Avoid nicotine. Because it’s a stimulant, nicotine can reduce the amount of deep sleep you get. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University conducted a sleep study of 40 smokers and 40 nonsmokers. Five percent of the nonsmokers said they commonly experienced light sleep problems, whereas 22.5% of the smokers said they struggled with restless sleep. If you’re not ready to quit, try just cutting back, and don’t smoke close to bedtime.
18. Avoid all forms of caffeine (like coffee, black tea, some sodas, and energy drinks) or any other stimulants past noon. Researchers at Wayne State College of Medicine and the Sleep Disorders & Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital analyzed the sleep-disruptive effects of caffeine consumption at different lengths of time before bed. They found that caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bedtime resulted in significantly diminished sleep quantity and quality. If you’re in the habit of drinking coffee in the afternoon or evening, try switching to decaffeinated coffee or an herbal tea. Also, check the labels on other drinks and supplements. Diet pills can contain large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants.
19. Exercise regularly to clear your mind, but avoid working out at least 3 hours before bedtime, as vigorous exercise can increase energy. So, what is the best time of day to work out or take a vigorous walk? According to Dr. Sofie Laage-Christiansen of Aarhus University, Denmark,“Exercising in the morning daylight helps you to sleep. It helps to kick-start the brain in the same way as when you expose yourself to bright light early in the morning, and it makes the body release melatonin earlier in the evening.”A National Sleep Foundation study compared the sleep quality of those who exercise and those that don’t. Both groups said they slept about the same amount of time, but sleep quality was significantly different. And, those who exercised reported far better sleep compared who didn’t.
20. Limit naps. For some people, sleep during the day can affect sleep at night. Naps that are more than 30 minutes or that occur close to your bedtime can compromise your ability to fall or stay asleep. It’s easy to see how napping can become a bad pattern: Nap during the day, sleep poorly at night, then feel sleepy during the day. Avoiding this habit is simple, though. If you truly need a siesta, just keep it around 20 minutes so you get solid rest and wake up alert.
Should I call my doctor?
If you’ve tried a variety of self-help remedies without success, schedule an appointment with a sleep specialist or ask your family doctor for a referral to a sleep clinic. Light sleep problems can be related to internal factors such as age, onset of menopause, sleep apnea, asthma, depression, anxiety, or substance addiction. Medical professionals can help uncover the root causes of your light sleep problems and provide helpful treatments.
What happens if my doctor refers me to a sleep clinic?
If you go to a sleep clinic, a specialist will observe your sleep patterns, brain waves, heart rate, rapid eye movements and more using monitoring devices attached to your body. While sleeping with a bunch of wires attached to you might seem difficult, most patients find they quickly get used to it. If you find it impossible to sleep at the clinic, a sleep specialist can provide you with equipment to monitor your activities (awake and asleep) at home.
Normally, after the sleep study is complete, the sleep specialist will send the results to your doctor, who will then schedule a follow-up visit to discuss a diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment.
Whether the cause of your light sleep problems is your lifestyle or your physical/mental health, know that there is a reason for your light sleep, and there is a solution. There are plenty of ways to improve the quality of your sleep. Slight changes to your daytime and nighttime routines can make all the difference in conquering your light sleep problems.