Sleep

New Year's resolutions to help you sleep better in 2021

"New year, new me"? How about "new year, new sleep" instead.

a woman curled up on her pillow in bed Credit: Getty Images / Adene Sanchez

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New Year’s resolutions are often grand ideas that involve big lifestyle changes—that often seem impossible to keep. But what about the little (more feasible) adjustments you can make to improve your health? Here I’m talking specifically about your sleep. Taking small steps to improve the quality of your rest can leave you more refreshed in the morning, and have a snowball effect of benefits both physiologically and psychologically.

Consider these six sleep-related resolutions you can make—and hopefully maintain—that will help you catch even better zzz’s in the new year.

Leave your phone and electronics outside of the bedroom overnight

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Sleeping with your phone outside your bedroom is the best practice—but if you can't be without it consider trying tech settings designed with sleep in mind.

Ah, the simplest yet somehow toughest struggle of them all: Freeing yourself from your phone. Smartphones are widely thought to be bad for your sleep—from stress-provoking social media to literally disrupting you all night as they ding and buzz with notifications. And that’s not even mentioning the blue light that screens emit, which can throw off your circadian rhythm, or the 24-hour, wake-rest cycle your body’s designed to follow that’s based largely on ambient light. Under normal circumstances, your brain starts to release melatonin, a hormone that causes drowsiness, about two hours before you go to bed. It makes you enter a calmer state. But continuing to expose yourself to blue light from screens in the hours leading up to bedtime disrupts that natural process and can lead to prolonged wakefulness and lower quality sleep.

If you really can’t be without your phone overnight—there could be a family emergency, or maybe you’re on-call at work—try capitalizing on the sleep-friendly tech settings available on your device. One of the basic and least noticeable settings you can use is called “Night Shift” on iOS, or “Blue Light Filter” on Android. This feature helps reduce your exposure to blue light on a custom schedule, or sunrise to sunset, or at your whim (though it’s more of a hassle to open your settings each day to enable it). While almost any bright light can suppress melatonin, exposure to blue light is especially bad. The efficacy of these settings has yet to be proven in research, but it’s a small change to your lifestyle and tech use with the potential to be a massive boon to your sleep and rest.

To take it a step further, enabling Do Not Disturb is a solid halfway point between decreasing your phone’s blue light output and leaving your phone outside your room. Do Not Disturb stops your phone from sending notifications throughout the night. But there’s a nifty loophole for those who fear being totally unreachable: the setting can be customized to allow notifications from certain contacts, or to ring if someone calls twice within, say, one minute. It won’t let your phone keep you up, but also gives you the extra security of knowing people can get in touch if they really need to.

Set aside time to wind down each night before bed

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One option for de-stressing before bed is quietly talking to a partner about your respective days.

There are plenty of day-to-day stressors—from the 24-hour news cycle and “doom-scrolling” to disagreements with partners to work deadlines. Even watching a scary or suspenseful TV show can work you up. But stress and sleep don’t jive well, so it’s best to use the time before you go to bed to de-stress.

Try soothing activities that will help you relax. Reading a book, for example, or having a quiet conversation with your partner about the personal victories of each of your days are both good options. You could get in the habit of listening to sleep podcasts or stories in the evening. Curling up on the couch with a weighted blanket—like our favorite from Gravity Blanket—can be soothing, triggering the same feel-good hormones, like oxytocin and dopamine, as when you receive a hug, and helping you settle down before bed.

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Better yet, build your wind-down into a full nightly routine, in which you sequentially incorporate activities that you find relaxing and that aren’t stimulating, as well as necessities like brushing your teeth. You could consider using an essential oil diffuser, like our favorite by Airomé, to train your body to associate a certain scent with sleep and relaxation. (Lavender may be a good starting point, it’s often thought to elicit relaxation.) Eventually, your body will come to associate your new habits with the end of the day and sleep, so simply starting the routine may help you feel sleepy as bedtime approaches.

Spend some time outside everyday

walking outside work
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Spending time outside, in natural light, can help you maintain your circadian rhythm.

Sure, sleep mostly happens in the bedroom, but even little things you do throughout the day can change its quality. Your body’s circadian rhythm is highly correlated with natural light and dark patterns, following the sun. As such, sunlight is one of the biggest external signals that helps your body differentiate day and night and its waking and sleeping hours. Getting exposure to natural light on a regular basis can help keep your circadian rhythm humming along.

If you want to go to bed and wake up earlier, you can manipulate your circadian rhythm by consciously timing light exposure. Even a few relatively short bursts of intense outdoor light early in the day can shift it earlier. Therefore, spend time outside in the morning if you want to feel tired earlier in the evening. One easy way to do this is build outside time into your work commute (assuming that’s still a thing for you). Consider parking your car a couple blocks away or at the far end of the parking lot or getting off a stop or two early from public transit and walking the rest of the way. Even for folks who work from home, taking a quick walk, even pre-coffee, around your neighborhood can mimic a regular commute and help you start the day on the right foot.

In terms of light, the inverse is true as well. Exposure to bright light close to bedtime inhibits melatonin production and can make it harder for you to doze off (yet another reason to put your phone to bed before yourself). In one study, people who used an e-reader within the four hours leading up to bedtime took longer to fall asleep and felt less alert the next day. Aside from extricating yourself from electronic devices, dim your home’s ambient lighting at least an hour before you plan to retire. Using your TV’s sleep timer or setting a smart plug or smart bulb with a living room lamp to shut off at the same time every night can serve as a great reminder for when it’s time to turn away from the light.

Make your bedroom something worthy of dreaming about

dim bedroom
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Dimming the lights before you go to bed will help you sleep better and maintain your circadian rhythm.

It’s probably not surprising that your sleep environment can have a major impact on the quality of your rest each night. As you may have surmised, your bedroom’s lighting is paramount: Dim is better. Blackout curtains are one option, but they’re pricey and won't help if you have a partner who stays up reading when you’re ready for some shuteye. A sleep mask like our favorites, the Nidra Deep Rest contoured mask and Alaska Bear mask, in contrast, are an affordable godsend. In addition, factors such as temperature and ambient noise, and even subconscious associations with the space itself, can play a role in determining whether you wake up refreshed or exhausted the next morning.

Temperature is a major player in quality sleep. The general consensus is that it’s best to sleep in a room that’s in the mid-60s. If you have a programmable thermostat, it’s easy to manage: Just set the temp to drop about an hour or so before bed. The best thermostat we tested, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat, is easy to use in this context, and even learns your schedule so you save energy. But even if you don’t have climate control, there are still options. If it’s cooler outdoors than in, cracking a window can also reduce your bedroom temperature. Also, your body temperature follows a daily rhythm, much like daylight. In the hours leading up to bed, it naturally undergoes a gradual drop. Taking a warm shower in the evening hours can contribute to the change—the shower itself heats you up, but as soon as you step foot outside, your body temperature will start to lower. On the flipside, if your room is quite chilly, consider a heated blanket, like our favorite by Berkshire, to help you achieve the best temperature for your sleep. If you’re accustomed to sleeping in warmer rooms, bumping the thermostat down (or cracking a window) a small increment at a time every night for at least a week may be easier than a drastic change. Sudden changes to sleep conditions can present their own challenges, and even if you go in increments you should give your body a few days to settle in.

If your space is loud due to a partner’s snoring, dogs barking outside, or passing traffic, you’re probably all too familiar with waking up throughout the night. Noise is a real pest when it comes to sleeping well. Fortunately, addressing sound can be as simple as buying a great pair of earplugs. You may also consider a white noise or sound machine, which drowns out other sounds and helps you sleep by covering up random noises that might crop up during the night. Our favorite, the Sound+Sleep High Fidelity Sound Machine, offers 10 soothing sounds to choose from—ranging from rainforest to waves, and even waterfall.

Another best practice is limiting bedroom activity to two fundamentals: sleep and sex. Avoid working on a computer or watching TV in your bedroom, for example, to help your brain build a positive association with the space and restfulness, as opposed to stress and wakefulness.

Get yourself on a better sleep schedule

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Give yourself enough time to sleep each night, and try to keep a consistent schedule.

Quantity isn’t quality… except when it comes to sleep. And in the U.S., one in three American adults isn’t getting the recommended minimum seven hours of shuteye a night. Sleeping enough has obvious benefits, like increased energy, better mood, and clearer thinking. Meanwhile, not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and impact your immune system’s function. Consistently cutting your nights short will even lead to a “sleep debt” that’s virtually impossible to catch up on.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, if you make spending more time sleeping a priority. Step one is to aim to give yourself enough time at night—don’t go to bed at 1 a.m. if you need to be up at 6 a.m, for example. If you’re the sort who loses track of time before collapsing into bed, your aim should be to set up a routine with specific reminders that bedtime is imminent.

Another suggestion: Try to keep a consistent schedule. Going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day (even weekends) will help you maintain your circadian rhythm and internal clock. One study found that having an irregular sleep schedule led to insufficient and poor quality sleep among university students. You may think that sleeping in on the weekend is a good way to play catch-up on sleep deprivation, but it may only serve to disrupt your sleep schedule if you can’t get to bed at your desired time on Sunday.

Sleeping at night will always be the gold standard, but it’s not the end-all be-all. For some, like parents with young kids or a baby, it could prove difficult. In those cases, naps are an option to reduce sleep debt and help you feel your best.

Eat your way to better sleep

kiwifruit
Credit: Getty Images / Mizina

Kiwi is one food that has potential benefits when eaten before bed.

Even the food you eat can change your sleep. One study found that eating a couple kiwis can improve your sleep onset and duration. Other researchers concluded drinking fresh tart cherry juice improved the sleep of older adults with insomnia. Unfortunately there aren’t many foods that help your sleep—the conversation is more often about those that harm it.

Coffee and caffeine are among the biggest culprits. There’s debate on how much coffee you can have, when you can drink it, how late in the day, and so on—but there’s no ignoring the fact that it’s bad for your sleep. Drinking caffeine within six hours of bedtime can reduce your sleep by as much as an hour. Even relying on caffeine throughout the day can impact your nights. Researchers found that dependence on caffeine correlated to waking up more throughout the night, feeling worse during the day, and decreased sleep quality overall. So set aside the coffee mug well in advance of when you want to hit the hay.

Alcohol may make you feel as though you’re sleeping better, but it causes more harm than good. Moderate to high consumption of alcohol decreases REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, which is thought to be important for memory. Of course, it’s not a problem to have an adult beverage every so often, but in general you’ll rest better if you keep alcohol at bay.

Other things to steer clear of at night include high protein or large and rich meals, as well as foods that are spicy. Aside from that, you know the drill—eat healthy foods throughout the day—and your sleep will thank you.

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