Sleep is such a fixture in our everyday lives that it can easily slip down on our list of priorities. But, according to health experts, healthy sleep habits deserve a fixed spot at number one. “Sleep is not only important for our well-being, it is essential for survival,” Christina Kang , MS, a nutritionist and health coach at Parsley Health, says, describing it as a cornerstone for our mental health , physical health, and overall wellness.
On the other hand, poor sleep has long been associated with a host of detrimental impacts on our health. Specifically, sleep deprivation can increase our risk of heart disease, injury, depression, mood disorders, and diabetes , while decreasing immune activity, gut health , and cognitive function. Luckily, it’s never too late to make improvements to your approach to sleep. Below, Kang shares some of the best healthy sleep habits to adopt and lifestyle changes to make for better sleep—and, therefore, better health.
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, Kang emphasizes the importance of zeitgebers (the regularly scheduled occurrences that allow our bodies to keep pace with the 24-hour day). Natural daylight and darkness are some of the most powerful zeitgebers we can encounter. Getting direct exposure to morning light will help set your body’s “clock,” which allows it to regulate temperature , metabolism, digestion, and keep other vital internal processes running as usual. The end result is a healthy circadian rhythm, the cadence at which our body rests, stays asleep, and wakes.
The timing of your meals and workouts can also serve as zeitgebers—eating (ideally a prebiotic, anti-inflammatory diet, as gut health contributes to high-quality sleep ) and exercising at roughly the same times every day will help fine-tune your aforementioned internal clock. (Yes, they are healthy sleep habits .) For example, Kang says that some may find exercising too stimulating to do in the evening, so they’ll have better sleep if they work out earlier in the day. (For the record, working out has been linked to more restful sleep , so doing it regularly at a time that works for you may help you catch more Zs).
Yet another potential zeitgeber is when you shower, Kang says. Cold showers are better suited for morning showerers because they’ll help raise your internal temperature (which helps your body wake up). Meanwhile, warm baths or showers will lower your body temperature and, in turn, help you wind down at the end of the day.
The most crucial part of your daily schedule, however, is almost definitely your wake-up time. Waking up at the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends) trains your body to better understand what hours of the day are intended for waking and which are for sleeping. By that same token, it’s just as important to go to sleep at the same time every night.
In order to determine your optimal bedtime and wake-up times, Kang recommends hitting the hay at the same time for several nights in a row and waking up without an alarm. “If you feel refreshed waking up, that’s your ideal quantity of sleep,” she says. You can then set your bedtime and morning alarm accordingly. (Learning about your chronotype, or genetic predisposition for certain sleep cycles, will further inform the kind of daily schedule you should maintain. Read more on chronotypes here .)
Generally speaking, limiting caffeinated foods and beverages to the morning hours will help you get better sleep . “Caffeine has an average half-life of around six hours, so 12 hours later, one-quarter of it is still in your system,” Kang explains, adding that caffeine increases wakefulness, arousal from sleep , and the duration of stage 1 sleep (in which your body shifts from waking to sleeping) to the point that you lose out on more slow-wave sleep, or the sleep stages that allow your body and brain to recover from the day.
However, Kang is quick to point out that some people metabolize caffeine more quickly than others, perhaps due to genetics, so it’s important to know your own body and how it handles caffeine. At any rate, if you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine’s stimulatory effects, definitely stick to your morning coffee and little else.
Simply put, stress leads to restlessness, which is a recipe for poor sleep. Research suggests that when cortisol , the main stress hormone in our bodies, spikes, the amount of deep sleep we get falls. Beyond that, chronic stress may reduce not only REM sleep in particular but sleep overall —and cause severe sleep disruptions .
Kang recommends dealing with stress as it arises throughout the day and making time in the evenings for, perhaps, meditative breathing practice or relaxing yoga flow. These sorts of activities will kickstart the parasympathetic nervous system, which Kang describes as “the braking system of the fight-or-flight nervous response,” and help you unwind.
You’ve probably heard it more times than you can count, yet it bears repeating: Bright, blue lights from phones, tablets, and TVs disrupt our normal circadian rhythm, increase alertness, and make it harder to fall asleep. And that doesn’t even cover the kind of news you might be reading off your phone , stressing you out and further inhibiting the kind of restful state you should seek at bedtime. “Try setting a device-free period leading up to bed to avoid getting caught up in social media or a Netflix series,” Kang says, adding that it’s a good idea to limit light, regardless of the source, around 8 p.m.
As mentioned earlier, body temperature plays a supporting role in when we feel awake and when we feel ready for sleep. Kang recommends keeping your bedroom on the cooler side and, again, if you need help relaxing before bed, taking a warm shower. “This small decrease in temperature then sends a powerful signal to the peripheral clocks in our body to synchronize with nighttime and sleepiness,” she explains.
Create a routine that helps you execute the healthy sleep habits listed above—and make sure you give yourself enough time to get it done before your determined bedtime. “If you think you need eight hours of sleep, make sure you set appropriate expectations and plan on being in bed longer than that (hopefully with a wind-down routine right before dozing off),” Kang explains. In addition to a warm shower, yoga flow, or screen-free period, an effective bedtime routine may include journaling, a mindfulness and gratitude practice, reading a physical book, or listening to soothing music, she says.
Getting quality sleep can reverse essentially all of the adverse effects of poor sleep mentioned earlier: Cognitive function, gut health , immune system response time, blood sugar regulation, and athletic recovery will improve; hormone levels will regulate; inflammation and risk factors to our overall health will decrease.
“I coach my members to make sleep a priority,” Kang says, and for a good reason—everyone stands to benefit from doing so. If you still have trouble catching high-quality shuteye after making these changes to your habits and lifestyle, consider speaking with your doctor or scheduling a free consultation with a Parsley Health advisor .
Sara Coughlin is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She's covered health, wellness, and lifestyle trends for such publications as Refinery29, InStyle, SELF, Livestrong, and Food52.
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