I'm A Behavioral Sleep Doctor: 5 Surprising Tips For A Better Slumber
When it comes to optimizing healthy sleep, we know everyone has a different protocol. For some, it's about tweaking their diet; for others, it's enhancing their bedtime environment. There's no one-size-fits-all plan for high-quality shut-eye, and that's what makes it such a dynamic topic—there are endless personal experiments you can try, from natural sleep-supporting supplements to nighttime rituals.*
So when behavioral sleep doctor Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, sees someone struggling with sleep, she has plenty of lifestyle interventions to share. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, she details five of her most underrated tips that can actually help you fall and stay asleep longer—chances are one of the below will work in your favor:
Go to sleep later.
"It's weird, but if you have trouble falling asleep or even with early morning wakings, I'll have you go to bed later," says Harris. It sounds counterintuitive: Why would you go to bed later in order to get more sleep? But according to Harris, if you don't feel sleepy, lying in bed and trying to force it is not so helpful: "If you can't fall asleep, I'd rather you go to bed when you're really sleepy so that you feel more confident in your ability to fall asleep," she says.
Whereas the more you lie in bed tossing and turning, the more your mind may associate your bed with that lack of rest. "The bed becomes more about that than actual sleep," Harris notes. Over time, you might start to feel wired as soon as you slide under the covers. So rather than beginning this cycle, Harris simply says to go to bed when you feel tired—not when you hit a specific bedtime.
"Some people will argue with me and say, 'But I can't go to bed later!' and I'll ask why, and they'll say, 'Because how am I going to stay up until that time?'" Harris explains. Her answer? "Well, then it's not a problem anymore."
Exercise 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
In terms of the best exercise for sleep, Harris says any sort of workout is good. As long as you're moving your body in some way, you're in good shape. Specifically, though, she recommends doing any sort of cardio four to six hours before bed, as this type of exercise raises your heart rate and body temperature.
"If you want to help your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, four to six hours before bed is great," Harris notes. "It's warming your internal body temperature up, which is what you want to have happen, and then a few hours later, you start cooling down. And that cooling-down process about one to two hours before sleep is what helps your brain release melatonin, and it helps induce sleepiness." Your core body temperature naturally decreases1 during sleep, after all.
On the flip side: "If you exercise within three hours of bed, you're actually warming yourself up and making yourself too warm to fall asleep," Harris says. "You might feel relaxed mentally and physically, but your internal body temperature is too high that it actually makes it hard to sleep." In fact, one 2019 study in the journal Sports Medicine found that those who did vigorous exercise less than one hour before bed took longer to fall asleep and had poorer sleep quality2.
So if you can time your workouts four to six hours before bed, Harris says that's ideal. Now, if you're partial to morning workouts, which does not fall within that four- to six-hour window, that's fine, too. "I work out in the morning every day," says Harris. "It's great, but I don't expect it to help or hurt my sleep."
Don't shower right before bed.
On a similar note, Harris advises against a late-night shower, for the same reason as above: Sure, a steamy shower might make you feel relaxed before bed, but you're raising your body temperature, which can make it harder for you to fall right asleep.
"For me, an ideal wind-down [routine] would be taking a shower an hour or two before bed," Harris says, as that should give your body enough time to cool back down. Or you could shower in the morning, of course, but the evening shower has more than a few pros to mind.
Don't sleep in.
Another tip that sounds counterintuitive: If you're falling short on sleep, you actually shouldn't try to clock more hours by sleeping late. You might think you're compensating for that lack of sleep, but Harris says you're only going to make it harder to fall asleep once nighttime rolls back around. "The nighttime starts with the morning," she says. "If you get up around the same time every day, it helps to make you 'hungry' enough [for sleep]. Then when bedtime comes, you've got enough hunger for sleep that you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer."
Other experts concur: "It's almost impossible to catch up on sleep," clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., says on another episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "The consistency of your sleep schedule is actually what gives you energy. It's actually what allows you to feel better."
"Hydration is huge," says Harris. In fact, many people who face issues with sleep tend to wake up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, sometimes multiple times. For these individuals, investigating their water intake is key: "Some of these people are not drinking enough during the day, so come nighttime, they're super thirsty," says Harris. They chug a glass or two of water, and then they pay for it with trips to the bathroom. That's not to say you shouldn't drink if you're feeling thirsty, but Harris encourages you to prioritize hydration throughout the day, not just at night. "I encourage people to really try and hydrate throughout the day so that you're not backlogging it at night," she says.
Plus, she notes, a lack of sleep can be very dehydrating. A 2019 study even found that adults who had a short sleep duration (six hours or less) also had inadequate hydration levels3. "So I encourage everyone in the morning, if you've had a rough night of sleep, start your day with a big glass of water," says Harris. "I always have water with a lemon slice in it."
Who knew such unsuspecting habits could affect your shut-eye? While we've discussed the importance of movement for high-quality sleep, your (later) bedtime, hydration levels, and shower schedule can all affect your ability to wind down. Perhaps try one of these tips during your next personal sleep experiment.