4 Life Hacks for Better Sleep

Treat yourself to a sleep makeover.

Puppy Sleeping

For many, getting a good night's sleep feels like a fantasy. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared insufficient sleep a public health problem: An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

"What people need to remember is that sleep is built into our system, so it's abnormal that we have problems with it," says Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success and creator of The Model Health Show.

Stevenson believes that many adults aren't giving sleep the credit it deserves. "Our common paradigm, the common way we think today, is that if you're not working hard, then you're not going to win," explains Stevenson. "Sleep is literally your body saying, 'You can take rest.' But it's hard for us to wrap our minds around that."

If that sounds all-too-familiar, give these four simple sleep solutions a try and see if you can make a good night's sleep your new reality.

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Move it — even a little — first thing in the morning.

Puppy Sleeping

Stevenson says that the timing of your exercise can help you sleep better at night. "Appalachian State University conducted a study where they broke exercisers into three groups: Group A worked out at 7 a.m., Group B worked out at 1 p.m. and Group C at 7 p.m.," he says. "And they found that the morning exercisers spent more time sleeping and their sleep cycles were deeper — some of them spent up to 75 percent more time in deep, anabolic stages of sleep."

Here's the good part: If breaking a serious sweat before heading to work doesn't fit with your schedule, a five- to 10-minute mini-workout — such as yoga, strength training, or an impromptu dance party in your living room — can be just as effective.

"Getting in some morning activity resets your circadian rhythm (also referred to as the "body clock," which is a 24-hour biological process that helps regulate our sleep and wake times), as well as your cortisol rhythm," Stevenson says. He explains that the levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone, should be elevated in the morning (usually between 6 and 8 a.m.) and gradually decline throughout the day.

"However, a lot of people are not having that natural cortisol rhythm because they're what we call 'clinically tired and wired,'" Stevenson continues. "They're wired in the evening because their cortisol is elevated, and then they can't peel themselves off the mattress in the morning because their cortisol is too low."

Let the sun shine in.

Puppy Sleeping

"Exposure to natural sunlight in the morning has been clinically proven to help you sleep better at night by encouraging a normal cortisol rhythm," Stevenson says. "Yet all sunlight is not created equal."

Generally speaking, the ideal hours to open the shades and/or step outside are between the hours of 6 and 8:30 a.m. "Naturally, this window varies depending on the time of year and how far you are from the equator."

But later-morning and afternoon sunlight will also prime your body for a good night of shut-eye. In order to soak in more natural daylight, he recommends taking coffee and lunch breaks outside, trying to hold walking meetings with colleagues, and requesting a workspace close to a window.

If incorporating more sunshine into your life just doesn't seem possible, Stevenson suggests investing in a light box, which has been found to be effective in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as well as clinical depression. "It emits a special light — mainly blue light — that encourages the production of serotonin and cortisol," he says.

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Block the blue light.

Puppy Phone

If you have trouble dozing off at night, your smartphone may be to blame. "Our devices are wrecking our sleep," Stevenson says. "I'm a big fan of my iPhone, I love my devices, but we have to put this stuff in its proper place."

He refers to a Harvard study, which found that the artificial light from screens suppresses melatonin (the compound associated with sleep) and elevates cortisol (aka the stress hormone), ultimately messing up our sleep cycles. While establishing a screen curfew before bedtime is best (Stevenson recommends 90 minutes before your head hits the pillow), he adds that those who simply refuse to break away from email or Netflix can use the latest technology that blocks the bad blue rays.

"Harvard researchers also found that not all colors of light impact your sleep the same," he says. "Blue light suppressed melatonin, but red light was the least influential on disrupting your sleep cycle." He suggests cooling off your screen by installing an app on your device that will automatically pull out the problematic light at night. (Stevenson likes f.lux.) And for those staring at their flat-screen TVs, he advises sporting a pair of light-blocking glasses. (Amazon offers a large selection.)

Focus on the 'When,' not the 'How Long.'

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Stevenson doesn't advise people to get a specific number of zzzs each night. "That advice is just too cookie-cutter — it has no bearing," he says. "There are people who will sleep 8 or 9 hours a night and feel wrecked in the morning!"

Instead, he says good sleep comes down to when you hit the hay. "The research shows that between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. we have the greatest secretion of human growth hormone (HGH), which is also known as the youth hormone, keeping you younger longer."

HGH is a powerful substance produced by the body that is responsible for developing muscles and bones, regulating the metabolism, repairing enzymes, and boosting brain function. "In other words, you'll get your beauty sleep." Stevenson refers to this four-hour time slot as the "money time window."

"Timing your sleep is like timing an investment: It doesn't matter how much you invest as much as it does when you invest. If you invest even a little at the right time, you'll get some big rewards."

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