Why We Sleep: Top 10 Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep

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In the third and final installment of my series on sleep called Why We Sleep, I’m going to share the Top 10 Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep. This list of sleep tips is compiled from information all over the web and in the literature, including the podcast I keep mentioning (which is shared in full at the bottom of this list), the National Sleep Foundation, and Lights Out by TS Wiley. I’ve included some of my sources right within the list, and I’ll link a few more good ones at the bottom of this post to ensure that you know I’m not making this stuff up. I shared the first two tips in the previous two posts in the series, but I wanted this list to be complete, so you get two repeats if you’ve been following along.

Make sure you bookmark this post so you can come back to it as you master each step in the challenge to improve your sleep. I know I myself could stand to better integrate some of these tips!

Why We Sleep (2)photo on the left side of this image taken by Mike Durkin, cropped and color balance altered, sourced through Creative Commons

Top 10 Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep

  1. Use Your Bedroom for Sleeping Only (and sex)

    • It’s not for reading.
    • It’s not for texting.
    • It’s not for working or sending one last email.
    • It’s not for TV. (In fact, get that TV out of your room completely.)
    • And it’s DEFINITELY not for Candy Crush.
    • Train your brain that your bed is for sleeping, and rid any other potential associations you might have that could send your mind into racing thoughts as your head down to sleep.
  2. Dim the Lights an Hour Before Bed

    • Dim your overhead lights if you can, or switch to softer lighting (like lamps and/or candles) once the sun goes down, or at least an hour before bed.
    • Turn off the screens (TV, computer, tablet) an hour before bed to allow your brain to resume proper melatonin production, which helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. If you have to keep working once the sun goes down, reduce your exposure to blue light by using an app like F.lux on your computer or purchasing blue-blocking glasses like these (affiliate link). 
  3. Close the Kitchen 2 to 3 Hours Before Bedtime

    • Foods that are difficult to break down (like heavy meats, greasy, or rich food) can create indigestion if you eat too close to bedtime.
    • Foods high in sugar can create a burst of energy too late into the night, in addition to packing on the pounds, which can sometimes lead to snoring and additional sleep challenges.
  4. Cut off the Coffee in the PM hours

    • Coupling coffee with poor sleep can really become a vicious cycle if you continue to drink coffee into the afternoon. The earlier you can have your last cup of the day, the better. 
    • If you’re on the coffee train, try to cut back to 2 cups a day if you’re having more than that, and absolutely stop before 2pm. 
  5. Dry Up Early

    • Minimize your water intake an hour before bed so your bladder won’t wake you up in the night. 
    • If you drink alcohol, keep it to a minimum — one or two drinks a few hours before bed. A drink or two might help you fall sleep, but having more than that will reduce your REM sleep and make for a restless evening. 
  6. Stay Cool and Comfy

  7. Exercise Early

    • Staying active is important for promoting sound sleep, but working out too late in the day will get your blood pumping too close to bedtime. If you can’t start your day at the gym, make sure you’re cooling down at least 2 to 3 hours before it’s time to go to sleep.
  8. Use White Noise

    • Consider ear plugs or a white noise machine to help drown out the creaks of an old house or the snores of a partner, especially if you’re a light sleeper or have trouble getting back to sleep once you’re awoken.  
  9. If You’re Up, Get Up

    • Don’t just lay there if you’re having trouble getting to sleep. It creates frustration and unrest  in your bed.
    • If after 20 minutes or so, you’re still awake, get out of bed and sit on the couch with some dull reading material (not work, not your favorite sci-fi thriller, definitely not the news). After 5 to 10 minutes, give it another try in bed. 
  10. Wind Down with Peaceful Input

    • Avoid too much mental and emotional stimulation right before bed.
    • If you MUST watch or listen to the news, do it in the morning or afternoon, not in the evening. 
    • If you love Game of Thrones and Daredevil as much as I do, watch them well before you start your bedtime routine.
    • Stay away from phone calls or conversations that could leave you stewing right before bed time.

Thanks for following me through the last three posts on Why We Sleep. I hope you learned a few things and found some of the sleep tips and tricks useful on your journey to a well-rested existence. You might be surprised at how much better you feel after just one quality night’s sleep! Don’t forget to bookmark this post (or the whole series) so that you can revisit this list as you master each of these skills, one at a time.

I also encourage you to subscribe to Inquiring Minds so you can learn all kinds of science-y things you might not have known before! Check out the resources below, including the full episode of the podcast.

Here’s the podcast from Inquiring Minds I’ve mentioned at every turn throughout this series:

Here’s the link to the episode notes so you can follow along:


Other resources for sleep tips and information to check out if you’re still not convinced:





FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains an affiliate link, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.

Why We Sleep: What Really Happens When We Sleep?

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Last week I released part 1 in a series called Why We Sleep that will run through this week and into next week. Today we’ll cover what happens when we sleep and discuss some misconceptions, and next Wednesday, we’ll wrap up with a complete list of awesome sleep hygiene tips I know you’ll find super helpful. 

When I discussed the health risks of insufficient sleep in the first installment of Why We Sleep, I didn’t share much about the how or the why these health risks arise. A big part of how and why things start to go awry when we skip out on the zz’s is tucked into the answer to this question: “what happens when we sleep?” What actually takes place in our brains when we check out for the night is quite extraordinary. You might be surprised to find out that it’s only when we sleep that certain processes occur, and there’s no getting around it. 

why we sleep, what happens when we sleep?photo on the left side of this image taken by Mike Durkin, cropped and color balance altered, sourced through Creative Commons

What Happens When We Sleep?

A Symphony of Synchrony

Matt Walker’s research at UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging lab revealed what he calls a symphony of brain activity. In our deepest stages of sleep (stages 3 and 4), brain cells all fire together and then become silent. Hundreds of thousands of cells all unite to do the exact same thing, creating this mass synchrony effect. While this is happening, the cortex goes into a default mode of a slow but highly synchronized chant.

That’s all fine and good, but so what? What does this do for us day to day?

When large parts of the brain start syncing up, the brain is able to connect different pieces of information across vast distances, precipitating the synthesis of complex ideas and experiences and creating a “rich tapestry” of knowledge and information across the span of the entire brain. It takes what we learned that day and connects it to stored information, creating context, relationships with information new and old, and a deeper understanding of complex ideas. Matt Walker described it as “converting knowledge to wisdom.” I love that. Don’t you? 

Waste Management Services

I came across a video that explains how sleep serves as a waste removal system, flushing toxins from the brain, including beta amyloid, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. They do a great job of explaining it, so I’ll just let them do that. Check it out.

Our Memory Maker

Think of the brain like a sponge with a bucket underneath it, and all day long (in waking life) the sponge gets filled with the water of what we take in (information). Now think of the night (while we’re sleeping) as the time to wring out the sponge and store the liquid in the bucket underneath to make room for the next day’s water supply. This wringing out takes place in Stage 2 non-REM sleep and at no other point in our sleeping or waking lives. Without it, we simply can’t continue to take in and retain new information.

The effect of missing out on vital sleep is two-fold:

1. If we miss a lot of sleep the night BEFORE we take in important information, our chances of making solid memories of what we learned are greatly diminished, as our sponge is too full to hold onto much of anything new.

2. If we miss a lot of sleep the night AFTER we take in this information, the memories won’t be wrung out — they won’t be cemented into the architecture of the brain (stages 3 and 4 of non-REM sleep).

As Walker says, “If you don’t snooze, you lose.” I guess I wasted a lot of energy pulling all-nighters before big tests in college … 

Our Weight Watcher

Research has shown that insufficient sleep results not only in insulin resistance, but also an increase in ghrelin and a decrease in leptin. What are all these words??

Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes and is one of the main features of metabolic syndrome. It takes place when cells don’t properly take in insulin to neutralize glucose. This means higher levels of blood glucose upon waking — so high in fact, that you could get a positive reading for prediabetes after just a few nights of short sleep. Free-flowing insulin in the blood stream also has the potential to damage organs like the brain, kidneys, and liver. why we sleep, what happens when we sleep?

Ghrelin and leptin are the hormones that tell you when you’re hungry and full, respectively. When you don’t get enough sleep, chances are these hormone are telling you that you’re not full, and to keep on eating. Additionally, when we’re tired we tend to go for the sugary or starchy foods first, to give us a jolt of energy to get through the day. As you might have already noticed, this is the start of a vicious cycle that can result in weight gain and diabetes.

Full-blown Type 2 Diabetes comes with its own sleep challenges as well. Diabetics are more likely to have sleep apnea and damaged/inefficient kidneys, both of which can wake them up intermittently throughout the night (to breathe and to use the bathroom), exacerbating an already troubling problem. 

You can learn more about the connection between sleep and these hormones (and therefore weight) in my post Why Gut Health Matters: Your Weight. That post is part of a series too. If you haven’t checked it out, I suggest you bookmark it!

Our Alarm System

Fascinating research (also by Matt Walker and the folks at UC Berkeley) has determined that poor sleep creates a misfire when it comes to detecting facial expressions and the intentions of those around us. In other words, super sleepy people can’t tell if someone is a friend or a foe, if someone intends to shake their hand or do them harm. The distress signal from the brain to the heart is disconnected. “Sleep deprivation appears to dislocate the body from the brain,” said Walker. “You can’t follow your heart.” 

We lose our innate self-protective mechanisms when we lose sleep. We might also lose a fight with our partner when we misread their intention to give us a hug as their intention to tease us. 

Misconceptions About Sleep

Think you’ve found some short-cuts to get around short-sleeping yourself? Think again! I’ve compiled the 3 most common misconceptions about sleep and explained the science behind their inaccuracies. Get ready for some debunking!

1. As we get older, we need less sleep.

Older people can’t generate sleep as sufficiently, but they do in fact need just as much, if not more sleep than young to middle-aged adults. Evidence shows that as you age, some parts of the brain deteriorate more quickly than others, and unfortunately those that generate sleep atrophy more quickly than other parts of the brain. If you’re getting older and noticing that you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, seek help from a sleep professional.

why we sleep, what happens when we sleep?

2. You can acclimate to sleeping less, and eventually just need less sleep.

Habituation doesn’t change in terms of the body’s needs to function optimally. Your subjective sense of how well you’re doing on very few hours of sleep is not a good predictor of your objective state of alertness and functionality. You don’t know the consequences of sleep deprivation when you’re sleep deprived, just as someone who’s had a few drinks can’t quite tell that they probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel. This analogy is especially disturbing, because it’s been convincingly demonstrated that driving while exhausted is frighteningly more dangerous than driving while tipsy.

Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep. No other organism does this. There’s no evolutionary strategy to help us overcome sleep deprivation. 

3. If you need to stay up during the week, you can make it up on the weekend.

You can’t pay off your week’s sleep debt by binge sleeping on the weekends. Walker calls this one “sleep bulimia,” because it’s a binge/purge situation. The truth is, your brain never makes back up all the sleep it lost on the night of deprivation. Sleep allows us to sufficiently store the day’s information, so when we deprive ourselves within the first 24 hours of learning something new, we are far less able to store it for later use. Recovery sleep does not resolve this problem unless we relearn the information and sleep adequately immediately following (within 24 hours).

Today’s Action Item

I hope this information didn’t PUT you to sleep, but MOTIVATED you to take the necessary measures to strive for deep, restorative, consistent sleep. Last week, I shared one of the top 10 tips for getting a great night’s sleep:

Sleep Tip #1: Your bedroom is only for sleeping (and sex). Train your brain to associate your bed with sleeping and eliminate anything that could create racing thoughts or non-sleep in the bedroom.

This week, I’ll share the second tip for you to work on between now and next time when I’ll share the whole list. 

why we sleep, what happens when we sleep?


If you missed part 1 of this series: 8 Reasons to get 8 Hours, go check it out!

Sources for today’s post:

Inquiring Minds Podcast with Matt Walker: Why Did We Evolve to Sleep




Why We Sleep: 8 Reasons to Get 8 Hours

“Somewhere between infancy and even childhood now, we abandoned the notion that sufficient sleep is necessary.” – Matt Walker, Principal Investigator at UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab

How do you decide how much sleep you need? Is it really a decision, or is it more of a function of what your lifestyle allows? What if you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep? How does the amount you sleep and the quality really affect your health and performance? I plan to address these questions in my new series, Why We Sleep.

why we sleep, how much is enough sleep?

I know I did a two-part series already called Sleep Better a while back, but I promise there’s a ton of new and intriguing information that isn’t repeated from that series, so stick with me; you might be surprised at what you find out. And my hope is that what you learn will motivate you to get the sleep you need as consistently as you possibly can!

In this series, I will cover:

  1. Prioritizing Sleep
  2. How Much Sleep is Enough
  3. The Health Risks of Not Sleeping Enough (8 Reasons to get 8 Hours)
  4. What Happens When We Sleep
  5. Misconceptions About Sleep
  6. 10 Tips for Good Sleep Hygiene

We’ll cover the first three on this list today and start you off with one tip to work on for the week.

Prioritizing Sleep

Sleep is one of those things we all need but don’t always prioritize properly. Lately I’ve noticed myself getting caught up in post-work activities and then looking up at the clock to realize it’s 10:45pm and I haven’t started doing anything to prepare for sleep. My usual routine is to be in bed by 10:30, so this new (bad) habit of mine can cut into my sleep schedule by as much as an hour — and I can definitely feel it when I wake up in the morning. 

Understanding the role sleep plays in our health and wellbeing can help us understand why it’s so important to prioritize sleep, whether it’s in the form of greater discipline around a sleep routine (as is the case for me) or in the form of seeking help (as is the case for those with sleep pathologies like insomnia or sleep apnea).

After having a long conversation with a friend late into the evening on the topic of sleep challenges, I decided to revisit an episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Why Did We Evolve to Sleep? When this episode first aired, I sent it out to everyone I know who has trouble sleeping, and sadly, it was a pretty long list. According to Matt Walker, the expert interviewed in this episode, over 70 MILLION Americans have trouble sleeping. That’s completely insane to me, but just based on what I know of the people in my life, I believe it’s an accurate estimate. 

How Much Sleep is “Enough”?

“Humans are the only organism on earth that intentionally deprives ourselves of sleep for no reason.” – Matt Walker

I can honestly say that I’ve never subscribed to the colloquialism, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I LOVE sleeping. In fact, I’m a pretty terrible grouch when I don’t get enough sleep (I’d go as far as to say I’m relatively useless). I never believe people who say, “I don’t need to sleep that much. Six hours is enough,” because I can’t personally fathom doing that for more than one night in a row without completely losing my mind. But that’s just my personal take on the topic.

What does the science say? 

To best answer that question, we first have to understanding that our brains need a minimum amount of time to achieve both types of sleep (REM and non-REM) and all the stages of sleep (of which there are 4). And we go through these types and stages in cycles throughout the night. Based on what’s accomplished in these distinct components of sleep, research has confirmed what we’ve been told for years — we (adults) need about eight hours of sleep in each 24 hour cycle to stay healthy and function properly (source 1, source 2, source 3). If we get less than 7 hours of sleep, performance and health impairments become scientifically measurable and significant a lot more quickly that you might think. Our ability to bounce back from sleep debt is surprisingly limited.

In fact, consistently short-sleeping ourselves has been linked to a host of health problems, including a shocking number of chronic diseases. 

Sleeping Enough is Vitally Important for Good Health

why we sleep, how much is enough sleep?

photo in this image taken by Mike Durkin, color balance altered, sourced through Creative Commons

Avoiding disease and enhancing good health all seem like pretty strong motivations to find a way to prioritize sleep, but sometimes the prospect of long-term health problems isn’t quite motivation enough to change behavior (otherwise we’d all be skipping dessert and eating a lot more kale!). Sometimes we need more immediate benefit to take action. What if I told you that measurable impairments in brain function can take place in as little as one poor night of sleep? Don’t believe me? It turns out that sleep-deprived folks have a very poor ability to recognize the impairments they’re experiencing while they’re sleep deprived. It’s a lot like a drunk driver when you think about it — you’ve had a few drinks and you think you’re fine, but compared to your sober self, you’re definitely impaired. If you think you’re performing at your best on 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night, chances are your perspective is a bit skewed. 

We’ll talk a bit more about sleep deprivation, what happens when we sleep, and which processes take place when we’re asleep (and only when we’re asleep) in next week’s installment, but in the meantime I don’t want to leave you empty-handed. Let’s get you started on the journey to deep, restorative sleep!

Get some ZZs

The best way to ensure good quality sleep (getting to sleep, staying asleep, and feeling rested upon waking) is to start good habits and create a good sleep environment. Practicing good sleep hygiene and listening to the signals your body is giving you that it’s time to hit the hay take time to learn and implement consistently. By the end of this series, you’ll have a solid list of 10 tips for excellent sleep hygiene, but for today I’m just going to share the first one to get you started. Incremental change is the way to go, so by the time you get to next Tuesday’s post, you’ll be ready for tip #2!

Sleep Tip

why we sleep, how much is enough sleep? how much sleep do we need?

Sources for information on health risks in infographic above:

1. Stroke
2. Cardiovascular disease
3. Diabetes (Inquiring Minds Podcast linked at top of post)
4. Anxiety
5. Depression
6. Immune Function (Inquiring Minds Podcast linked at top of post)
7. Cancer 
8. Alzheimer’s Disease

FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains an affiliate link, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.

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