Why do we sleep? There are a number of benefits to getting a good night’s sleep—indeed, sleep is so important that eventually, your body simply won’t let you skip it. If you don’t sleep enough at night, sooner or later you’ll doze off during the day. Before that, however, the immediate effects of sleeplessness will make you drowsy, impatient, unfocused, and irritable. Sleep is an important part of learning. While you’re sleeping, your brain processes and stores all the things you learned since last time, something neurologists call memory consolidation.
Here, then, are some ways to sleep well:
- Make a schedule and stick to it. Even on your days off, try not to vary your getting-up time too much.
- Skip the afternoon nap, tempting though it may be. You will feel refreshed, but if you nap after about three in the afternoon, that refreshment will carry through until after you should be down for the night.
- Relax in the evening. Perhaps take a hot bath—which has the additional benefit of a temperature drop afterward which signals the body that it’s bedtime. Slowing down rather than stopping short will help you sleep more soundly.
- Avoid caffeine. For the same reason you have coffee in the morning, you shouldn’t have it in the evening, or even the late afternoon. If it’s less than six hours before you plan to go to bed, skip coffee and other things with caffeine. Nicotine has the same effect, though it’s better still if you don’t smoke at all.
- Perhaps more counterintuitively, avoid alcohol. You may be more relaxed and more prone to drift off, but the sleep you get will be lighter and less restorative.
- Avoid large meals. As with alcohol, a feast may seem to make you feel tired, but the subsequent indigestion you’re risking will wipe that all out.
- Rid the bed, and ideally the bedroom, of anything not related to its function—phone, TV, computer, the distractions of the day. Bed should be a place of refuge.
Sleeping and fitness have a complex relationship. Sleep deprivation can affect appetite and metabolism, so we eat more and use it less efficiently, and gain weight as a result. In the other direction, exercise can help you sleep if you know what you’re doing, and when. Exercising gets your heart racing—at least, it should—so right before bed is a bad time for it. Morning exercise is a good stress reliever, which will help you sleep at night, and if you do it outdoors, the sunlight will help keep your body clock running right. A late afternoon or early evening cardio workout will do the most to help you sleep well.