6 ways to sleep better

If you could improve your mood, focus, energy level, and drive for a day for $100, would you take it? Good news, there’s no need! Just get better sleep. Setting yourself up for success only takes a little upfront effort. Below I’ve divided my advice into categories. Choose the ones you need most.

Sound

It turns out that it is not the absolute noise level that causes waking up, but instead the delta in noise level. If you live near a street with occasional cars and trucks passing, you may want to turn on a fan, play white noise on a speaker, or buy a white noise generator, though it seems to me the latter is a waste of money if you have speakers already. The really surprising thing I’ve noticed is that when I wake up, before I move my body, I can’t hear anything. But as soon as I turn my head or twitch a finger, my hearing comes back. Weird.

I’ve tried both silicone and foam earplugs. I find the foam ones get uncomfortable after a few hours, but I have abnormally small ear canals. Wearing earplugs regularly can also increase your risk of ear infection. The silicon kind sits on the outside of your ear canals and provides less sound isolation, but is more comfortable. I prefer white noise to either of these options since it’s less complicated to manage.

Temperature

This was the main reason I woke up in the middle of the night. It was obvious because I’d be lying in a pool of my own sweat.

I have two sets of sheets. One I bought at Bed Bath and Beyond, the other based on the Wirecutter’s pick. Now when I choose which to put on my bed there’s no contest. The lower thread count pima leads to significantly fewer night where I wake up covered in sweat.

I told a friend I planned to build a water cooling system for my mattress. She asked why I didn’t just wear synthetic fabrics to bed. I had never tried it! In theory, if I sweat, the synthetics pull it away from my skin so I can continue to cool off. I couldn’t find research to back this up for sleeping in particular. During exercise fishnet style weaves apparently do help with thermoregulation .

I live in San Francisco, so at first I thought an electric blanket or mattress pad would be sufficient to solve my temperature problems. But electric blankets provide a constant level of heating. If your body temperature or room temperature changes, the pad won’t adjust accordingly. I considered hooking up a temperature probe and a microcontroller to turn it on and off, but when I found Chilipad I realized having the ability to both heat and cool could be more effective. Its main competitor, BedJet, is strictly inferior since it unevenly regulates temperature. Chilipad’s main downside is the noise, but see the noise section for why it might be an advantage in disguise.

Light

When I lived in an open loft in 2015, I made a box around my bed out of rigid insulation foam. It was warm and dark, but definitely didn’t help with sound. Moses Nakamura called it a “sex sarcophagus,” but ironically neither part of the label was accurate. A nice failed experiment.

You could build a box around your bed, you could install blackout curtains or blinds, or you could just wear an eye mask. My decades-old conception of eye masks as those uncomfortable things that your eyelashes keep bumping up against turns out to be outdated. Now you can get eye masks contoured to sit just out of range of your eyes.

Research suggests that exposure to bright blue light late at night delays onset of sleep, but red light does not. Though research doesn’t show significant effects for dim light like a phone’s screen, iOS and Android now have built-in night modes. Even if they don’t have much effect it seems low friction enough to try.

Comfort

These are cheap on Amazon (~$200 for a double) and come in the mail vacuum-sealed. The big downside is that they can get hot, but see the temperature section for potential mitigations.

Seems dumb but apparently having a pillow between your knees keeps your spine aligned better. It feels more comfortable for me, but I couldn’t find any research to back it up.

Exercise

It’s so important! Some exercise is beneficial. It’s unclear whether the type or timing is important. Significant endurance exercise may increase the amount of sleep needed for recovery by a few hours. I couldn’t find research to back this up, but a running coach told me once.

Mind

Headspace has a couple of guided activity-specific meditation singles, one of which is for sleep. The sequence is roughly

  • Deep breaths
  • Body scan
  • Fast forward through your day
  • Count down from 1000 until sleep comes

The first three take about a minute each. If I had a stressful day sometimes the fast forward makes me agitated or starts the wheels spinning again in a bad way. I wonder how much of the efficacy comes from committing to not moving my body.

I’ve heard tips like “when in bed, only sleep or have sex” to condition yourself appropriately. Don’t read in bed. Sleep and wake at the same time every day. Unfortunately these tips aren’t well supported by research. Use at your own risk.

Super low risk, but appears only to be effective when shifting schedule, ie., jet lag. The most cited meta study has surprisingly small sample size and effect. Most people take too much; the right dose is ~0.3 mg.

Many people take Nyquil or Zyquil when they want to fall asleep faster, but the active soporific from both of those is just diphenhydramine aka Benadryl. When melatonin isn’t enough, or I want to be confident I’ll be able to knock myself out on command, I take Benadryl. It only lasts for about 4 hours, causes dry eyes/mouth, and I wake up feeling groggy, but it’s usually better than not sleeping.

Alcohol improves sleep in low amounts (1 beer) and disrupts it in higher amounts.

The jury is out on whether macronutrients significantly affect sleep.

Having the tips above in my toolbox has vastly improved my sleep quality. My biggest problem now is getting to bed early enough. What are your strategies?

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist