Your Ultimate Guide to Great Sleep

Great sleep is something that eludes most of us these days. It seems there’s a constant barrage of things that get in the way of a good night’s sleep. Exercise, fresh air and sunlight all influence the quality of our sleep at night. Caffeine consumption, screen use and being indoors all day can also negatively impact our ability to sleep. 

Taking an inventory of your night (and day) habits will help set you up for a successful sleep. If you want to hack your sleep routine, here’s everything you need to know about getting great sleep. Learn about how to establish a formula, natural remedies to aid rest and 10 tips for high quality sleep.

Why is sleep so important?

According to Clinical Psychologist and sleep expert, Michael Breus, adjusting your sleep routine requires measuring what happens across the whole day. Quality sleep is central to health and overall wellbeing. Sleep helps regulate our circadian rhythms. The word ‘circadian’ means ‘about a day’ in Latin. It’s a broad term that refers to various body processes that are synchronised within a 24 hour daily cycle. Different organs and cells operate according to our built-in circadian rhythm. In fact, sleep facilitates many of these biological functions. It makes sense, therefore, to take a holistic approach when addressing sleep issues. 

Top down view of a woman sleeping in bed

How much sleep do I need?

If you’re unsure of exactly how many hours you need for a restful sleep, try this exercise on your next day off:

  • Go to bed at your usual bedtime (forget that you have a day off the next day and don’t be tempted to stay up later). 
  • Don’t set the alarm for the following morning and allow yourself to wake up naturally.
  • Make a note of the time/s you wake up. 
  • Do you feel rested or could you go for another hour of sleep? 
  • Was your onset easy or did it take a while to settle?

Repeat this exercise a few more times on another day off. This gives a more accurate idea of your sleep requirements. Without the pressure to rush off for the day, you gain powerful insight into how much sleep you really need. 

Health Benefits of Great Quality Sleep

Research on the health benefits of sleep is robust. Sleep helps with almost every part of health, including cognition, memory, tissue repair and immune health. Here’s a look at some of the many benefits of sleep. 

Sleep Improves Athletic Recovery

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine reported on the impacts of sleep on elite athletes. Sleep was found to be critical to overall health, recovery and performance. In this review, sleep deprivation conclusively demonstrated negative effects on performance, reaction time, submaximal strength and endurance. Importantly, decision-making, judgement and accuracy were also affected by poor sleep. Conversely, longer sleep duration improved various physical parameters amongst athletes. For example, professional basketballers had improved mood, better free throw and 3-point accuracy. Swimmers demonstrated better kick stroke efficiency and improved swim turns.

Sleep Induces Long-Term Memory Formation

There’s plenty of research in support of sleep and brain health. A comprehensive review on the relationship between poor sleep and memory formation was recently published. Interestingly, sleep helps consolidate memory formation in the brain. This research reveals the importance of slow-wave sleep for memory consolidation. This is a unique feature of deep sleep, where long-term memory develops. Getting top quality sleep ensures the emotional brain can convert short-term memories into long-term neuronal networks. This is important during childhood, as well as for anyone learning complex skills.

Sleep Maintains Bone Health

Among many biological processes, sleep is also important for the maintenance of bone health. We already know that certain foods can be protective against bone disease, so it’s encouraging to learn that sleep is another way to support our skeletal system. Evidence now suggested that sleep timing and duration are important factors for bone health. Bone remodelling is a biological process governed by circadian rhythm and sleep. People suffering from chronic sleep disturbances, such as shift workers, are at an increased risk of bone fractures, according to this research.

The Formula For Great Sleep: Timing, Duration & Intensity

Timing: Set Your Bedtime & Wake Time

Sleeping person reaching for alarm clock in the morningWith sleep, timing is everything. As humans, we are creatures of habit and routine. The most restorative sleep occurs in the beginning half the night. The latter part of sleep, into early waking hours, usually consists of Rapid Eye Movement (R.E.M) sleep. The body naturally habituates to a particular sleep onset (fall asleep time) and wake time. 

For this reason, if you sleep for the same amount of hours, but shift the onset and wake times dramatically, the sleep quality will not be as restorative. For example, if bedtime is at 10:00 pm and wake up time is 6:00 am, changing the time frame from 2:00 am onset to 10:00 am wake up won’t be as beneficial to your health.

Importantly, it is the maintenance of a consistent sleep time that causes the body to synchronise its natural circadian rhythms. A constant shifting sleep schedule causes the body’s internal rhythms to become desynchronized. This causes poor physical and mental performance the following day. Long term, this can lead to an increased risk of disease, including weight gain, insulin resistance, hormone disruptions and depression.

Maintaining a sleep timing habit is important, even on weekends. While this is not always possible, know that when your sleep cycle has a regular rhythm, your body knows when it should be awake and when it should be asleep.

If the aim is to ‘reset’ your sleep cycle, it’s important to limit sleep-ins on the weekend. Getting up at your usual time in the morning will naturally put more pressure on to get to bed earlier at night. The benefit is, over time, a healthy sleep habit starts to form.

Duration: Get in Bed & Encourage a Restorative Sleep

Many of us don’t have a clear idea of what time we’d like to be in bed. This easily leads to watching one more episode of your favourite show, spending more time on the computer, snacking, or finding other ways to lose precious sleep.

Here’s a simple fact about sleep:

You can’t expect to get 8 hours of sleep at night, if you’re only in bed for 6 hours. 

Like the aspect of timing, maintaining a habit of sleep duration will ensure you have a healthy circadian function and can improve your health as well. Establish an intention to be in bed for a certain number of hours each night, for the best chance of meeting your individual sleep requirements. 

Set a target bedtime to ensure you’re physically ‘in bed’ ahead of when you’d like to fall asleep. For example, if you feel best after 8 hours of sleep and your alarm is set for 6:30 am, aim to be in bed by around 9:30 pm each night with lights and technology off. 

Forming an intention to be in bed at a set time is a powerful way to reinforce a habit change over time. 

Intensity: The Depth of Sleep

This aspect of sleep is more about what happens during the day and evening, preceding your night’s sleep. 

Due to the body’s hard-wired responsiveness to light, controlling your 24 hour light environment is a key step in establishing a good sleep and wake rhythm.

Senior woman opening the curtains in the morning

Bright natural light exposure, especially in the morning and again at lunch (if possible) is important. Once your eyes are exposed to this light, your brain is signalled to produce hormones (namely cortisol) that maintain wakefulness. Similarly, when the sun sets, the lowering light triggers melatonin production, which induces tiredness and prepares the body for sleep.

Of course, this innate mechanism has been disrupted by the technological era. Artificial light from computers in the blue spectrum potently suppresses melatonin production. Blocking the onset of melatonin delays the sensation of sleepiness and of the body’s natural ‘wind down’ process. 

Over time, artificial light can also cause widespread circadian rhythm changes. Essentially, the body may start to think it’s daytime at night, which has a cascade of negative effects on hormones, metabolism, stress and immune health.

Natural Remedies To Aid Sleep

There’s some easy ways to help calm the body and mind in preparation for sleep. An evening bath with epsom salts or a good book with low lighting are among some favourite ways to unwind. We know that reducing caffeine intake can benefit sleep quality and quantity. A 2018 review paper showed that excess caffeine consumption can inhibit sleep onset, leading to chronic sleep disruptions. 

Did you know there’s a range of herbal teas that have been scientifically proven to promote a restful sleep? Teas like lemongrass, passionflower, peppermint and chamomile all help reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm. The ritual of tea-making is also a superb way to settle in for a restful night. 

Glass mug of chamomile tea with flowers

10 Tips for High Quality Sleep

  • Get adequate sunlight exposure, ideally in the morning and at lunch. This anchors your biological clocks. And is a practice also known as ‘daylight anchoring’.
  • Move your body in the morning or early afternoon. This can improve sleep quality and may induce an earlier bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, excess alcohol or other stimulants at the end of the day.
  • Establish your own bedtime routine - maintain consistent timing and duration.
  • 1 hour before bedtime, switch off all screens to reduce blue light exposure.
  • Use warm light bulbs, dim lights and candles at night.
  • If you need to use screens at night, install blue light filters.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and a comfortable temperature.
  • Practice meditation or mindfulness while resting in bed to calm the mind for sleep.
  • Jot down any concerns on a pen and paper beside the bed, to deposit your thoughts for when it’s wake time. 

Article References

O'Callaghan, F., Muurlink, O., & Reid, N. (2018). Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning. Risk management and healthcare policy, 11, 263–271.

Hosker, D. K., Elkins, R. M., & Potter, M. P. (2019). Promoting Mental Health and Wellness in Youth Through Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Sleep. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 28(2), 171–193.

Irwin MR. Why sleep is important for health: A psychoneuroimmunology perspective. Annu Rev Psychol 2015; 66: 143-172

Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep's role in memory. Physiological reviews, 93(2), 681–766.

Schneider L. (2020). Neurobiology and Neuroprotective Benefits of Sleep. Continuum (Minneapolis, Minn.), 26(4), 848–870.

Swanson, C. M., Kohrt, W. M., Buxton, O. M., Everson, C. A., Wright, K. P., Jr, Orwoll, E. S., & Shea, S. A. (2018). The importance of the circadian system & sleep for bone health. Metabolism: clinical and experimental, 84, 28–43.

Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. International journal of sports medicine, 40(8), 535–543.
Simpson NS, Gibbs EL, Matheson GO. Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: Implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2017; 27: 266-274