How to Get Better Sleep, Backed by Science

In some circles, burning the candle at both ends is a mark of commitment, intensity and drive. “I only got 4 hours in last night,” may make it seem like you’re some hard core go-getter that thrives without the habits of common man, but in reality, it’s making you fat, unhealthy, and cranky, and you look like hell.

The benefits of better sleep and the risks of going without are many. Often, when our schedules are full and our lives stretched thin, the first thing we sacrifice is a good night’s sleep.

It’s recommended adults between the age of 26 and 62 get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. We’re all different, and you might need slightly more, say 10, or slightly less, like 6, but if you go beyond this, it’s clear there will be negative effects.

As many as 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, according to research from the national Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. And these sleep disorders aren’t just the well-known ones like sleep apnea and insomnia. As a matter of fact, there are over 100 different types of sleep disorders and they include things as simple as snoring or working the night shift. These seemingly simple things can have immediate impacts on the quantity and quality of sleep you get each night. And this can have grave consequences for your health.

Less than one-half (44%) of Americans claim to get good sleep every night, according to an international poll from the National Sleep Foundation. In other words, more of us are sleeping poorly than are sleeping well. And even if your night involves only a few periods of wakefulness or a few hours less than the recommended duration, you’re feeling the effects, whether you realize it or not.

What You Need to Know

  • You need 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep to be at your best.
  • Many of the causes of poor sleep quality/quantity — including stress, poor diet, obesity, and anxiety — are also worsened by poor sleep, creating a vicious cycle.
  • Not getting enough quality sleep can impact your health in very serious ways, increasing your risk of depression and anxiety, worsening memory and mood, causing weight gain, and even leading to diabetes and heart disease.

The Causes of Poor Sleep

A bad day at work or noisy neighbors can keep you up at night. Knowing what’s behind your lack of sleep can help you begin to address it. These are some of the more common causes of poor sleep:  

  • Stress
  • Caffeine
  • Sleep disorders
  • Bright light
  • Loud noise
  • A brain that just won’t quit at night. Yes, that’s the scientific explanation.

The Effects of Poor Sleep

“You look like hell.” Other people may immediately recognize your lack of sleep, and depending on how close you are, they may come right out and tell you. Bags under your eyes, a drawn face — sleep can have an immediate impact on how you look. But some of the effects go far deeper.

Mental health

People with chronic sleep loss are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and stress. In turn, they’re also more likely to turn to alcohol, according to researchers. The mental health effects associated with poor sleep practices are, like other symptoms, a bit of a chicken-egg scenario -- lack of sleep can cause these symptoms, but these symptoms can also cause inability to sleep. It becomes a vicious cycle.


Several studies have linked poor sleep quality and quantity to obesity risk. Difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking throughout the night can all increase the risk of weight gain leading to obesity.


Sleep loss can affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, which, in turn, can lead to diabetes. The Sleep Heart Health Study, designed to look at the many risks of sleep disorders found that people who report five hours of sleep or less are 2.5 times more likely to be diabetic.

Cardiovascular risks

Not getting enough or not getting good enough sleep is associated with increased cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. And it doesn’t take a dramatic absence of sleep to see these effects — in one large scale study, people who got less than six hours of sleep each night were 66% more likely to suffer from hypertension. Another study, from researchers in Japan, found men who sleep less than five hours a night or who get insufficient sleep more than two days a week have a two-to-three times risk of heart attack.

Memory and learning

It’s obvious that a lack of sleep leads to hazy thinking, but science has confirmed this and more when it comes to the cognitive effects of sleep. Our brains require good sleep to form and maintain memories. It’s believed different stages of sleep affect different types of memory. For example, REM sleep, or the the stage where dreaming is most common, seems to be directly related to procedural memory, or remembering how to do certain things. Whereas deep, short-wave sleep may be connected to forming and processing new memories. Because a chronic lack of sleep can also affect our abilities to focus and think through tough problems, it affects our ability to learn in several ways.

What Good Sleep Looks Like

So, are you part of this poor sleep crew? It may be obvious to you that you’re not getting enough sleep if, for instance, you stare at the ceiling for longer than the back of your eyelids. While the most dramatic effects, listed above, could be major red flags, lack of quality sleep may present itself as:

  • Sleepiness upon waking and throughout the day
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Partner complaints about your snoring or strange breathing during the night
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Increased cravings
  • Forgetfulness
  • Moodiness

A good night sleep looks something like this: you’ve spent the last hour or so winding down with a good book, bath, or meditation. Now, you’re sleepy. When you shut off the light, it takes you just minutes to be carried off to sleep, where you stay for most, if not all of the 7-9 hour period. You wake refreshed in the morning and repeat the process later that night. Sounds simple enough.

Better Sleep Starts with Better Habits

Limiting the causes of poor sleep quality in your life can get you on track to healthier sleep habits and better health overall. Some of the solutions are obvious, like limiting caffeine intake and scheduling an adequate amount of time for sleep every 24 hours. But, there are some solutions that may not be so obvious.

Set a regular bedtime. Your parents may have been happy to get rid of you at precisely the same time every night, but they were doing you a favor. Research shows having an irregular bedtime schedule decreases average sleep time and leads to poor sleep quality and fatigue. Do your best to hit the sack around the same time nightly.

Meditate or find other relaxation rituals. Meditation is an age-old way of centering yourself, proven to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being. It’s not difficult and it doesn’t require a complex yoga pose, but several studies have linked regular meditation to improves sleep quality and decreased incidence of insomnia. So, relax.

Exercise regularly. Being tired isn’t just a matter of thinking through complex problems each day or dealing with difficult coworkers — your body needs regular use too. And scientists have found that people who get regular physical activity each day sleep better, leading to improved concentration and focus, and are less sleepy feelings throughout the day.

Eat these, not those. Eating healthy means less chance of a rumbling or upset stomach keeping you up. But giving your body proper nutrients also creates an environment conducive to proper circadian (sleep-wake cycle) rhythms. Anytime you make dramatic changes to your regular diet, particularly if those changes are not healthy, it can impact your sleep. In addition, eating right before bed has been shown to negatively impact sleep quality, so skip the midnight snack.

Limit alcohol. Alcohol may cause you to hit the bed hard when you get home after a night of reveling, but it has disastrous impact on your sleep quality and quantity. It blocks you from receiving the restorative REM sleep, causes dehydration, disrupts your regular circadian cycle, can make any nighttime breathing problems worse, and send you to the bathroom throughout the night, according to the Sleep Foundation.

Shut off your gadgets. You’ve heard this one before, and likely ignored it, but keeping your phone and tablet on your bedside table is doing you no favors. Not only does using these things before bed make it more difficult to get to sleep, but keeping them on increases the likelihood you’ll roll over and “check” them, or be awakened by a ringtone or alert.

Putting It All Together

Getting enough sleep doesn’t automatically make you a ray of sunshine that pops out of bed every morning ready to take on the day with vigor, but it can make a big difference. Just as poor sleep can lead to negative health outcomes, adequate high quality sleep can affect your health positively. It may even help you get your next promotion by improving your mood, your ability to focus and learn new tasks, and the likelihood you’ll have to use fewer legitimate sick days.

Like most basic health matters —weight and stress control, for example — better sleep is typically a matter of better habits. In extreme cases, where such habits aren’t helpful, it may be wise to discuss your sleep problems with a physician or look into science-backed supplements to help you get some good sleep.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.