Do you usually wake up in the morning feeling just as tired as when you went to bed? If so, you’re not alone. Sleep problems like poor quality of sleep, not getting enough hours of sleep, delayed sleep onset, and sleep disruption are quite common . There are of course some stages of life where the amount of sleep you get varies significantly, like during new parenthood. But generally, sleep deprivation or sleep restriction should not be taken lightly, as they can have serious consequences for your health.
Fortunately, there are several ways to improve your sleep efficiency. In this article, we’ll discuss how your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm works, what can prevent you from getting deep sleep, and share six key tips about how to improve sleep quality.
Strategies for Better Sleep Efficiency: Overview
Maximizing sleep efficiency all comes down to your habits and routines. These are the top research-backed strategies for improving sleep that we recommend to patients:
- Reduce your nighttime light exposure: Reduce screen use before bed. Try to dim your lights once the sun goes down, and wear blue light blocking glasses when using screens before bed.
- Create a bedtime routine that relaxes you and prepares you for sleep: Take a bath, light a soothing candle, or read a physical book.
- Address nighttime breathing problems such as sleep apnea, hypopnea, and allergies: Breathing irregularities or even obstructions can spike adrenaline during the night and leave you exhausted upon awakening.
- Make your bedroom a safe, inviting space: Invest in your bed and mattress and use calming colors. Keep the temperature down.
- Exercise regularly, but not right before bedtime. Exercise can help you sleep better and is especially effective for those with sleep apnea.
- After taking these steps, add supplements if you’re still not getting high quality sleep. Melatonin and probiotics have both shown to be effective sleep supporting supplements.
What You Need to Know About Circadian Rhythms
Your circadian rhythm is the body clock that regulates when you sleep and when you wake up for the day. It responds to the rise and fall of the sun in a 24 hour cycle. The hypothalamus, a small part at the center of the brain, responds to the fading light of the day by releasing melatonin, which prepares the body for restful sleep .
Over the course of the night, your brain cycles through different sleep patterns. These include varying levels of non-REM (NREM) deep sleep and rapid eye movement or REM sleep (when dreaming occurs) .
Usually, you cycle through the four sleep stages in this pattern :
- NREM 1: Light sleep that transitions the brain from alpha waves to theta waves (from an awake, thinking state of the brain to a restful, sleeping state).
- NREM 2: A deeper sleep when your brain is in theta and you’re harder to wake up (you’ll return to this throughout the night)
- NREM 3: A state of deep sleep that includes delta brain waves, also called slow wave sleep. In this stage, you don’t respond to sounds or other inputs in your environment.
- REM: Rapid eye movement sleep, in which you dream and your heart rate, body temperature and breathing become unregulated and your brain uses more oxygen.
This rhythm occurs in 90-minute intervals, and research shows that a healthy period of rest includes between 7 and 9 hours of sleep .
What Habits Are Affecting Your Sleep?
When you don’t get enough sleep, it’s important to examine the potential causes.
The main obstacle for most people is simply prioritizing sleep hygiene in the first place. Many of us have work or other responsibilities that require long hours on a computer, so it can be difficult to unplug and focus on sleep.
But getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely key to your health and well-being. A lack of sleep contributes to many conditions, including heart disease , metabolic syndrome , poor brain health , fatigue , and obesity [5, 6, 7, 8].
Besides screen time, here are some other obstacles to getting the best quality of sleep:
- Alterations to your biological clock from jet lag, time zone changes, or shift work 
- Breathing issues like mouth breathing , sleep apnea , snoring, or allergies 
- High light exposure near bedtime
- Sleep environment disturbances such as lights, room temperature, or noise
- Hormone changes in women such as menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause 
- Gut infections or conditions, like IBS and IBD 
- Stress, anxiety , or other mental health problems
- Certain medical conditions, like hyperthyroidism, reflux, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes , and more 
6 Ways to Get Better Sleep
Paying attention and putting more effort into your sleep hygiene (habits, practices, and environments that promote sleep) can help you reset your sleep cycle and get more (and better quality) rest each night. Your sleep responds to your other conditioned behaviors, so getting better sleep is largely about modifying those behaviors to support sleep efficiency. See which of these tips helps you the most to establish a better sleep schedule.
1. Reduce Light Exposure at Night
It’s so hard to avoid screens these days, but research suggests that screen time in the evening impacts our sleep. According to research, all colors of light, even at low intensity, can disrupt your circadian rhythm .
However, blue light, the kind that comes from our electronic devices, is particularly likely to keep you awake. The study mentioned above found that just two hours of exposure to blue light at nighttime (from computer monitors, cell phones, televisions, or even bright indoor lights) suppresses melatonin, the hormone that initiates sleep .
2. Stick to a Bedtime Routine
Our bodies operate best with a consistent wake/sleep schedule. It’s important to stick to the schedule as much as possible, even on the weekends or days off.
To get your body prepared for sleep, create a bedtime routine that relaxes you and allows you to get those 7-9 hours. You can try activities like:
- Taking a warm bath or a hot shower
- Dimming the lights at night 
- Turning off your TV and phone or setting it to airplane mode
- Doing a relaxing mindful activity, like reading a book, doing a puzzle, listening to calming music , or spending time with your family or pets
- Eating for the last time at least two hours before bed and avoiding late-night snacks.
3. Address Your Breathing
You’ve probably heard of sleep apnea being a cause of disruptive sleep, due to difficulty breathing at night, but hypopnea (abnormally slow or shallow breathing) , allergies  and nasal obstruction  are also common causes of breathing problems during sleep.
When you can’t breathe normally, your body senses danger. Your heart rate increases, and adrenaline is released in response to the perceived threat. This means that when you wake up, you feel exhausted, even if you’ve been asleep for eight hours.
If you consistently wake up feeling unrefreshed, you may actually have a mild form of sleep apnea or another breathing problem. If you suspect you may have breathing problems while you sleep, apps like SnoreLab or the home sleep test WatchPAT can help you evaluate your nighttime breathing. Alternatively, you can see a local sleep specialist.
Sleep apnea is often treated using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or oral appliance therapy . Other therapies that may help include:
- Breathing exercises 
- Physical therapy of the mouth [26, 27]
- Playing wind instruments, especially double-reed instruments or didgeridoo 
4. Create Your Bedroom Sanctuary
There are several ways you can optimize your bedroom environment to ensure better sleep quality and sleep duration. Here are a few suggestions:
- Lower the temperature. Research shows that a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for sleeping for those without obstructive sleep apnea .
- Invest in a high quality bed and a comfortable mattress.
- Mitigate excess or unwanted noise with a white noise machine, sleep sounds, or earplugs.
- Install blackout curtains to ensure a completely dark environment at night or wear a comfortable sleep mask.
- Remove or cover appliances with glowing lights.
- Turn the Wi-Fi off at night, and put your phone on airplane mode.
Exercise has been shown to improve mental health, metabolism, and sleep quality [33, 34, 35]. Regular exercise can help regulate your circadian rhythm. A systematic review and meta analysis found that including regular exercise as part of a daily routine helped adults improve their sleep quality by an average of 19% .
For people with sleep apnea, exercise appears to be extremely beneficial. After CPAP, exercise was found to be the most effective treatment for sleep apnea .
But the timing of the exercise is important too. Vigorous exercise within an hour before bedtime can be detrimental to total sleep time, time of sleep onset, and sleep efficiency . Make sure to exercise earlier in the day to encourage a positive effect on your sleep.
6. Sleep Supporting Supplements
Behavior change is the foundation for better quality of sleep, but there are some supplements that can help support your sleep cycle.
Melatonin has been shown in several systematic reviews and meta analyses to decrease sleep latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep) and increase total sleep time and sleep quality. Also, unlike many pharmaceutical sleep aids, it has little risk for side effects or dependence [38, 39, 40].
Plus, melatonin has been shown to be an effective candidate for IBS treatment .
The Real Danger of the All-Nighter
While you might have a good reason for doing so, pulling an all-nighter still deprives your body of restful sleep, which can have significant consequences to your health. Persistent sleep deprivation can impact your brain function, blood sugar, and hunger hormones the next day [6, 7, 8], and leave you feeling fatigued.
Whenever possible, avoid sleep deprivation, including staying up late or pulling all-nighters.
What About Naps?
There is some controversy about whether or not you should nap when you’re tired during the day. The concern is you’ll disrupt your sleep pattern and circadian rhythm later at night. However, there is no definitive proof that napping is bad for you and more research is needed .
If you need it, a short 15-20 minute nap during the day can help you feel refreshed and able to continue on with your day and shouldn’t disrupt your evening sleep. But longer naps, especially later in the day, may impact your sleep quality. Monitor whether you have more difficulty with sleep onset at night after having napped during the day.
How Shift Work Affects Sleep
Avoiding shift work, or working overnight hours, is best for your health when possible. Shift work is associated with an increased risk in mental health disorders like depression  as well as cardiovascular disease , metabolic disorders , altered hormones , and sleep disorders .
But, not everyone can avoid shift work in their job. If you do have shift work, try some of these tips to minimize sleep disruption and keep a healthy sleep cycle:
- Avoid caffeine for the last four hours of your shift.
- On your way home, wear sunglasses or blue light blockers to reduce light exposure.
- Create a consistent sleep routine and follow through with it every day.
- After you get home, go straight to bed.
- Make sure your family and friends know when not to disturb you.
Tracking Your Sleep
If you’ve adjusted everything else to get better sleep quality but still aren’t successful, or you’re just interested in gathering more data on your sleep efficiency, trackers like the Oura Ring can help you identify patterns in your sleep cycles, like the amount of deep sleep you get each night, your total sleep time, and your heart rate while sleeping. The Oura Ring was named the best sleep wearable according to several studies because its technology is the most similar to that used in clinical sleep research [5, 48, 49].
You can also ask your doctor about a referral to a sleep specialist or how to participate in a sleep study. Sleep specialists may use tools like:
- Actigraphy: Uses a device worn around your wrist or ankle to record limb movement activity while you sleep 
- Polysomnography: A sleep study that records your brain waves, blood oxygen, heart rate, breathing, and movement while you sleep 
We’re also happy to help you here at our functional medicine center with an at-home sleep test.
The Bottom Line on Better Sleep
Sleep is one of the most vital, and often overlooked, keys to your health. It’s important to build and maintain a sleep schedule that helps your body recover at night and feel rested during the day. Reducing your light exposure, creating a safe sleep environment, addressing breathing issues, and strategically incorporating supplements can all enhance your quality of sleep.
But the first and most important step is simply deciding to prioritize your sleep efficiency. If you need help figuring out your sleep patterns and improving your sleep quality, reach out to us at our center for functional medicine today.