Ultimate guide to getting better sleep: Reviewed by NU scientists

Jan 31, 2024

Not getting enough good quality sleep disrupts productivity, mental health, and overall well being. Sleep can be improved by integrating easy habits into your daily routine such as:

  • Sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room.

  • Avoiding heavy, spicy, or fatty foods a couple of hours before bed. 

  • Although dependent on genetics, not consuming caffeine at least six hours, and alcohol at least four hours, before sleeping.

  • Taking supplements or eating foods that contain melatonin or L-tryptophan. 

  • Getting access to sunlight in the daytime.

  • Staying active during the day.

  • Avoiding blue light from electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Having a hot shower or bath before bed.

  • Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule. 

Did you get enough sleep this past week? If the answer is no, you are not alone. Although we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, most adults struggle to get enough good quality sleep (34). 

If we don’t get enough good quality sleep, it can interfere with our productivity, mood, and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases. Even though it’s undoubtedly one of the most important daily activities we can do for our health, our modern, fast-paced lifestyle doesn’t prioritise sleep. Incorporate some expert-approved sleep habits into your routine so you can wake up feeling rested, refreshed and ready to reclaim your health. 

Invest in your bedroom

Use high-quality mattress and pillows

When we lie down, our muscles relax and align naturally, and a good mattress with the right level of firmness helps support this. A good-quality mattress distributes body weight evenly, reducing pressure points and promoting better blood circulation. Similarly, pillows that effectively support the neck and head help to maintain correct spinal alignment, preventing discomfort and pain (1). 

Weighted blankets

Weighted blankets are designed to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. The added weight of these blankets creates a "hugging" sensation that has a calming effect on the central nervous system. It's important to choose an appropriate weight for your body size to ensure a comfortable sleep experience. 

Research on the effectiveness of weighted blankets is limited. Studies suggest they may reduce anxiety and help you fall asleep faster but there’s not enough evidence regarding reduction in insomnia symptoms (2). 

Cooling blankets, which are designed with breathable and moisture-wicking materials, help maintain a consistent and comfortable temperature throughout the night, reducing the chances of waking up feeling too warm or sweaty. Cooling blankets  can also alleviate discomfort related to hot flashes or night sweats, commonly experienced during menopause or certain medical conditions (3). 

Darken your room

Sleeping in a dark room is beneficial for several reasons. Darkness supports the body’s natural circadian rhythms, your innate sleep-wake cycle (4). Darkness also stimulates the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which regulates this rhythm and helps with falling asleep.

Exposure to light, especially blue light emitted by electronic devices such as your phone, laptop or TV, suppresses melatonin production and makes it more difficult to fall asleep (5). This also goes for a brightly lit room before bed, or lights that stay on during sleep. 

Use curtains or blinds to block out external light sources and consider using a sleep mask if some light is still coming through. Try switching your light bulbs to warmer tones or use dimmers to reduce the wattage before bed. Minimise the use of electronic devices with screens at least an hour before you aim to go to bed.

Minimise noise

When we sleep, our brain continues to process auditory signals, even during deep sleep. External sounds made by traffic, neighbours, or even household appliances can disrupt our sleep cycles or prevent us from reaching deeper stages of restorative sleep (35). Consider using earplugs or a white noise machine to reduce possible auditory disruption and disrupt sleep and during the next night's restful sleep too.

Set the right temperature

When the body temperature drops, it signals to the brain that it's time to sleep. Maintain a cool and comfortable environment in the bedroom to promote sleep. The temperature in your sleep environment also dictates nightly levels of the sleep hormone melatonin that your body produces. Having a cold core body temperature helps induce melatonin production (6). The ideal room temperature to promote good sleep is about 18.3 degrees celsius. This can vary from person to person, but setting your room temperature to between 15.6 to 20 degrees may improve healthy sleep habits (7). It can also be beneficial to breathe fresh air during the night to increase oxygen levels, so consider leaving your window open when you sleep.

Wear socks

Your feet significantly impact the regulation of your body temperature. Wearing socks helps keep the feet warm, which in turn can improve blood circulation and promote heat distribution throughout the body. This results in decreased core body temperature, which signals to the brain that it's time to sleep (8). 

Keep pets out of your bed 

While having pets in the bed can be comforting, they can cause trouble falling asleep and interfere with good night's sleep by moving, snoring, taking up space exacerbating allergies throughout the night (36). 

Best and worst foods for promoting sleep 

Stop eating a few hours before bed 

It’s helpful to avoid eating large amounts of food before bed. Eating a large meal close to bedtime, especially one high in carbohydrates and sugar, can increase insulin levels. 

A high-protein meal may not necessarily be better. Your core body temperature must drop in order to fall asleep. Protein digestion may slightly raise your body temperature, which makes it harder to fall asleep (10). 

Spicy, heavy or fatty foods can be hard for the digestive system to process, potentially leading to discomfort during the night. These foods have a propensity to increase acid reflux which can cause bloating, and irritation of the oesophagus (11). Symptoms tend to worsen when lying down, negatively impacting sleep. 

If you’re hungry late in the evening, it’s best to go for a moderate amount of easily digestible protein such as unsweetened yoghurt or, a handful of nuts, or a slice of low-fat cheese. 

Limit your tea and coffee intake

Consuming caffeine can delay the onset of sleep, decrease total sleep duration and diminish the quality of your sleep. Adenosine, a natural sleep-inducing compound, accumulates in the brain during your waking hours. Typically, as adenosine levels rise, drowsiness follows. Caffeine before bed can be problematic because it blocks the adenosine receptors in the body, which can keep you awake (12). 

The half-life of caffeine, which refers to the time it takes for the body to eliminate half of the caffeine from the bloodstream, can vary from person to person. For the average person, it's best to stop drinking or eating caffeinated products about six hours before bedtime (13). However, this is heavily dependent on your genetics.  

Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others and it can take them longer to eliminate caffeine from their system. You can test your genes with NU, to determine how fast or slow your caffeine metabolism is. This helps you know how much caffeine intake is safe for you and when you should be having that last cup for the best sleep quality.

Caffeine sources:

Source: Harvard School Of Public Health. 2020. “Caffeine.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard. July 30, 2020.

Avoid alcohol

Alcohol blocks nerve cell signalling in specific areas of the brain and interferes with the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep causing lower sleep quality. REM sleep is crucial for various cognitive functions, including memory and emotional processing.

Alcohol negatively impacts REM by interfering with the production and regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and acetylcholine, which are essential for maintaining sleep patterns. For a good night's rest, try to abstain for several hours before bedtime (16). 

Take a break from blue light 

Blue light emitted by screens, including the TV, computers and phones, tells the brain to stop producing melatonin and increase focus and alertness. Cells in the retina of your eyes, called photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, are most sensitive to blue light. These cells relay information to your brain about regulating circadian rhythms. In fact, our internal clock is set to start producing melatonin roughly 12 hours after first viewing blue light, which then further increases throughout the night (25). 

Unfortunately, the increasing use of electronic devices and screen time has significantly upped our exposure to blue light, disrupting our internal clocks and causing trouble sleeping (26).  It’s helpful to avoid blue light exposure for several hours before your intended bedtime. This can be done by avoiding screens altogether, using software that desaturates blue light on-screen and even wearing blue-filter glasses. 

Consider taking supplements for sleep 


Melatonin is the hormone that helps us know it's time for sleep. Research on synthetic melatonin for the treatment of insomnia and sleep issues is varied. One meta-analysis showed that people taking melatonin fell asleep an average of seven minutes quicker and stayed asleep eight minutes longer (17). It also showed promising results when taken to help with jet lag, sleep deprivation, shift work and neurodegenerative disorders (18). However, since melatonin is a hormone supplement which is not regulated it’s important to check with your doctor before trying it.

Melatonin is also naturally found in foods such as eggs, milk, pistachio nuts and tart cherries and their juice (37).  


Although more research is needed to determine the exact ways magnesium impacts sleep, various studies have suggested that it has positive impacts affect sleep quality. Magnesium helps regulate the neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This can encourage the nervous system to relax and promote sleepiness.

Magnesium supplementation decreases cortisol levels, also known as the stress hormone, as well as increased melatonin levels (19). 


L-tryptophan is a crucial amino acid, or protein building block, that the body cannot synthesise on its own, requiring us to source it in our diet or by taking supplements. Tryptophan containing foods include milk, cheese, turkey, tofu, and bananas. It serves as a precursor to serotonin, a brain chemical which helps regulate mood, appetite and sleep (20). Serotonin is made from tryptophan and then converted to melatonin, which positively impacts your sleep-wake cycle (21).

The morning after

Sunlight first thing in the morning

Exposing the skin to natural daylight helps regulate your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that controls your sleep-wake cycle (22). 

Even if morning exposure to daylight isn't feasible, aim for some midday or afternoon exposure instead. If going outside isn't an option during those times - if you are homebound or weather conditions prevent you from getting outside, sitting close to a window provides exposure to natural light (23). 

Bright light therapy involves exposure to a luminous light that replicates natural sunlight. This method has also been proven effective in regulating the circadian rhythm and enhancing mood for people dealing with symptoms of depression attributed to insufficient exposure to natural daylight (24). 

Stay active during the day

Regular physical activity deepens the quality of sleep and lowers the time it takes to fall asleep (27). Exercising regularly can have a positive impact on the quality of sleep by influencing our hormones, brain chemicals, circadian rhythm and core body temperature. 

The most significant improvement in sleep quality is observed in those who do  moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, three to five times a week. However, even adding extra steps per day into your daily routine can contribute to enhanced sleep quality. Incorporating a consistent strength training routine, two to three times a week, is recommended for better sleep quality (28).

The timing of exercise can also play a role in sleep quality. Late-night, high-intensity exercise can interfere with the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Engaging in regular physical activity, particularly in the morning or afternoon, tends to facilitate better nighttime sleep (27).

Wind down with a bedtime routine 

Have a hot bath or shower

To successfully induce sleep, your core body temperature needs to fall by roughly 1°C. If you have a warm bath before going to sleep, this dilates blood vessels, drawing heat away from your core and preparing your body for a good night’s rest. 

Practice meditation or mindfulness

Mindfulness involves concentrating on your breath and focusing your mind on the present moment. This practice of deep breathing allows the breaking of the thought cycle , calming the nervous system and triggering a relaxation response. Listening to soothing music can also promote relaxation.

Although more research needs to be conducted, mindfulness and meditation may improve sleep (29). In a small study on adults with sleep issues, the group who participated in meditation had less symptoms of insomnia and reduced tiredness the following day (30). 

Stick to a sleep schedule

Create a routine 

Establishing a consistent sleep routine is challenging when you frequently wake up at various times. Choose a specific time to set your alarm and stick to it, including weekends and other days when the temptation to sleep in longer is strong.

Matthew Walker, author of the book, Why We Sleep, explains that trying to compensate for a sleep deficit over the weekend might not always be effective and could lead to both physical and mental fatigue, because it interferes with your rhythm and can promote a jet-lag effect. Therefore, sticking to a consistent daily sleep schedule can significantly contribute to your overall health and well-being (31). 

Power nap

The ideal nap length - in order to avoid interfering with nighttime sleep - varies from person to person, but generally shorter naps are recommended to minimise impact on nighttime sleep. Prolonged or late-afternoon naps have the potential to disrupt your sleep schedule, making it more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime (31).

Optimal nap timing is generally shortly after lunch in the early afternoon, and for around 20 minutes. Brief naps can provide rejuvenation without allowing the body to enter into a deep sleep helping you stay alert for the rest of the day without compromising the quality of nighttime sleep (31). 

When to see a doctor for sleep problems

Sleep disorders can have a significant impact on overall health and well-being, and seeking professional guidance is essential for proper evaluation and treatment (32). If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder or are experiencing persistent sleep difficulties for more than a few weeks, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional. They may recommend a sleep study, which involves monitoring your sleep in a controlled environment to diagnose or rule out specific sleep disorders. Some common sleep disorders and symptoms include: 

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness despite spending an adequate amount of time in bed.

  • Loud snoring or breathing pauses may be indicative of conditions such as sleep apnea (33). 

  • Restless legs - if you experience an uncontrollable urge to move your legs during the night.

  • Nightmares or night sweats

Your guide to sleeping well summary 

Everyone's sleep needs are different in terms of how to sleep most effectively, so it's essential to find a routine that works for you. Start small and try one habit at a time. If you continue to struggle with sleep despite adopting these habits, it may be helpful to consult with a healthcare professional for personalised advice.


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