One of the best things you can do for your health is get quality sleep. Although many people tend to put the most value on their active, waking life—be it productivity, achievements, exercise—sleep is foundational to good physical and mental health.
Sleep is passive, so it should be simple, right? Yet so many people suffer the effects of poor quality or broken sleep and want to understand how to get better sleep. There are many reasons why your mind might be active through the night: processing the high volume of information the average person encounters in a day or exposure to artificial light coming through screens.
And if you’re someone who has had a concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI), you’re even more likely to face sleep disruption.
So let’s explore how to get better sleep to promote brain health and concussion recovery.
How does a concussion or TBI affect your sleep?
After a concussion or TBI, many people experience sleep disturbances. Hypersomnia or insomnia—sleeping more than usual or being unable to sleep, respectively—often happen as a result of a traumatic event.
Once nighttime sleep is disrupted, daytime restfulness can be affected, too: you may feel fatigued throughout the day, or struggle with your memory, attention, and focus following an injury.
These disruptions can feed a vicious cycle of negative physical and mental health. Depression and oversleeping or anxiety and undersleeping may go hand-in-hand. Difficulties with performance or memory can further diminish self-esteem.
So how can you put this cycle on a positive track? Start by understanding what healthy sleep feels like.
What are the stages of sleep and what happens during them?
On average, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly. During that time, you move between the five stages of sleep that include waking, rapid eye movement (REM), and non-rapid eye movement (NREM), further broken down into stages N1-N3.
During REM sleep: Brain activity and eye movement during REM resembles that of being awake. The stage is associated with vivid dreaming and is thought to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, reconsolidation, creativity, and learning.
During NREM sleep: Your body becomes increasingly relaxed through these stages, reaching deep sleep in N3. Brain activity also slows down as you enter delta-wave sleep. NREM is thought of as restorative sleep, allowing for bodily recovery and growth and immune system support. It is also associated with creativity, insightful thinking, and memory.
All of these stages are guided by the circadian rhythm, which regulates your hormones throughout the entirety of your day and night. That’s why it’s important to establish practices that you can do during the day, which will help you get better sleep. And by getting better sleep, you’ll function better during the day.
How can I improve my sleep?
There are many practices that can help you start to improve your sleep—and not just at night. Here are some steps you can take from the moment you wake up to set yourself up for better sleep success at night.
1. View sunlight early in the day
Throughout the day, your circadian rhythm receives cues from the ambient light around you. By letting indirect sunlight into your eyes in the first hour of the day, you’re giving your brain a signal to spark wakefulness. This can help combat daytime fatigue and help you sleep more soundly in the evening. All you need is to spend about 1–3 minutes in the morning sun to trigger this response.
2. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon
For many people, drinking a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea boosts energy and wakefulness, which can be beneficial during the day. For the same reasons, it can be detrimental to falling asleep. Be aware of your tolerance to caffeine and avoid drinking it a few hours before sleep.
3. Eat nourishing foods
For good brain health, it’s important to eat foods rich in vitamins like B6, B12, folic acid, and omega-3 every day. When you’re well fed, you’ll reduce your likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night hungry, and you’ll give your body the nutrients it needs to heal in your sleep.
4. Limit blue light exposure and screens before bed
Blue light acts similarly to early morning sunlight. Getting blue light, either naturally or artificially, signals your eyes and brain to keep you awake. What’s key is getting the right type of light at the right time of day. That’s why it’s important to limit your exposure to blue light as you are preparing to go to sleep, so your body can start to produce melatonin, the hormone required for sleep.
Another reason to limit screen time before bed is because you may be flooding your mind with information, keeping it busy, active, and at worst, anxious.
5. Relax a few hours before sleep
Reducing your stress throughout the day can regulate your hormones and put you in a better mindset to sleep at night. During the day, taking regular breaks from your work can allow your mind to rest, process information, and feel refreshed.
Meditation practices can also help you get in touch with how your body and mind are feeling in the moment. Not only can that help you relax and tune into what you need in the moment—some food or a stretch, for example—it can even improve brain function over time.
6. Sleep in a cool, dark environment
Your body temperature changes throughout the night and depending on what stage of sleep you’re in. Getting overheated or having light pollution filter into your eye at night are reasons you might wake up. Keep your room dark and at a cool temperature so you can sleep uninterrupted.
7. Get back to sleep if you wake up
If you do wake up in the middle of the night—don’t worry. It happens regularly for many people. Plus, as you age, the amount of sleep you need and your sleep cycle can change too.
A practice that can be very beneficial for relaxing your body and getting back to sleep is yoga nidra. It works by guiding you through a body scan, releasing any muscle tension throughout your body, and promoting an alpha brain wave state.
SLEEP BETTER STARTING TODAY
By introducing these practices into your daily life, your circadian rhythm will help to reinforce a positive cycle of wakefulness and sleep. Try to develop a routine—consistently starting your day and winding down for bed around the same time daily.
Bringing these practices all together with eating well, drinking plenty of water, getting sunlight, and being in nature will start to simply but profoundly improve your overall brain and mental health.
- How to Relax for Better Health and Well-Being
- How to Optimize your Pathway to Concussion Recovery and Better Health
- Why Nature is so Important to our Mental Well-Being
- Toolkit for Sleep - Huberman Lab
- Concussions and Sleep: A Dangerous Mix?
- A practical guide to evaluating sleep disturbance in concussion patients - PMC
- Impact of traumatic brain injury on sleep: an overview - PMC