How To Fix Your Sleep

Expert tips from Matt Walker — the Sleep Doctor.

Younes Henni, PhD
6 min readSep 25, 2021
Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay.

If you think about it, sleep is a strange biological function. When you sleep, you’re totally paralysed, without consciousness, and completely vulnerable. Yet, the need to sleep persisted for millions of years and is as vital as eating and reproducing.

Some experts believe that sleep was the default (and only) state of early living organisms. Waking up, they argue, emerged as a break from this “default state.” We don’t take a break from life by sleeping; we take a break from sleep by living.

A healthy adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep a night. After which, they’ll wake up naturally without a clock, at roughly the same time. When awake, they feel refreshed and ready to conquer the day. If this is not your case:

  • You sleep less than seven hours.
  • A loud alarm always cuts your sleep short.
  • You wake up feeling groggy.
  • Or you wake up at random hours.

Then, these are clear signs you suffer a serious lack of sleep.

“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.” Warns Matt Walker, author of the international bestseller Why We Sleep and more than a hundred studies on sleep.

A lack of sleep leads to hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, weight gain, and depression.

Deprive yourself of a good night’s sleep, and you’ll weaken your immune system. Weak immunity increases your risk of injury and makes you prone to diseases and several types of cancer.

Sleep disorder is particularly morbid for women. It can lead to infertility, pregnancy loss, failed embryo implantation, and an-ovulation. Sleeplessness can cause irregular menstruation or even amenorrhea (the complete absence of menstruation).

Restless nights lead to far more brutal fights between couples. That’s because when sleep-deprived, your empathy goes down, and you become emotionally hypersensitive. Poor sleep also lowers libido and disrupts sex and growth hormones, such as testosterone and oestrogen.

There is not a single mental health disorder in which sleep is normal. Mental illness and poor sleep go hand in hand. Even your sensitivity to physical pain goes up when sleep-deprived.

The verdict is clear: sleep boosts longevity, health and mental wellbeing. The lack of it, however, shortens your life and its quality.

If you think your sleep is not as good as it should be, Matt Walker suggests the following easy and “drug-free” tips.

Get more sunlight. That’s your first step to fixing your sleep.

Sunlight aligns your body clock — known as the circadian rhythm — to daylight. So when the sun is down and night comes, your body knows it’s time to rest.

How much sunlight you need depends on the weather. If it’s a bright day, get 30 to 40 minutes of daily exposure to sunlight. If clouds entirely cover the sun, aim for 60 to 90 minutes a day.

Morning sunlight has the best effects on your body clock. So take a walk first thing in the morning. Go for a run, or even do your morning exercise facing east. This way, you’ll soak that much-needed sunlight and set your body clock for a good night’s sleep.

If you work in an office, make sure to get daylight by setting your desk next to a window. In one study, employees dramatically improved their sleep just by moving their desks near a window office.

No artificial lights can replace sunlight. Even on cloudy days, sunlight is far more potent than anything you’ll get from artificial lights. However, if your region sees little to no sun (Norway or Canada come to mind), then use artificial lights to regulate your body clock.

The second tip is to limit caffeine (tea, coffee, energy drinks) to 10 hours before bedtime.

When you ingest a caffeinated drink, your body takes 10 to 12 hours to rid itself of that caffeine. As long as caffeine is in your system, it will block your adenosine receptors. Adenosine is the molecule that makes us sleepy. It accumulates in the brain throughout the day. So by late evening, the brain is loaded with adenosine, and we start feeling tired and weary.

Suppose you ingest lots of caffeine until late. In that case, caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors of the brain. So even if your body is tired and in need of sleep, you still can feel full of energy.

So limit your caffeine doses and give your body at least 10 hours to eliminate all caffeine fighting adenosine. As Matt Walker says, “Dose and timing make the poison.” This way, you’ll fall asleep easier.

Naps are yet another way to disrupt your sleep. “If you struggle with sleep, stay away from naps,” advises Matt Walker.

If you’re struggling with sleep and take daily naps, this can worsen your insomnia. Some people, however, are avid nappers. If you’re one of them, Walker recommends two crucial things:

  • Use the caffeine strategy. Do your naps 10 hours before bedtime but never in the late afternoon or evening.
  • Keep your naps short. 20 to 25 minutes naps are more than enough. Long naps get you in the deep stages of sleep, which leave you groggy, tired, and disoriented if you were to wake up from.

Sleep in a cold room, not a hot one. Why? Because your body needs to drop its temperature by a few degrees to enter the sleep phase.

Feeling warm at night is perhaps the reason you don’t sleep well. So keep your bedroom cool:

  • Ventilate, open windows, or use an air conditioner if you can.
  • Layer thin blankets on top of one another, so when you feel hot in the middle of the night, you can easily remove a few.
  • Use pillow covers that dissipate heat. You can even buy breathable pillows or ones stuffed with cooling gel (though costly).

To sleep well, have a wind-down routine. Do something that relaxes you before bedtime. “Sleep is not like switching lights but more like landing a plane,” says Matt Walker.

You need to ease yourself into the sleep phase slowly. To do so, use some of these techniques:

  • Meditate for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Read a physical book.
  • Do some light stretching.
  • Take a warm bath.
  • Listen to narrations or let someone tell you a story (the bedtime story effect).

A great wind down method is to use a worry journal. Write down all your concerns or to-do items on paper. Do so as if you’re removing thoughts from your head and leaving them on paper. A worry journal decreased the time it took people to fall asleep by up to 50%, a rate well above any known medication.

A common myth (dating back to medieval Britain) is that counting sheep helps you sleep faster. It won’t. In fact, Allison Harvey and her colleagues at UC Berkeley found the opposite to be true. Counting sheep (or simply counting) makes you more awake and alert.

To sleep more soundly, remove all clocks from your bedroom, including your phone. If you’re having trouble sleeping, knowing that it’s 3 am or 4 am only makes matters worse.

If you’re a sound sleeper but had a poor night’s sleep once, Matt Walker’s advice is “do nothing”. Drinking more coffee, taking a long nap, or waking up later than usual, will only disrupt your next night’s sleep. So after one poor night’s sleep, stay the course and keep your regular sleep schedule.

Good sleep is the best medicine. And evidence shows it’s true.

These tips can help you sleep longer and better. Still, it’s vital to seek professional medical help if your sleep doesn’t improve. Never let poor sleep pile up until it’s too late. Remember, if you sleep better, you’ll live longer and healthier.

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Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: