Getting a good night’s sleep is just as important to your health and well-being as nutrition and exercise, according to Harvard Medical School. As you sleep, your brain recovers from the day’s stress, preparing new pathways for you to learn information, form memories, and control emotion. But missing out on the seven to nine hours experts recommend alters activity in some parts of your brain—and deficiency is linked to depression, anxiety, and poor decision-making. 

It plays an important role in your physical health as well. Over time, lack of sleep increases your risk of:

  • Heart and kidney disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Compromised immunity

In fact, studies indicate that sleeping five or fewer hours per night boosts your mortality risk by as much as 15 percent. 

You Need Both Quantity and Quality

Getting high-quality rest means that your body progresses through its normal REM sleep cycles, transitioning through states of deep, restorative activity.

These signs may indicate you’re not getting quality sleep, regardless of how long you spend in bed:

  • It takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
  • You wake up more than once per night.
  • Once you’re awake, it takes you more than 20 minutes to fall back asleep.
  • On average, you’re awake for more than 15 percent of the night.

Ways to Improve Sleep

Given the paramount importance of sleep to your physical and mental health, understanding how to get a better night’s sleep ensures your body is prepared to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

1. Optimize Your Diet

Most experts recommend avoiding large meals within a few hours of bedtime. Instead, you should go for light snacks like a piece of fruit to curb any late-night hunger pangs. 

This is because when we’re lying down, the digestive system can’t function as well as it does during the day—increasing your risk of uncomfortable symptoms like acid reflux, indigestion, and stomach pain. 

However, much like sleep itself, your diet’s quality is just as important. Studies have shown that people with high-fat and high-sugar diets have shorter sleep durations, experience less restorative sleep, and wake up more frequently throughout the night.

While alcohol is a nervous system depressant that can make you feel sleepy, it works against your sleep quality as well. One study found that even low amounts of alcohol—about one drink—decreases sleep quality by almost 10 percent. 

The National Institutes of Health says that alcohol affects all stages of our sleep, including increased latency—the time it takes to fall asleep—and decreased REM, or deep sleep.

2. Create a Scientifically Ideal Sleep Environment

Studies have found a link between a cluttered space and an increase in cortisol, also known as the stress hormone—a known driver of insomnia. Visually, clutter also represents loose ends from your day, so keep your space clear and organized to wake up to a fresh slate.

There are other scientifically backed tricks to optimize your bedroom:

  • Researchers suggest 60 to 70 degrees as the ideal temperature for deep sleep.
  • Before turning up the heat, try sleep socks to warm up. Studies show this helps you achieve high-quality sleep faster.
  • Keep it dark. Studies show that even dim light can interfere with your natural sleep rhythm.
  • Put down your phone at least an hour before bed. Its blue light mimics daylight, suppressing your body’s sleep hormone.
  • Try aromatherapy. Lavender has been shown to stimulate more rapid, improved sleep.

3. Do a Pre-Bed Brain Dump

Limiting your screen time before bed can help your mind disengage from the day, preparing itself for rest.

But if your mind is still racing past bedtime, give it some support:

  • Create a to-do list for tomorrow, putting the stress on paper and off your mind.
  • Try a mindfulness practice like meditation—proven to fight insomnia and improve sleep.
  • Breathe deeply while listening to music, which studies show have a cumulative impact on sleep quality. 

4. Get Moving

Exercise helps maintain both physical and mental health, encouraging the body’s natural transition to rest.

Getting moderate exercise—about 30 minutes per day—also increases the amount of deep sleep you get. Experts say there’s no best time to exercise, as long as you give yourself at least an hour to cool down before bed. 

There may be benefits to getting out in the morning sunshine. Researchers found that people exposed to light between 8 a.m. and noon fell asleep more quickly and had fewer disturbances to their sleep throughout the night. 

5. Stick to a Schedule

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule helps maintain your body’s natural clock, helping you fall asleep more easily and wake up more refreshed. But one study also found that for each hour of variability in a person’s sleep schedule, risks like high blood pressure, fatigue, and obesity increased by 27 percent. 

There are tons of apps available to help you form a better sleep schedule—and stick to it. Some even schedule your alarm to ring at a natural point in your cycle, instead of jarring you out of a deep state.

Build the Routine That Works for You

Keep in mind that everyone’s body is different, and factors like stress, hormones, and underlying health conditions can all impact your sleep.