One of the keys to health is good sleep – but why is it so elusive sometimes?

I know many of my clients have struggled with sleep issues throughout their adulthood. Some problems are symptomatic of family systems (i.e. being awaken by children), while others are medical (ie. sleep apnea).

Other sleep issues are more mysterious and confounding – there’s no good reason to have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, but it’s just not happening.

What’s unfortunate is that sleep issues tend to have a cascade effect on other parts of life – bad sleep will make you feel more lethargic, which means you will probably be less active. Also, being poorly rested also means that your body will put hunger hormones like ghrelin in over-production, which usually means that you’ll have trouble eating well. This cocktail of poor sleep, uneven nutrition, and inactivity is a recipe for health problems, and – plus – you’ll just feel bad.

On the flip side, good sleep yields incredible benefits. You’ll have more energy, your immunity will be stronger, and you’ll have the gas in the tank for activities like exercise and vibrant work productivity.

The good news is that some simple habit changes may yield huge results for sleep improvement, and here are 10 tricks to get you started:

Trick #1: Wake up at a consistent time.

Reverse-engineer what time you want to go to bed at night, and then calculate seven or eight hours after that time. Start waking up at that time every morning with an alarm, even on weekends. The body responds well to repetitive training like this, and it’s quite likely that this will eventually cause you to get sleepy at the “right” time at night.

Trick #2: Avoid alcohol consumption within a few hours of bedtime.

Sure, it may make you feel drowsy and relaxed – but alcohol intake tends to negatively impact sleep quality. You may find yourself sleeping less soundly and waking up more frequently. If you enjoy a glass of wine at night, try to keep it paired with your dinner time and away from bedtime.

Trick #3: Get bright light early in the day.

Try to go outside and get sunlight every day, especially in the morning. Our physical circadian rhythm responds strongly to light cues. Seeing bright light in the morning can help to “set” the circadian rhythm to recognize morning and nightfall, helping you to fall asleep at the right time each night.

Trick #4: Keep your exercise away from bedtime.

And by the way, do exercise to help yourself get better sleep at night. It really helps! But just make sure your workout isn’t within the last hour or two of bedtime. Your body needs time for your nervous system to calm down after exercise, and you want to leave some buffer time to recover so that you will sleep peacefully (instead of feeling tired but wired).

Trick #5: Make your bedroom dark and cold.

This is one of those “sleep hygiene” tips, along with using a sound machine or a loud fan. A cold, dark room with some white noise is extremely conducive to sleep.

Trick #6: Keep tech out of the bedroom.

Addicted to your phone? Keep that, and your computer, out of the bedroom. Not only with the blue light affect your ability to fall asleep (because of bright light, remember?), but your habits with your tech may also jumpstart your brain to start thinking about work, responding to texts, or repetitively checking your social media. None of these rituals are conducive to sleep.

Trick #7: Shower (or take a bath) a few hours before bed.

The drop in your body temperature after the shower will cause the release of melatonin in your body, which will cause you to get sleepier and more restful as the evening goes on. My tip is to eat dinner, then shower, and then relax. Plan it all so that you are winding down for your planned bedtime for about 2-3 hours total (i.e. if you go to bed at 11, eat dinner at 7 or 8, then shower and change, and then relax until you’re ready to go to bed).

Trick #8: Have a repetitive evening routine.

Just like Pavlov’s dog will salivate at the sound of the bell, it’s likely that – with practice and repetition – you can create a system of cues that will get your eyelids drooping. While I wish that for me this was lighting a candle and meditating or something else equally virtuous, the reality is that if we put on “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” or any other (familiar) light-hearted comedy after dark, I will be asleep in an hour or less.

Trick #9: Don’t cut all your carbs, even grains.

The rise in popularity of some diets has made carbohydrates anathema. But the reality is that, for most of history, our diets were carbohydrate-based to some degree, and our circadian rhythms have evolved to match. In fact, one of the potential causes of poor sleep is under-eating, especially under-fueling with carbohydrates in conjunction with vigorous workouts. Try having a complex carbohydrate like rice with your dinner, and see how this may help you. If you need to balance out your carbohydrate intake during the day to hit a specific goal, minimize carb-rich meals early in the day, and have them later in the day, instead (like in your afternoon snack and dinner).

Trick #10: Have an insomnia action plan.

At various times throughout both my adolescent and adult life, I have struggled with insomnia. It’s not all the time, but when it kicks in as a pattern, something that I have found helpful is to have a plan. For me, what usually works is to get up and get out of bed (especially once I’ve reached the mind-racing phase of sleeplessness), have a snack, and read quietly on the couch until I’m really good and sleepy again, and then I can go back to bed.

Part of the reason this is so helpful is that one of the goals of healthy sleep is to associate your bed with sleep – if you’re tossing and turning, you’re building a negative relationship with your bedroom. Instead, get up and quietly relax with a book or something similarly unstimulating, and then go back to bed once you’re actually ready to sleep!

Sleep problems aren’t always easy to solve, but I can guarantee you that (barring a medical issue) if you go to a sleep specialist, the first things you will be counseled to do will be habits like these.

What are simple lifestyle or habit tips that have made a big difference in your sleep?

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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