Sleep smart

by Rebecca L. Weber

What can we do during the day to get more efficient sleep at night? This sleep expert gives us hints to help aid sleep and, in turn, boost cognitive and creative function.

04 Min Read Time


During deep sleep, delta waves are essential for things like cell recovery and consolidating new experiences and memories. The problem? We produce fewer delta waves as we age. And, unlike other health decisions — take the stairs, drink green juice — we can’t simply make more delta waves on demand.

As a species, we get by on about one hour less per night than our ancestors did last century. Today, sleep researchers are examining how to achieve high-quality sleep that allows us to perform at our very best when we’re awake — with fewer hours spent chasing ZZZs in bed.

Dr Daniel Gartenberg, sleep scientist and assistant professor at Penn State, thinks part of the holy grail of this sleep hacking may be as simple as listening to certain sounds at the right time. Gartenberg and his team can tell when an adult enters deep sleep, thanks to a variety of tracking devices like the Sonic Sleep Coach, a portable AI sound machine and meditation device.

At a specific point in the sleep cycle, the devices play a sleep-stimulating sound (not unlike fast-crashing ocean waves). Hearing this audio track during deep sleep induces more delta waves, and subjects test better the next day on certain cognitive tasks.

The team’s research may inform a system that doesn’t involve a sleep lab or a spaghetti-like splay of electrodes, but instead relies on wearable technology like an Apple Watch or an Oura ring to play audio tracks when the sleeper would benefit most.

For Gartenberg, a good night’s sleep doesn’t just leave us rested and alert the next day — it contributes to overall long-term health. “Poor sleep quality has been shown as a causal factor to diseases like Alzheimer’s, hypertension and diabetes”, he says.

To combat ailments and live a richer, longer, healthier life, here are some tips for what to do during the day to sleep deeper at night.

Morning: train your circadian rhythm with sunshine

The best no-tech way to get more deep sleep is to train your internal body clock. Light, food and exercise in the first two hours after waking are cues that you should be awake and they make your sleep more regenerative, says Gartenberg.

The best environmental cue is natural sunlight, so make sure you get light exposure upon waking. If the sun isn’t shining, a light-therapy SAD lamp will do just fine. “Go for a walk in the morning and eat breakfast. Sip coffee. Give your body that cue: it’s time to expend energy”, says Gartenberg.

Exercise releases hormones, such as adrenaline, and raises body temperature, both of which wake us up and keep us alert.

Afternoon: power nap to jolt creativity

Salvador Dalí would hold a metal spoon as he relaxed into his siesta. As he fell asleep, his hand would relax and open, dropping the object with a clang loud enough to wake him up immediately. In that one second, the artist melted together the waking and unconscious worlds, leaving him creatively and energetically recharged.

Take a nap after eating lunch and you may see things in a newly surreal light. “When you transition in and out of sleep, you emit theta waves, which are explicitly linked to creativity”, says Gartenberg.

Twenty minutes or less is ideal to avoid grogginess or not being able to fall asleep at night. For most people, early bird or night owl, a nap about seven hours after waking is best.

Evening: turn it off to quiet the mind

Digital addicts, meet the light bulb users. Artificial light makes it harder for us to get to sleep by limiting melatonin secretion and blue light, in particular, can impact the circadian rhythm.

Gartenberg recommends avoiding screen use two to three hours before bedtime. Turning off phones and computers can also create a psychological boundary to help quiet the mind. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve sleep quality and lessen daytime fatigue and depression, which can lead to peak productivity for work and personal life, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Sticking to a regular bedtime and routine is part of good sleep hygiene. Be sure to also save your bed for sleep and non-work activities only.

Night: let sleep happen

“Sometimes people have their best nights of sleep in a hotel because they associate sleep problems with their own bedroom”, says Gartenberg.

A common problem is worrying about not being able to fall asleep, which itself results in delayed sleep. Rather than stewing in thoughts about not sleeping, get up and putter around. Read a paperback, sit on a couch in a dark room or make a warm drink.

“Don’t force it”, says Gartenberg. “Sleep comes naturally.”