It’s hard to put a price on a good night’s sleep. The right amount of rest leaves us ready to face another day, and contributes to our health over the long run.
Yet, many people do not get restful sleep. Recently, researchers at University of California, Berkeley, uncovered some of the most important factors that contribute to waking up feeling alert and refreshed after a night of sleep. Their findings were published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
Following are the secrets to a good night’s sleep.
You can’t blame your genes (much)
Before uncovering the secrets to restful sleep, it’s important to dispel a myth: The notion that your genes largely determine how well you sleep turns out to be false.
Both identical and fraternal twins were included in the study specifically so researchers could determine the role that genes play in how alert and refreshed you feel upon waking up.
As it turns out, genetics account for only about 25% of differences in sleep experience across the study participants. Factors such as environment and behavior account for the rest.
In a summary of the study’s findings, Matthew Walker, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology and the study’s senior author, says:
“How you wake up each day is very much under your own control, based on how you structure your life and your sleep. You don’t need to feel resigned to any fate, throwing your hands up in disappointment because, ‘… it’s my genes, and I can’t change my genes.’ There are some very basic and achievable things you can start doing today, and tonight, to change how you awake each morning, feeling alert and free of that grogginess.”
1. A breakfast rich in complex carbs
The researchers found that a breakfast low in sugar but high in complex carbohydrates — with a modest amount of protein thrown in — helped people become alert quickly, and to maintain that state during the day.
By contrast, those who consumed high amounts of simple sugar did not wake up as effectively and struggled with feelings of sleepiness.
It’s important to note that the researchers said a breakfast rich in carbohydrates can help you stay alert “so long as your body is healthy and capable of efficiently disposing of the glucose from that meal.” That means the advice might not apply to those who have diabetes, who were excluded from the study.
2. Enough sleep
The “quantity” of your sleep plays a big role in the “quality” of such rest. The researchers say you should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
That is the ideal amount of time to rid your body of “sleep inertia,” which is the inability to transition well from sleep to cognitive alertness after waking up in the morning.
When you get at least seven hours of sleep, you give the body enough time to get rid of adenosine, a chemical that builds up in the body through the course of a day and causes you to feel sleepy later.
In the study summary, Walker says:
“Considering that the majority of individuals in society are not getting enough sleep during the week, sleeping longer on a given day can help clear some of the adenosine sleepiness debt they are carrying.”
3. Sleeping later
Sleeping in a bit later also can help you to feel more refreshed and alert upon awakening. As Walker says in the summary:
“When you wake up later, you are rising at a higher point on the upswing of your 24-hour circadian rhythm, which ramps up throughout the morning and boosts alertness.”
4. Substantial exercise the prior day
It is well-known that regular exercise contributes to alertness and a happier mood, the researchers say. But remaining active also improves the quality of your sleep.
In the summary of the study’s findings, UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Raphael Vallat — first author of the study — says:
“It may be that exercise-induced better sleep is part of the reason exercise the day before, by helping sleep that night, leads to superior alertness throughout the next day.”
5. A lower blood glucose response after breakfast
The researchers found a link between having a lower blood glucose response in the two hours after someone eats breakfast and “superior” morning alertness the next day.
Your body’s post-meal glucose response is one thing that truly is out of your control. However, eating a breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates typically has “a more modest effect on blood glucose and circulating insulin levels,” the researchers say.
So, while you cannot directly control post-meal glucose response, the foods you eat can help lower this response.