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Sleep Your Way to a Healthier You: 5 Highly Effective Sleep Habits
Sleep is a major contributor to your overall health, and here are five ways you can improve the quality and quantity of your zzz's. - photo by Parinaz Samimi
Sleep is hard to come by these days.

Everyone seems to be looking for ways to optimize their rest. Improving sleep has become the new focus for many people trying to live a healthier life.

Despite myriad sleeping hacks and promised solutions, establishing healthy sleep habits is still the best way to make sure youre getting the most out of your slumber.

Incorporate these five habits of effective sleep into your daily routine and reap the benefits of lasting, quality rest.

1. Remember the 90 minute rule

Scientists are discovering that the overall amount of sleep we get, while certainly important, is less critical than the number of sleep cycles our bodies can complete.

When we sleep, our bodies cycle through different stages. The first is light sleep, which leads to deeper REM sleep. On average, a full sleep cycle is about 90 minutes. For truly restful sleep, you need to complete four to six full sleep cycles.

With this information in mind, its possible to know the ideal time to go to bed. In fact, there are several apps and sleep calculating sites that can help you figure out when you should be hitting the hay.

For example, if you need to wake up at 7:00 am. you should aim to go to bed at 9:45 pm, 11:15 pm or 12:45 am. Choose your bedtime in 90 minute intervals to maximize the number of sleep cycles you can complete. Also note that it takes the average sleeper about 15 minutes to fall asleep, so allow for those 15 minutes of falling asleep time when you plan.

2. Create your ideal sleep space

Theres a reason every spa you step foot in has calming music, dimmed lights, soft-spoken employees and the tranquil scent of lavender. Take a cue from your local salon and create your perfect sleep environment.

Limit electronic devices in bed

An hour or so before bedtime, turn off the TV, dim the lights and avoid the urge to check your phone. Doing this will tell your body it's time for bed, and it causes your body to release relaxing hormones.

Use your room primarily for sleep

Start training your body to expect relaxation when you get into bed and treat your room like the sacred sleeping zone it is. Avoid working, eating or other wakeful activities in bed.

Invest in high-quality pillows and bedding

Set yourself up for a successful night's sleep by researching the ideal bedding materials for your sleep habits. Consider having warm and cool weather bedding options as well.

Choose your favorite smell

The cherry on top of the perfect sleep palace is a calming scent. Lavender, sage, jasmine, bergamot and lemon have all been found to reduce anxiety and stress. Pick out a candle or essential oil diffuser and fire it up at least 30 minutes before laying down.

Because so much of how we interact with our environment is through our senses, it makes sense that surrounding yourself with calming materials speeds up the relaxation process.

3. Track your sleep

It can be hard to pinpoint what's causing you to lose sleep. Thankfully, technology has an answer. Harness the power of data and number-crunch your way to better sleep.

Invest in a wearable sleep monitor and start gathering data about your sleep habits. Look for a device that will track not only the amount of sleep you get but the type of sleep as well.

You want to be able to isolate your sleep cycles, track how long it took you to fall asleep and record the number of times you woke up. This information should paint a clear picture of where you excel and where you need to make adjustments.

Many wearable fitness devices do double duty and can also be used to track sleep, so you might already have the necessary tools to start analyzing the data. Pick one that works for you and let the experiments begin!

4. Go towards the (natural) light

Everyone knows the ideal sleeping environment is a cool, quiet, dark place, void of any artificial lights or unnecessary distractions. But did you know that the light we are exposed to throughout the day may be wreaking havoc on our bodies when its time to power down?

A study from the Netherlands Leiden University Medical Center found that when mice were exposed to constant artificial light sources they experienced pro-inflammatory activation of the immune system, muscle loss and early signs of osteoporosis. The findings from this study are especially applicable to aging populations, since bone density and muscle mass start to decline once we hit 40.

Computers, smartphones and fluorescent overhead office lighting all contribute to artificial light exposure. Of course, completely eliminating unnatural light is not an option, but there is something you can do. Aim for healthier, more natural lighting. That means throwing open the blinds and making an effort to get outside more.

5. Connect with nature

Have you ever noticed after a day at the beach you tend to sleep soundly later that evening? Or that an afternoon hike through the mountains makes it easier to fall asleep at bedtime?

A study published in Preventive Medicine revealed that exposure to nature and the outdoors can improve quality of sleep, especially in men and seniors. Its not just the physical activity that promotes better sleep - its the natural environment.

As humans, we don't spend much time in nature. We sit in our air-conditioned cars as we travel to and from work, spend our days inside an artificially lit and temperature-controlled building then return to directly our homes.

Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, the lead author of the study, says, If there is a way for persons over 65 to spend time in nature, it would improve the quality of their sleep - and their quality of life - if they did so.

These are only a few suggestions to improve sleep. Start small, but give yourself time to try a few of the hacks on this list. Use your findings to fine tune a sleep plan that works for you.

Happy sleeping!