‘I’m a Neuroscientist and Sleep Expert for the U.S. Army, and Here’s Exactly What I Do to Get a Restful Night of Shut-Eye’

Photo: Stocksy/Danil Nevsky
In theory, falling asleep should be easy. You lie down, close your eyes, and do nothing... until your brain takes care of the rest. But sometimes, it can feel like your mind is working against you. Even if you employ soothing measures like cricketing your feet or count sleep, the further sleep seems to get. You're not imagining it; sleep has a big mental component—which is why Major Allison Brager, PhD, a neuroscientist and sleep expert in the U.S. Army's Holistic Health and Fitness program, uses her background in brain research to arm soldiers with tips for getting a full night's sleep, whenever they can.

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After all, it's not just annoying to chase after sleep to no avail. Not getting enough sleep puts your mental and physical health in jeopardy by increasing your risk for low mood and anxiety, disrupting your memory and ability to concentrate, raising your blood pressure, and weakening your immune system. Over time, sleep deficiency can lead to worse consequences, too, as it's been linked to heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Without enough sleep, the body has no means to repair and recover.” —Allison Brager, PhD, neuroscientist

For its ability to help protect you against these and other ailments, Dr. Brager has called sleep a “secret weapon” in the past. “Without enough sleep, the body has no means to repair and recover,” she says, which is an essential process for maintaining good health. “Sleep clears toxins that build up throughout the day,” she says, “and if sleep is compromised, all mental faculties, including your mood, suffer greatly until adequate sleep is achieved.”

Over the years, prior to her work with soldiers in the U.S. Army, Dr. Brager has advised Olympians and athletes on professional sports teams on how to get high-quality, restful sleep. And now you can benefit from the neuroscientist's top tips for nailing the art of a good night's sleep, too. Below, find the strategies she's constantly sharing and implementing herself to sleep like a baby.

4 tips from a neuroscientist for actually getting to sleep (and staying that way)

1. Reconsider that afternoon coffee

According to Dr. Brager, your bedtime routine should start long before your actual bedtime. Begin by looking at your caffeine intake and ensuring you avoid coffee at least six to eight hours before you plan on going to sleep, given that caffeine can take that long to clear the body, she says. (If you typically have an afternoon latté as a pick-me-up, it could be responsible for why you’re still feeling wired hours later.)

2. Dim the lights starting a couple hours before your bedtime

Darkening your space (including your bedroom) well before you're even planning to sleep “can help optimize the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep,” says Dr. Brager. In other words? The dim space will signal to your brain that it's nearly time for bed, and your body will start acting accordingly.

So, whether you’re reading a book or chatting with your partner in the evening, ditch any bright overhead lighting, and make a lamp your new best friend.

3. Optimize your bedroom environment for sleep

Ensure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet to provide the ideal conditions to help you drift off—and stay that way once you do. “This will help prevent sleep fragmentation and optimize time spent in restorative sleep,” says Dr. Brager.

If you have bright street lamps outside your window, it may be wise to invest in some blackout shades; if you tend to sleep hot, a fan could do wonders. And if you have a noisy roommate, you can’t go wrong with a pair of earplugs to help keep the time you've set aside for sleep free of loud distractions.

4. Use morning light to regulate your circadian rhythm

When you wake up in the morning, Dr. Brager recommends getting as much sunlight as early as possible in order to set yourself up for success once it’s time to return to your bed later that night.

“No matter how sleep-deprived we are, our sleep system ‘resets’ through early morning light exposure,” she says, referencing the power of light to signal to the brain that it's time for wakefulness and to suppress melatonin production. “Even while deployed and not being able to sleep well or much at all, I could always rely on the beautiful sunrises and sunlight radiating off the desert sand to keep me more awake and refreshed,” she says.

Ample daytime light exposure also turns the contrasting dimness of the evening into an even clearer signal to the brain that it's time to wind down—making it that much easier to transition into sleep mode when the time comes.

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