Sleep is hard, especially in a world where people spend their time busy and stressed.
But not sleeping, in addition to making you less efficient and more stressed, is terrible for your health.
Americans currently average 6.8 hours of sleep per night, down an hour from 1942. Four in 10 Americans don’t even get the minimum of seven hours of sleep doctors recommend. That’s a public health emergency. Fatigue leads to short and long term problems with mental and physical health.
Here’s what the best research out there has to say about what you can do to help yourself fall asleep.
This might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: One of the worst things you can do for yourself at night is keep the lights on. Bright light -- especially blue-ish light -- tells your brain that it's still daytime and prevents the release of chemicals critical for sleep, like melatonin. Harvard Medical School recommends using dim red lights in the evenings and, conversely, exposing yourself to bright lights during the day to help regulate your sleep schedule.
Sources: The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Harvard Medical School
We're getting to the surprises, we promise. But if we don't get through these none of the other tips will work. Study after study has shown that watching a screen before bedtime is terrible for your sleep -- whether it's a TV screen, tablet, or phone. So if you want to fall asleep, step away from the pixels.
Coffee may help you deal with the symptoms of your sleep problems, but it also plays a role in causing them. Caffeine alters the melatonin levels in your brain, makes it take longer to fall asleep, and makes you sleep less -- even if you aren't drinking right before bed time.
It's time to get real: Alcohol is the worst, particularly for insomniacs. (Ignore all those awful articles you read about red wine.) A National Institutes of Health review of decades of research shows that study after study demonstrates the ill effects drinking has on your sleep. Even light drinkers take longer to fall asleep, sleep less well, and sleep for less time than their sober neighbours. And alcohol even increases the odds of sleep illnesses like apnea.
Another way to say this would be: Make sure the person you go to bed with makes you happy. While researchers say there's still a lot to learn on how couples sleep in the same bed, the bulk of the evidence collected in a review suggests happy couples sleep better together -- and that people who sleep well together turn out to be happier couples.
Source: Sleep Medicine Reviews
We already know that habits play an outsize role in many different aspects of your life. So it makes sense that they would also play a role in helping you fall asleep -- and many doctors do recommend developing a consistent routine. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a ton of research on the impact of bedtime habits in adults, but research in children shows they can be very helpful.
Research shows that a warm water bottle against your feet and/or hands as you lay in bed makes a measurable difference in the speed at which you fall asleep. Don't have one handy? Wear socks to bed. (And note that this doesn't apply to everyone: Some people prefer the opposite -- cold feet.)
Your brain might prefer some warm extremities as you doze off, but it also does best in an atmosphere a bit cooler than what we typically think of as 'room temperature.' The Harvard's sleep lab recommends setting your thermostat a bit down -- to as low as 60 degrees, but really whatever you find is most comfortable.
Source: Harvard Medical School
The science on this one is a little thin -- there's only been one study that's tested it. But when researchers tested the cognitive trick of paradoxical intention -- basically, reverse psychology -- on patients it improved their speediness in falling asleep. If you find yourself unable to fall asleep, it might be worth a try.
This one also doesn't have a huge number of studies behind it, but it makes intuitive sense and the research behind it is good. Before you go to sleep, take a warm bath -- it seems to make it easier to pass out and make you sleep deeper once you are asleep.
A study showed that listening to classical music helped relax students and improve their sleep quality, while listening to an audiobook or nothing at all did not. The trick here likely isn't classical music in particular, but music that you find calming.
Source: Journal of Advanced Nursing
A study of healthy sleepers showed that lavender scents helped young men and women sleep more deeply and wake up feeling more refreshed. Interestingly, men and women seemed to have somewhat different kinds of sleep in lavender-scented rooms. But both groups benefited.
Source: Chronobiology International
Melatonin is a hormone your body secretes on its own, believed to be involved in regulating your circadian rhythms. There's some debate in scientific circles about exactly how effective it is as a supplement, but research suggests it can be helpful and many doctors recommend it to their patients. Plus, it can be picked up relatively cheaply without a prescription at any drug store and it's harmless. Consult with a doctor or pharmacist, and start with a low dose and work your way up until you find one that works for you.
You've likely noticed that many of the suggestions on this list center on finding and creating calming, sleep-promoting conditions. Every person is unique, and the specific tricks that work for you may vary. In addition to the big, important tips (stop drinking and looking at your phone late at night) try the others one or two at a time. Keep track of what makes a difference and stick with that.
Some people have insomnia that won't shake on its own, no matter what they do. It might be tied to other health conditions, or might simply be an unfortunate problem that stands alone. In either case, missing sleep is bad for your health, lifespan, happiness, and well-being. A doctor should be able to diagnose the underlying issue. Harvard Medical School has a helpful page on its website with more information on when to seek treatment.
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