In Matthew Walker’s 2017 book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” Walker says that two-thirds of adults in developed countries get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep a night. At least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. More traffic accidents are caused by drowsy driving than drunk driving and drug use put together.
Since getting less than seven hours of sleep a night can impair the immune system, raise levels of cortisol (the stress hormone,) disrupt the ability to regulate blood sugar, and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease, it’s crucial to get enough sleep.
The question is how to do that. All the steps in the solution are relatively simple. Making the lifestyle changes is the challenge.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day.
This creates a habit and sets circadian rhythms. No energy is wasted trying to figure out what’s happening today.
Dim the lights for a few hours before going to bed.
The presence of any light—blue or otherwise—has been shown to slow the release of melatonin, making it harder to sleep. It helps to do something which doesn’t involve a screen, such as reading a book or working on a craft, in the last 30 minutes or so before going to bed.
Keep your bedroom cool.
A room that’s too warm inhibits good sleep quality just as much as too much light, and for the same reasons. If you’ve ever tried to sleep without air conditioning in the summer, you’ll know.
According to Walker, 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for most people.
If you wake up with an arm or a foot out from under the covers, you’ve probably overheated and are regulating your core temperature subconsciously.
Take a bath.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but taking a hot bath before bed can dilate blood vessels, allowing you to dump heat faster and sleep better.
Exercise—but not right before bed.
While exercise can improve quality of sleep, doing it within three hours of going to bed isn’t going to help you sleep because it raises your core temperature.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sleep aids.
Caffeine lasts for hours in one’s system, and drinking it later than the early afternoon can make it difficult to sleep. Alcohol doesn’t induce natural sleep, which means that the sleep it leads to is not as restful and beneficial, and may even increase the number of times you wake up briefly later during your sleep cycle, disrupting REM sleep. Sleeping pills have the same effect. Whether melatonin supplements actually help sleep is still unproven.
If you still can’t sleep, restrict your rest time.
If you can’t sleep more than a certain amount a night, cut down the sleep you allow yourself, then gradually incrementally increase the time you allow yourself to sleep and build up to eight hours. While you’ll feel worse at first, it will allow you to break down that insomnia and work towards better sleep.
If feeling anxious, worried, or distressed is contributing to your insomnia, talk to a psychologist.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating sleep problems—even more so than medication. A psychologist can help you learn to cope with the worries and concerns that were keeping you awake.
Most things on this list are already common knowledge—some are even considered old wives’ tales. In fact, many people already know the “how.” They just make excuses to themselves about why they don’t, especially in the case of the first suggestion. Setting up a schedule can be hard, and sticking to it even more difficult.
However, getting better sleep is well worth the challenge, as it aids creative problem-solving, improves emotional intelligence, and helps encode memories properly.