How to Sleep Like a Rock
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The old message was that you need eight hours of sleep each night, no matter who you are. The new message? It’s more nuanced.
Recent research shows a wide range of true “sleep needs” in the United States: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society officially recommend that most healthy adults get between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. However, there are always exceptions, with some people needing a bit more or less.
So how can you know your own sleep need?
It starts with paying closer attention. Ideally over time you can figure out the usual number of hours you get in a 24-hour period. If you can sustain that number, the next question is, “How do you feel when you’re getting that number?”
“I would say the vast majority of people in this country have no idea what their sleep need is,” says Donn Posner PhD., president of Sleepwell Consultants and an adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.
The reason? Sleep insufficiency. To get a true read on your natural sleep need, you must give yourself adequate opportunity to sleep. “Sleep has to be important, because every living animal on the planet down to insects sleep, and sleep is dangerous from an evolutionary standpoint, so it must confer something essential. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it,” says Posner, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a founding member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
What’s more, a recent Northwestern University study found that deep sleep has an ancient, restorative power to clear waste, such as potentially toxic proteins, from the brain. Waste clearance could be important for maintaining brain health or for preventing neurogenerative disease, according to the study’s authors.
That said, insomnia, as a reaction to stress, also played an important part in our evolutionary history, simply because sleep puts us in such a vulnerable position. As a stress response, not sleeping is normal. It’s over time that insomnia becomes a problem, one that can sneak up on us.
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What Is Insomnia?
Possibly the most crucial piece of the sleep puzzle is defining the term “insomnia.”
To truly understand what it is, you first need to know that there are two types of insomnia, chronic and acute, notes Posner.
Let’s start with chronic insomnia. There are a few layers to identifying it:
- What it is
- Associated symptoms
What It Is: Chronic insomnia is trouble getting to sleep, maintaining sleep or waking too early.
Associated Symptoms: “Insomnia really should be thought of as a 24-hour problem, not just a nighttime problem,” says Posner. As a result of having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early, insomnia brings on associated symptoms that can show up in different ways such as feeling fatigued, experiencing concentration issues, memory problems, proneness for errors, stomach upset or headaches. “If none of those things exists, you don’t have insomnia even if you’re not sleeping in the middle of the night,” says Posner.
Frequency: It doesn’t stop there. A troublesome combination of the events above needs to take place at a frequency of more than three days per week.
Duration: Once you’re experiencing three or more nights of problems each week, with associated daytime symptoms for more than three months — that’s chronic insomnia.
So what about acute insomnia? Same as the above, but for three months or less.
Acute insomnia can be caused by any kind of stressor, good or bad. This includes jet lag, a tight deadline at work, or having a new partner in bed. “All of that is normal and what you hope is that when the stressor remits, you adapt to it or you treat it and the insomnia goes away,” says Posner.
The problem is once the insomnia is chronic, it is no longer likely to go away when the stressor remits. It’s taken on a life of its own. That’s when most people try to self-treat and begin leaning on compensatory behaviors like sleeping in, missing work, and using substances, all of which throw off their natural sleep factors so much that the insomnia keeps going year after year.
When Is It Time to Seek Help for Insomnia?
You should seek help after one or two weeks, says Posner. “I’ve always said we should have a series of public service announcements out there that says, ‘Don’t let this linger.’ We should treat acute insomnia just like an infection.”
Normally, insomnia is treated more like pain than an infection.
The root cause is sought out first and things like medication are prescribed on an as-needed basis. But according to Posner, the ideal is to act fast, before you start to develop compensatory behaviors, and head off chronic insomnia before it has a chance to settle.
“I’m not trying to scare anybody. When you start thinking about all the terrible things that sleep deprivation will do to you over time, that’s really long term stuff,” says Posner. “You’re not developing Alzheimer’s this year because you didn’t sleep all year long. The idea is not to panic, but also not to let this go.”
“If your sleep problems are getting in the way of your daily functioning, you should seek medical help,” says Rajkumar (Raj) Dasgupta, MD. Dr. Raj is the Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
What to Say to Your Doctor If You Can’t Sleep
So what do you do if this is you? Start with your primary care physician, but ask for a referral to a sleep specialist, says Posner. He suggests saying, “I’ve got a sleep problem and I don’t want to just get on sleeping pills. Who are the specialists that you send people to?”
If you want to do the research on your own, you can visit the Society for Behavioral Sleep Medicine or SleepEducation.org to find a behavioral sleep specialist or a sleep center near you. You do not automatically need to undergo an overnight sleep study for insomnia, Posner adds.
What’s important is being assessed by a sleep physician at a sleep center.
How to Maintain a Good Night’s Sleep
Wake up on a schedule: For these people who are already sleeping well, the number one way to keep doing that is to wake up at the same time, at least five days a week, says Posner. “Wake time is the anchor, not bedtime.” Light exposure is how you set your internal clock. This is why when people start getting up at different times, they feel jetlagged; a common issue during COVID when rigid work schedules suddenly became relaxed.
Dasgupta suggests maintaining good sleep hygiene by making sleep a priority during the work week. “Catching up on your sleep during the weekend may not be enough to stave off the effects of sleep loss,” he says.
Eat regularly: Next is to have the same number of meals at roughly the same time each day. “When you’re going to bed at night, your brain is going to ask, ‘How many meals were there? Is it bedtime yet?’” says Posner.
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Exercise around the same time each day: Exercise is the same as meals. It should fall at roughly the same time each day.
Separate night from day: Finally, nighttime should be marked. Two hours before bedtime, keep electronic use to a minimum and use blue light filters, says Posner.
“Blue light inhibits the body from naturally falling asleep and further impacts sleep quality,” says Dasgupta. He recommends turning off electronics 30–60 minutes before bedtime, silencing your notifications, and charging your devices away from your bed so you are not tempted to look at social media or news alerts.
“Many people keep their cell phones or televisions on overnight,” he says. “This can be highly distracting.”
At least one hour before bedtime stop working and do quieter activities that relax you. This last part is important. If watching the evening news stresses you out, this is not the time to do it.
How to Get Better Sleep If You’re Having Trouble
Don’t Compensate: Once trouble has begun, don’t compensate for a bad night’s sleep, says Posner.
This is precisely when you need to buckle down; Getting up at your normal wake time is more important than ever. Of course your instinct after a bad night’s sleep is to sleep in; the very type of compensatory behavior that causes you to throw off your circadian rhythm. Posner’s advice: Get up at the same time regardless of how you slept.
Don’t Alter Your Schedule: “People with chronic insomnia start to say, ‘I had a lousy night last night. I can’t get that report done today because I’ll probably screw it up,’” says Posner. But when they go to bed the next night, they have more work on their plate, which stresses them.
Get Out of Bed: If you are lying awake the next night, get out of bed. You should never be in bed more than 20 minutes awake. “Don’t read, write, eat or watch TV in bed,” says Dasgupta.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that you can’t sleep, get up and do a relaxing activity someplace else. “If anybody is on their sofa watching TV and it’s hard for them to stay awake and then they get into bed and they’re wide awake, that’s called conditioned insomnia,” says Posner. “Because you’ve spent so many hours in bed in misery, you’ve conditioned your bed to become a trigger for sleeplessness.”
Watch Your Substances: Your time out of bed does not include turning to any beloved substances. Alcohol might make you drowsy, but it will wear off in the middle of the night and fragment sleep. Nicotine is a stimulant, so try not to smoke two hours before bed or in the middle of the night if possible.
In the morning, caffeine is okay, but remember that it has a half-life of five to six hours. “Don’t drink coffee after lunch,” says Dasgupta. “It can lead to tossing and turning all night.”
Don’t Force It: If you can’t sleep, do not try to force it. Your body isn’t betraying you. “Remember that acute insomnia is a normal response to stress,” says Posner. “It’s a call to arms.”
Are Any Products Helpful for Beating Insomnia?
Posner does not recommend any special products, due to the rhythm of insomnia. “Remember the definition of three or more days a week,” he says. Even chronic insomnia has a pattern of a few bad nights followed by a good one. This will be the case no matter what products you use, which means everything will seem to work sometimes.
Dasgupta shared a similar message. “If someone finds that a weighted blanket or special earplugs help them fall asleep, they can feel free to use them!” he says. “Otherwise, there’s no reason someone would require additional products other than a comfortable bed in a bedroom that is cool and quiet.”
The most important thing to do is seek specialized help. According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than half of Americans say they have experienced an increase in sleep disturbances since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, yet, only 20% of people indicated that they would contact a sleep center to address a sleep disorder.
“Sleep hygiene is like dental hygiene,” says Posner. “It’s brushing and flossing. But once you get a cavity, all the brushing and flossing in the world isn’t going to fix the cavity.”
Our Favorite Sleep Aids
No one product will cure your insomnia, but there are a few options that people have found consistently helpful over the years, from special drinks to favorite blankets. Here are some of the best options you can use to prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep:
Best Sleep Tea
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra
The right tea can help you relax before bed time, and the actual act of drinking it can become a ritual that prepares your mind for rest. We love Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra, which is blended with both chamomile and valerian root (long used as a natural sleep aid). It tastes delicious and helps soothe your body before bedtime.
Promising Review: “I drink one of these every night. I have terrible insomnia and it takes me hours to fall asleep. Then I don’t stay asleep. I drink this a few hours before bed and I find I fall asleep way faster, sometimes only an hour or two after lying down, which is wonderful. Along with a weighted blanket and a sleep mask, the combo is really helping me sleep and get better sleep. I also don’t know if it’s related, but I haven’t had a cold or anything all year, and it’s December now.” – P. Ferdinand
$20.28 at Amazon.com
Best Weighted Blanket
Waowoo Weighted Blanket (15lbs)
Why do weighted blankets work? There’s no clear explanation yet, but people have advanced many probable ones: the comforting sensation they provide, the sense of restricted movement, or even the security of feeling tucked in to a greater degree. Still, not all weighted blankets are equal. Waowoo’s offering provides weight and support without overheating you, thanks to the premium fabrics and multi-layered construction.
Promising Review: “This blanket is so nice!!! I tend to get cold easily at night and everyone else likes to keep the house cool, so I needed a big heavy blanky to crawl under when I’m freezing. I really didn’t expect the material to be this soft. The weight is really evenly distributed, like it’s sewn into place and will not bunch up over time. I like that the case it came in is reusable for storage too during the hottest parts of summer when it will go under the bed.” – Chel
$39.99 at Amazon.com
Best Sleep Mask
Unimi Sleep Mask 3D
Ideally, your bedroom will be a quiet, pitch-black place, since light and sound both keep your brain alert and interfere with your natural sleep rhythms. But we don’t live in an ideal world. If you like in a city, chances are good you’ve got a lot of light bleeding into your apartment, even in the early hours of the morning. The solution is a high-quality sleep mask, and Unimi’s offering fits the bill. Its glass bead interior keeps your face relaxed, even through long hours of wearing, while the 3D design doesn’t agitate your eyes.
Promising Review: “Great mask! I have chronic insomnia and this sleep mask feels so luxurious and soft! Even though it is weighted, and I was concerned about it feeling heavy and uncomfortable, it is neither heavy nor hot. It can be easily packed for travel and I don’t plan to be without it in the future. I’m very impressed with the quality and how comfortable this sleep mask truly is! It is also adjustable and will accommodate most head shapes. I will recommend this sleep mask to my girlfriends and purchase a new one whenever my current one needs to be replaced but this is durable material and I don’t anticipate needing to replace it anytime soon!” – TEXAS1206
$17.99 at Amazon.com
Best Ear Plugs
Flents Ear Plugs (50 Count)
Light is an obvious obstacle to a good night’s sleep, but excess noise is even worse. Late-night construction, loud neighbors, partying college students, a snoring spouse – the list of potential noise sources is endless, which is why it’s a great idea to keep these Flents Ear Plugs on hand. They’re extremely comfortable, and quickly mold to the unique shape of your ear, and with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) rating of 33, they’ll shut out most noises and offer you a blissful silence.
Promising Review: “I purchased these ear plugs because I suffer from something called annoying neighbors syndrome. I’m not entirely certain of their activities, but I would liken the sounds coming from below and across from my apartment to that of an auto shop or a construction site, perhaps even an airplane hanger. It’s particularly horrendous in the evening. Therefore, I have resulted to ear plugs to ensure I get a somewhat worthwhile night of sleep. The contour capabilities of these ear plugs make them incredibly comfortable to wear and the lime green color is particularly stylish, if looks are important while you sleep…. After inserting the ear plugs and allowing them to adjust, silence befell my bedroom. I was able to sleep free from the obnoxious noises that surround my apartment. My only complaint is perhaps these ear plugs work a little too well. I missed my alarm… by an hour and a half. For a full 90 minutes my phone alarm was ring-dingling away and the ear plugs blocked every bit of noise. After the initial panic of being late for work wore off, I was slightly amused that my neighbors had to listen to my alarm while I, for once, slept through their douchbaggery. These will be the only ear plugs I wear from now on. And I’m considering a louder alarm, so suggestions would be helpful.” – Claire
$14.99 at Amazon.com
Best App for Sleeping Better
If you only want one app for better sleep, make it Sleep Cycle. It analyzes your sleep patterns, uses “smart alarm” technology to wake you up at the ideal moment, and offers a variety of soothing sounds, relaxing bedtime stories (often read by celebrities with great voices), and even data-based insights into your unique sleep patterns, all to help you perfect your sleep schedule and wake up feeling more rested.
Promising Review: “Am I a morning person? No, absolutely not. Alas, I have a full twelve hour schedule that requires me to be up and ready pretty early in the morning but actually waking the hell up? My body thinks that’s a hilarious concept. I’m naturally a very deep sleeper, but I’m also a night owl who prefers staying up late, so often times I’ll find myself in bed from anywhere between 10:30 pm – 12:00 am and then I’ll have to wake up at about 6:30 am so I can properly get ready for school and then work afterwards. As a college student with 17 credits it’s very hard to not be tired. I decided I needed something to help me wake up easier, since sleeping through alarms or waking up a bleary mess and falling back asleep was just not working for me. I gave this a shot as a last ditch attempt and what would you know? It worked. I just used this app once, last night at the time of writing this and boy am I satisfied. I didn’t think it would work on me to be entirely honest, but it did and I woke up feeling a lot better than I would’ve with an alarm jolting me awake. This alarm is gradual and soft and even when it’s time for you to wake up it doesn’t fee invasive and obnoxious. I’m looking forward to using it continuously!” – canipleasejustsum
Find out more at SleepCycle.com
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