Sleep is essential to our well-being, but for many people, it can be elusive.
Many elements of 21st century life negatively affect our sleep: stressful schedules and lives, the constant stimulation of technology, reduced physical activity, increased screen time and more. Official sleep disorders are on the rise, and a great proportion of American adults (and increasingly, children and teenagers), are taking prescription and non-prescription medications regularly.
While sleep medications (over the counter or prescription) can be helpful temporary solutions, they can easily become both psychologically and physiologically addicting, and they do not result in high-quality sleep.
Instead, there are some simple options for behavioral change that can dramatically improve the quality and quantity of sleep.
Three of the most important concepts in understanding how to improve your sleep include sleep drive, classical conditioning and sleep hygiene.
Sleep drive is your likelihood to fall asleep at a given point in time (if you try to fall asleep). Humans have body rhythms that ideally align with patterns in our day. Typically, sleep drive is lower at noon than it is at 9 p.m. We can take steps to increase (or inadvertently) decrease our sleep drive, impacting our ability to fall and stay asleep.
Classical conditioning means that your body/mind are affected by unconscious cues. When we repeatedly pair one neutral stimulus (i.e., something that on its own does not have meaning) with something that does have meaning, the neutral stimulus alone can begin to affect our mood/experience.
For example, most people experience a jolt of attention and energy when they hear the sound of their text message alert. Because of many repeated experiences of that sound meaning “someone is thinking about me,” many people get a rush of positive energy and emotion when they hear their phone (or anyone else’s!).
Sleep hygiene is a set of practices that promote good quality sleep. By repeating sleep-inducing behaviors, we can retrain our unconscious signals to promote sufficient, high-quality sleep.
Consider the steps we take to help infants sleep: the current recommendations are “bath, book, bottle, bed.” If we repeat this process regularly, babies (unconsciously) begin to get sleepy when the bath begins and will fall asleep quickly once put in their beds. Adults can (and should!) strive for similar sleep routines.
While human existence has changed dramatically in the past few decades, our bodies have not caught up. We are stressed and overstimulated, with busy minds and tense bodies, making sleep difficult for many. The best practices for improving sleep include maximizing your sleep drive and conditioning your body and mind to sleep well.
Maximize sleep drive
Our goal is to be sleeping for most of the time we are in bed.
- The bed should be used for sleep and sex only (not TV, texting, work, etc.).
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Go to bed when you are sleepy (but not too sleepy).
- Avoid naps.
- Get out of bed if you are not able to sleep! This is the most essential piece of sleep advice I can give. Most people can fall asleep within 15-20 minutes. Do not look at the clock, but if you have a sense that you will not be able to quickly fall asleep, get out of bed and do something soothing without bright lights until you begin to feel drowsy. Then go back to bed.
The same goes if you wake up in the middle of the night or you wake up early in the morning — get out of bed, ideally going to another room, until you feel ready to sleep again. Staying in bed tossing and turning conditions you to expect sleep to be difficult and distressing (classical conditioning), making it that much harder to fall asleep the next time.
This step, though simple, can be very hard to put into practice. You keep thinking “this time I’ll fall asleep.” I can guarantee breaking the cycle of fighting sleep will lead to notably improved sleep quality and reduced stress about sleep.
Improve sleep hygiene
Consistently engage in practices that promote high-quality and sufficient quantity of sleep.
- Avoid screens and bright lights for at least an hour before bedtime.
- Create a bedtime routine and stick to it wherever possible. This may include a shower/bath, reading, time with a family member, or other relaxing activities.
- Avoid stimulating activities in the later evening: exercise, violent/activating television shows or books, distressing news, etc.
- Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime. Many people think alcohol helps them sleep. While it can induce drowsiness, alcohol severely impacts the quality of sleep and should be avoided in the evenings to the extent possible.
- Exercise regularly.
- Avoid heavy evening meals and nighttime snacks.
We intuitively know how important sleep is for children and adolescents, but given the busy-ness and stress of adult life, many of us forget to prioritize this in our own lives. Sleep is truly nature’s medicine and not something we can go without.
I wish you sweet dreams and deep sleep by practicing some of the approaches outlined above.
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children. Contact her through her website, www.prairiehomewellness.com or call 319-975-8705.