Experts recommend the following actions to help you fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start a new day.
- Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. Set and maintain a sleep schedule. Try to stick to it even on weekends and when life gets crazy. Failure to do so can lead to insomnia. “Sleeping in” on the weekends will make it harder to wake up on Monday morning because it resets your sleep cycle.
- Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime. While it may initially sedate you, alcohol keeps your brain in light sleep – you have trouble getting to the deep sleep and REM sleep phases and your sleep is less efficient. Arousals due to alcohol can cause sweating, headaches and intense dreaming.
- In the late afternoon and evening, avoid caffeinated drinks because they act as stimulants. Caffeine sources include some soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, non-herbal teas, some pain relievers and diet drugs. Caffeine can stay in your system up to 14 hours. It increases the number of nighttime awakenings and decreases total sleep time. Remember that even decaffeinated coffee contains some caffeine, although not as much as regular coffee.
- Avoid nicotine in the evening. This includes both smoking and smoking withdrawal systems such as nicotine patches. Nicotine is a stimulant, like caffeine, so it pumps your heart up. Smokers often have trouble sleeping because the length of a good night’s sleep is more than their bodies want to go without a cigarette. They wake up early due to nicotine withdrawal.
- Wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep. This is also a great treatment for jet lag.
- Keep the bedroom quiet and dark and at a comfortable temperature. Extreme temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep.
- Try to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but not right before bedtime. For maximum benefit, exercise at least three hours before going to bed, especially if you are the type of person who becomes more alert with exercise.
- Develop a relaxing routine before bed. This may include a warm bath, light stretching, listening to soothing music, reading or other relaxing activities.
- Don’t go to bed feeling hungry, but don’t eat a big, heavy meal right before bedtime. For a light snack before bedtime, carbohydrates or dairy products (e.g. non-chocolate cookies or crackers and milk) are best
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, go to another room and do something restful until you feel tired. Don’t read in bed. If you want to read, get out of bed and sit in a chair.
- Don’t have a visible bedroom clock because “clock watching” will only help intensify the misery of insomnia. You can always turn the face of the clock away from you or put it in a drawer.
- Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex. Keep the television, laptop, cell phone, food, etc. out of the bedroom.
- Don’t make bedtime the time to solve your problems. Make a to do list for the next day then try to clear your mind.
- Think about your napping policy. Naps can be great in helping some people improve performance. But for others, napping is an invitation to night-time insomnia. Figure out which category you are in. Don’t nap during the day if you have trouble sleeping at night. If you must, take a brief nap 10 to 15 minutes about eight hours after waking.
- Try not to drink fluids at least two hours before bedtime as a full bladder can interfere with sleep.
- If you need to get up during the night, do not expose yourself to bright light. Intense light can reset your internal clock and make it harder to get back to sleep. See circadian rhythm section.
- Avoid sleeping with your pet because their movements or your allergies can decrease the quality of your sleep.
- Know the side effects of your medications. Certain medications can either compound sleepiness or make falling asleep more difficult. Let your doctor know if you have sleep problems so they can do their best not to prescribe medications that worsen your sleep difficulties.
- If sleep problems persist, see your doctor. If you have trouble falling asleep night after night or if you always wake up feeling unrefreshed, you may have a sleep disorder that needs treatment.
- Respect the sleep needs and practices of others. Practice good sleep manners.
“Sleep hygiene” originally referred to the cleanliness of the sleeping environment, especially with regard to bedbugs. In the 19th Century many beds even had the posts sit in pots of oil to prevent insects from crawling up into the bed. Mattresses were manually pulled tight with draw-strings, to provide firmness. Cleaning floors and rugs was harder in those days before the invention of power vacuum cleaners. And contagious diseases were more prevalent. So “sleep hygiene” literally referred to how clean and hygienic the sleeping space was.
In contemporary usage, sleep hygiene refers all the practices and habits that help you get restful sleep. This includes comfort of bedding, room temperature and light level, noise level, regular bedtimes, and how recently you ate and exercised before going to bed. Attention to sleep hygiene is the first thing to look to when people have trouble sleeping.
Other factors that influence sleeping and waking are posture, exercise level, noise, light level, and mood.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain’s anterior hypothalamus controls circadian rhythms, taking cues from the external environment.
Check out our sleep resources page for more information. And guidelines for The Smart Sleeper.
Recipe for Sleep
Sleep makes us feel rejuvenated and energized. We have more physical energy, but more importantly more mental energy and cognitive ability, and a more upbeat outlook on the world.
The phrase “sleep pressure” resonates. We know what it means – the need and desire to sleep – but scientists cannot describe what happens inside the brain to make us feel this way.
What if we could redirect the focus from fixing broken sleep to making sleep better?
Sleep medicine is all about dysfunctions and solving them, mitigating them, and living with them. It is useful, but even without formal medicine you can do your part to maintain a good sleep regimen and make the quality of your sleep – and waking – better.
What makes you sleep?
- Natural rhythms => Biological clock => more precisely, neurochemicals inside your brain and body.
- Biological clock is influenced by environment – light, dark, temp
- Naturally feel sleepiest 12 midnight to 6 AM.
- Whether others in the house are going to bed
The immune system is part of the body’s production of a feeling of sleepiness. Chemicals called cytokines are released by the immune system and tend to make you sleepy. This is why we are more easily fatigued when sick. Even when we are not sick the immune system participates driving pressure to sleep.
See our page on fixes for insomnia.
Humans generally do our best work during the day or early evening. Some people are indeed night owls, and many may claim they work better at night, but in reality most people are most mentally alert and physically stronger during the day.
The necessity of night work means people get shift-work sleep disorder. Productivity in jobs is generally lower at night (despite what some individuals may claim about their own productivity).
Drowsy driving is also a major public health problem.
Night workers are more prone to heart problems, digestive system upsets, and infertility.
Dealing with night shifts
- allow more time for sleep when you actually can sleep
bright lights in workplace
- take extra sleep hygiene precautions in your bedroom to mitigate tendency to wake during day. May have to make room extra dark.
- use caffeine in first part of shift
In the old days, the emphasis was always on uncovering and addressing the underlying cause of the insomnia. The assumption was that all insomnia was secondary insomnia. New thinking is that it is best to consider insomnia to be comorbid with (not secondary to) another condition.
Hygiene in general refers to a state ideal for maintaining health or forestalling disease. Sleep hygiene is used to refer to the practices around sleep.
Bad sleep hygiene practices would include sleeping on the floor, in regular day clothing, with the TV or radio on, in a hot room or car seat unable to lie down. When people wake up in their living room after a drunken night, feeling miserable, is the misery due to hangover or because a bad night’s sleep? Both, of course, and the bad night’s sleep is partially due to poor sleep hygiene. You pay the price the next day for not taking the time and effort to prepare for bed in a comfortable environment.
Comfortable sleepwear is an important element of sleep hygiene. Most people prefer to not sleep in the nude, although that is an option if it makes you more comfortable.
Sleepwear is as individual as the people who wear it. There are sleep bras, which are designed to support and conform to the wearer, no matter how she twists and turns. Nightgowns come in any number of lengths, with and without sleeves. Pajamas range from traditional long styles through “shorties” and tap pants (shorts, often ruffled) that cover the bottom and only an inch or so of the thigh). From long, flowing kimonos to short terry cloth wrap styles, robes provide not only warmth but style and personality to a sleepwear ensemble.
When choosing sleepwear, perhaps the most important factor is fabric. While style and fit are important, if the garment does not breath or irritates the skin, a good night’s sleep is hard to come by. Caring for the garment should be factored into the buying decision. Some fancy nightgowns can only be worn once between visits to the dry cleaner and are appropriate only for the wealthy and indulgent.
High-thread count cotton pajamas are a good choice in warmer weather. It allows the skin to breath, is light-weight, and very few people are allergic to cotton. Cotton is also machine washable and subject to only slight shrinkage if tumble dried.
In cooler climates, flannel or fleece are good choices. Flannel material can be made from cotton or wool, often adulterated with synthetic fibers for durability or flame retardation. Fleece is usually a wool or synthetic, as in the popular “microfleece” which had a shallower pile than traditional fleece. While both are warm, some people may find flannel or fleece made with wool itchy, either due to the rougher texture or as a result of the lanolin residue that makes natural wool water repellent. Most types of flannel and fleece require special care to avoid shrinkage.
For those looking for a bit more luxury in their night clothes, silk or satin are excellent alternatives. While these require more specialized care than other fabrics, their soft, smooth texture makes these a treat to wear. Silk has long been used in the East as an insulator, which makes it not only attractive, but practical for everyone from romantics to campers. Satin, on the other hand, tends to remain cooler to the touch, making it eminently suitable for warmer climes.
While clothes that bind or sag can lead to tossing and turning, almost no one can sleep when they are too hot, too cold, or constantly chafing. Selecting the right fabrics and textures ensures the comfort of the wearer, making for a more restful sleep.
Can you train yourself to sleep less? Perhaps surprisingly the answer may be yes. Experiments in sleep restriction show some ability to voluntarily reduce sleep time, although only to some extent and the results are not foolproof. Normal 8-hour sleepers are able to reduce to 6 hours. Deep sleep time remains unchanged. Six hours appears to be the minimum for most people. A study in the UK showed that reducing the amount of sleep did not result in more productive working time. People just wasted the time spent awake.
A story holds that Leonardo da Vinci took 20 minute naps every two hours. His paint dried after 30 minutes. Solo seafarers do something like this. In an ongoing regimen the 20-minute sleep periods become more intense than the typical afternoon nap, and include some deep sleep which the average short nap does not. Note that people, including Leonardo apparently, do this a few weeks at a time, not indefinitely.
You can find a lot of people on the internet who have blogged about their experience with polyphasic sleep. As far as we can tell, not many people continue with this pattern over the long run.
Shifting your sleep time
Sure, you can do this; people do it all the time. Sleep is flexible enough that we can choose when we do it. As diurnal animals, humans more naturally sleep at night, but we have some control over when our main sleep period occurs and people adapt to the demands of shift work and family constraints. This hardly counts as a hack. If you talk about changing your sleep time every day and trying to maintain a high level of performance, that counts as a hack.
Writing about efforts to reduce sleep needs, Jessa Gamble wrote “if there were a widespread disease that similarly deprived people of a third of their conscious lives, the search for a cure would be lavishly funded.” No doubt that is true, but that sentiment brings up the question of whether attempts to shorten sleep time can or should be made. Attempts to modify the brain and fundamental behavior have yielded mixed results.
Multi-tasking during sleep
Some people regard sleep as lost or wasted time, and in an attempt to accomplish more in their life, seek to learn new things while they sleep. This is a classic life hack, but it isn’t effective. Called hypnopaedia, this idea was popular in the mid-20th Century, and it continues to pop up, driven by the impulse to be more clever than Mother Nature. If there are serious examples of people truly learning things while asleep, we are not aware of them.
That is not to say that sleep is not connected to learning. Well-rested people learn better and memories are consolidated in NREM sleep. Sleep the night after learning is important and beneficial, and REM sleep can spur creativity.
Increase Deep Sleep
Deep sleep is the type most adults need more of, and Brian Kerr of the website quantifiedself.com thinks he has worked out ways to increase deep sleep time. He mentions lifting weights, which meshes with what others have found about anaerobic exercise and sleep. He also says eating carbohydrates only late in the day will help, and forcing your body into cold and/or hot temperatures right before bed. The thermal stress, both hot and cold, seems to increase deep sleep time in his experience.
Cure for sleepiness? Fix for sleep? Remedy for too much sleep?
But the quest for better control over sleep continues, driven by hubris maybe, or ambition to conquer nature. The US military services are at the forefront of this quest. They were early adopters of the stimulant modafinil, and were giving amphetamines to pilots in the 1940s. More recently Special Forces units have employed z-drugs to shift their sleep times and make sure their soldiers are well-rested before missions. Military research is trying to find non-pharmaceutical methods to hack the sleep cycle. Already, pilot helmets are fitted with special lights to mimic early morning light and keep them awake. A device that fits over the head called the Somneo mask promises to help induce sleep quickly even when the soldier’s circadian cycle calls for waking. It is hoped the Somneo or similar equipment will help military units squeeze sleep in at the most opportune times during critical missions.
Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) applies and electric potential across the temples and is approved by the FDA for home treatment of some brain disorders. Promoters hope it will start being used by healthy people to induce slow-wave deep sleep sooner than would normally occur in a night’s sleep. A related technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation is approved for treatment of depression and there are hopes it will be used to enhance sleep quality or shorten sleep times.
None of these are a “cure” for sleep, but some see them as viable ways to significantly shorten daily sleep requirements. Could a permanent shortening of sleep be as revolutionary on society as the birth control pill? Given how much of our lives are spent sleeping and how our schedules work around sleep, it seems that is not an unreasonable comparison.
Normal sleep and extraordinary sleep
What is normal sleep? How much sleep is normal?
That is not an easy question, and if you read the scientific literature, even the top sleep scientists don’t really have an answer. The functional answer is: whatever works.
The consensus among the medical profession is fuzzy at best.
Some sleep researchers in Germany recently published a paper bemoaning their difficulty in finding normal sleepers to establish a baseline. While they had plenty of volunteers, most were excluded because of disorders. Some of the participants didn’t even know they had a disorder until they took a polysomnograph test as part of the study. Of course, the researchers had their own ideas of what constitutes a sleep disorder.
Sleep as a skill
Can you learn to be a better sleeper? Yes. Self-awareness, self-inspection, and trial and errors are the keys. The quantified self movement is about watching your own body and behavior and making adjustments to improve. You can work on your own sleep by using a sleep log. Record bedtime and rising times, nighttime awakenings, notes on sleep quality, exercise, food, medicine consumption, and whatever you think is important.
You can also incorporate a sleep monitor for more information. Make adjustments and see what works for you.
Deep sleep is the best sleep. You might think REM with its vivid dreams is better, but for long term health and well being during your waking hours, deep sleep is where it’s at.
Now many people think they can cheat sleep with tricks like polyphasic sleep, which almost never works. That’s not to say it can never work, and a small minority of the population can pull it off, but most can’t. Other people try to cheat sleep during the workweek and make up for it on the weekends. Indeed, a large fraction of the working population does this to some extent and ends up with a weekend nap. But a few people really try to push it and sleep only a few hours every night during the week. They are almost all fooling themselves. Ergonomics, military, and human factors experts have found in study after study that performance declines quickly after only a little sleep deprivation. You might be able to get away with it for a day or two, but not for a whole week.
It would be great if you could enhance the quality of sleep so that you could get the same benefits in a shorter time. Maybe if there were a way to ensure that you get all the stage 3 and 4 sleep and cut the less valuable stage 1 and 2 sleep. Indeed, this is the idea behind polyphasic sleep. If there were a way to ensure that the monophasic sleep period got all the required stage 3, stage 4, and REM sleep without all the less important light sleep, maybe we could cut back on total sleep time.
However, no such method has been found, or even hinted at. There is no drug or method of brain stimulation or body position or technique for bedroom management or clothing that makes sleep more efficient. Now there is such a thing as “sleep efficiency” that is a metric researchers measure – it’s the time spent asleep divided by the total time in bed. And sometimes you will see a drug study results report tell how the drug affected the patients’ sleep efficiency. But this is slightly different from what the ambitious sleep strivers are aiming for.