Improving your sleep habits is perhaps one of the most important and transformative changes you can make. As a clinician, I can speak to the most reliable and well-researched methods for improving sleep quality. As a chronic sufferer of insomnia, I can share some thoughts on how to actually apply this information.
To begin, let's look at what the research tells us about which factors have the greatest effect on sleep quality. I'll list them below in what I consider to be order of importance:
1. Going to bed and waking up at a consistent time 2. Reserving your bed for sleep only (i.e. no working, tv watching, or web surfing in bed) 3. Creating an environment that is conducive to sleep (i.e. not sharing your bed with pets, or disruptive sleep partners) 4. Avoiding "screen time" before bed 5. Similar to 4, getting direct sunlight in your eyes soon after waking
Ok, so those are the biggies. Now let's look at how to realistically make use of these guidelines. Abiding by a consistent sleep schedule, particularly on weekends, has probably had the greatest effect on my ability to fall and stay asleep reliably. This is probably because I have historically been a fan of sleeping in late on the weekends; after of course going out late on the weekends.
Of course going to bed and getting up at the same time isn't always possible. If you do have to go to bed later than your usual time, set an alarm so that you don't sleep in the next day, even if it means getting less sleep that night. Similarly, if you accidentally sleep in, make sure to go to bed at your usual time that evening and get up on time the next day. Finally, if you are under increased stress, prioritize your sleep schedule above everything else.
Reserving the bed for sleep and creating an environment that is conducive to sleep go hand in hand. Obvious improvements you can make to the environment include decreasing the room temperature (the temp shouldn't be above 68 degrees), using a sound machine to drown out background noises (my favorite is this one off Amazon), and using black out shades or an eye mask to ensure darkness.
Things can get tricky when it comes to bed partners. If your partner's movements or sleep schedule interrupts your sleep, I would strongly encourage you to consider sleeping apart (as devastating as it may sound). My husband has restless legs syndrome (RLS) and I have insomnia, so we haven't slept in the same bed in years. Given how much better we sleep alone, I truly believe our marriage is stronger for it.
Screen time and direct exposure to light in the mornings – two sides of the same coin really. The aim here is to avoid upsetting your body's circadian rhythm. Light is one of the primary cues your body uses to distinguish night from day. When we stare at a bright screen before bed, we mislead the brain into thinking that it's daytime, which interferes with the production and release of melatonin, a sleep agent. Similarly, when we go from a dark house in the morning to a windowless office for 9 hours, we may be missing the sunlight that is our cue for daytime.
Of all the sleep guidelines, this is the one with which I personally struggle the most. I like doing a crossword on my phone before bed. To minimize my exposure to light in bed, I've gotten in the habit of decreasing the brightness of my screen significantly. I also will not check any texts, emails, or social media sites while in bed, or read anything that is likely to be upsetting or stimulating. My aim is to wind down with quiet activities that tire me out and distract my mind. I highly recommend reading (from an actual book without a backlit screen, or an e-reader that does not emit blue light, such as the first generation Kindle). If your job or schedule makes it difficult to get direct sunlight in the morning, consider getting a light box. These devices are often recommended in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression associated with seasonal changes – and have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms in individuals suffering from SAD.
Finally, if you have diligently tried all of these recommendations for an extended period of time and still struggle with sleep problems, consider speaking with a sleep specialist. Issues such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and anxiety can cause sleep problems that may require treatment.