Take Back the Night!
Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Tips from a sleep expert and review of Netflix’s Guide to Sleep
Keira Moore, Ph.D., BCBA-D
In a world of fast fixes and groundbreaking medical advances, we still haven’t found a magic wand for fixing sleep deprivation and other sleep disorders. Healthy sleeping habits may be some of the most important adulting skills that we need to ensure our own health and wellbeing – yet we seem to be less concerned with developing those skills and more interested in taking pills for a to get a good night’s rest. A 2014 survey showed that 1/3 of adults under slept, and that number has been steadily creeping upward, especially with the pandemic this past year.
As a sleep expert, I was excited to see Headspace, a popular mediation app, team up with Netflix to release a series called Guide to Sleep. Though it ended up being more of a plug for the app and their meditation practices, it was still an interesting and useful watch with some relevant and data-driven details. For those trying to learn more about sleep and healthy habits, the series does a good job of providing a realistic preview of the work and care it takes to change sleeping habits. When it comes to sleep, there are unfortunately no quick fixes or sleep hacks. There is hope though; and while the solutions may not be as easy as taking a sleeping pill, with a little planning and patience, good sleep will come. I work with people every day to help fix serious sleep problems, there are some simple steps that just about anyone can follow that are guaranteed to improve your sleep. The ways we manage the environment around us and set up conditions for how we go to sleep have an enormous impact on how well we actually sleep. Let’s highlight some of the important details from the Guide to Sleep series and some of the changes you can start making to improve your sleeping habits, starting tonight.
Keep a Consistent Schedule
You can’t talk sleep or schedules without talking about how much sleep we should get, so it’s no surprise the Guide to Sleep series chose this as its opening subject. We always hear the magic number is 8 hours, but this is more of a scientific average. Just as humans’ needs differ on calorie intakes, the number trips we take to the bathroom, or our preference for ice cream, so does our optimal sleep needs. While the amount of sleep adults need can vary from 7-9 hours per night, multiple studies have confirmed that all adult humans need a minimum of 7 hours of shut eye. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night can wreak havoc on your body- physically, mentally, and emotionally. And what’s worse, even if you think you feel fine on less than 7 hours, studies have shown that people often misjudge the effects of sleep deprivation and think they are feeling and performing better than they really are.
It’s important to not only get the correct amount of sleep, but to keep your bedtime and wake time consistent every night (yes, even on weekends!). Keeping a consistent schedule takes some work and planning, but this consistency will help to regulate your body clock (circadian rhythm), so that you are able to transition into sleep more efficiently and wake up more energized in the morning. Some good tips to help you keep a consistent schedule is using alarms or reminders, creating a social challenge with someone to win a small reward or bragging rights, or creating a checklist to help you establish a routine.
Keep a Consistent Routine
Much like how keeping a consistent schedule works to prepare your body to sleep, doing the same few things before bed also helps ensure a good night’s rest. Actions and routines repeated every night can provide a cue to your body that it is time to wind down, helping you to doze off faster. It’s best to follow a consistent routine that takes about 15-20 minutes before climbing into bed. This is an area where the Guide to Sleep series can be especially helpful. While, ironically, I wouldn’t suggest watching the show while in bed trying to sleep, it can give you some healthy tools to add your bedtime routine and your life. Meditation is a skill that can undoubtedly have a positive impact on your sleep, but it takes some practice. Practicing the guided meditation exercises in the series during the day can help you use those skills at night as you relax before you fall asleep, without needing to have the TV on.
There is no perfect routine, and what works for one person may not be ideal for someone else. Outside of the usual bedtime hygiene tasks, some of the best activities to add to your routine are things like reading, meditation, journaling, or restorative slow yoga. Keep your activities before bed quiet and relaxing, and try to eliminate all unnecessary light, including (and especially) from electronic devices. Consistently setting aside time to establish a bedtime routine can have drastic effects on the quality of your sleep, and in turn your quality of life.
Ditch the Technology
Episode 2 of the Guide to Sleep series covers the impact technology has on our sleep habits. It’s hard to come away from the episode not thinking every piece of technology was made to sabotage our sleep. The biggest culprit in our bedtime struggles: artificial light. Artificial light, including blue light from electronics, affects our biology and our behavior. Our circadian rhythm (a.k.a. body clock), plays an important role in initiating sleep each night. Our clock’s battery is run by the biggest source of light there is - the sun. It helps inform us whether we should be ready and alert for the day or whether it’s time to wind down. Adding artificial light from smartphones, computers, indoor lights, and even your favorite Netflix show can trick your body into a state of alertness by blocking the release of an important sleep hormone - melatonin. In addition to blocking melatonin and keeping us from getting sleepy, using electronic devices (especially social media), causes the release of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin in the brain. We are then led to crave more cause like an addiction urging us to keep scrolling for more cute puppy videos when we should be getting to bed.
Give yourself some time to relax and unwind before bed, without the electronics. Your body and brain will thank you (and me for the tip)! One of the best things you can do for your sleep is to make your bed a no phone zone. I recommend disconnecting from all devices around 45 minutes before bedtime and dim or turn off all unnecessary lighting. The cute puppies on Instagram will still be there waiting for you tomorrow!
Ditch the Pills
The main subject of episode 5 in Guide to Sleep is our reliance on sleep aids and pills. In a recent study, almost 4% of adults over the age of 20 reported they’ve used sleep medication within the last month, while 1 in every 8 adults with sleep troubles reported extensively using some type of sleep aide. As further proof of our addiction to sleep meds, a recent report valued the sleep aid market at $71 billion in 2018 and growing. But do meds and supplements really help fix the problems?
With so much money and marketing put behind these products, it is understandable to think medications and other remedies can help us sleep. I have spent years learning about our bodies and behaviors surrounding sleep and have helped hundreds of people improve their sleep habits, and I wish it was as simple as popping a pill. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. While sleeping pills might help you drift off into a lesser state of consciousness, they don’t provide the healthy, natural sleep your body needs. The pills work to affect your brain waves in ways that change the quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling groggy and irritable the next day. Think about it this way, taking a sleeping pill works like a knock-out punch - both certainly provide a fast way to get to sleep, but neither gives you the rest you really want or need. Sleep aides temporarily fix the immediate symptoms, but they don’t do anything to address the actual problems that are causing you to be unable to fall asleep. This may leave you stuck in an endless loop, making you dependent on these aides while they begin to lose their effectiveness, and your sleep habits get worse and worse.
For most people, sleep problems are caused by the environment around us and how we approach sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect every aspect of your life – leading to an increased risk of medical problems like cancer and heart attacks, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and learning problems like decreased reaction time and problem-solving skills. Following the recommendations in this article and learning more about what you can do to help you sleep, like watching the Guide to Sleep series can help you change your environment and behavior at bedtime, leading you to healthier body and healthier lifestyle.
Dr. Keira Moore is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who specializes in the assessment and treatment of sleep problems. She offers teleconsultation to parents of children with sleep problems as well as adults all over the world. For more information, visit www.moorebehaviorconsulting.com and follow Dr. Moore on Facebook @moorebehaviorconsulting.