Sleep is important for the body to restore energy and resources, and consolidate memory.
Most people have probably heard that poor sleep is associated with adverse consequences: poor attention, memory, hand-eye motor coordination, and fatigue. While this is all true, everyone is different; some people feel their best with less sleep, and others feel better with much more sleep. It is also the case that placing too much importance on sleep can be potentially harmful. In fact, many of the patients I have treated with insomnia believe that if they don’t get enough sleep, they won’t be able to function well the next day and that the lack of sleep will interfere with their daily activities. As a result, they might engage in many behaviors that actually interfere with getting better sleep, such as taking extra long naps or getting to bed earlier to make up for it the next day, or just relying on Benadryl or Ambien to take care of the problem. Some of our treatment might actually involve restricting sleep even further in order to learn that some sleep deprivation will not cause catastrophic consequences at work, and that they can survive with less sleep. It also helps people to learn that they can gain control of their sleep by changing a few of these problematic behaviors.
Sleep is a highly “conditioned” behavior.
What this means is that the physical and emotional environment becomes associated with sleep over time, sometimes to the point of people needing to sleep to certain kinds of music or a special pillow. So if you are spending too much time in bed doing other things besides sleep (like watching TV, reading, doing work), you are actually conditioning your bed to be associated with those things. This also applies to worry. If you are lying in bed alone with your thoughts and worrying for hours before falling asleep, you are associating your bed as a place for worry. This can all be easily changed with some basic retraining strategies, outlined below.
Just like having good dental hygiene, establishing proper sleep hygiene may feel effortful at first, but will become easier over time. Keep in mind, more time in bed does not mean better sleep. More time in bed sleeping means better sleep.
Here are some important tips for getting good sleep:
- Do not do anything else in bed besides sleep or sex.
- Set a consistent wake time during the week, even on weekends. Your sleep is regulated on a biological clock known as your circadian rhythm, and having consistent wake times sets your body to this clock.
- Do not stare at the clock when you can’t fall asleep. Instead, if it feels like 20 minutes have gone by and you are still awake, get out of bed, turn on the lights, and do something requiring low stimulation (e.g., reading a book) until you feel tired enough to fall asleep. Then go back to bed.
- Avoid nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine before bed. These substances are known to disturb sleep.
- Avoid rigorous exercise at night 3-4 hours before bed.
- Avoid long naps (15-20 minute power naps are OK).
- Do not go to bed hungry- make sure to eat regular meals and snacks (every 3-4 hours) during the day.
Most people have heard that the recommended amount of sleep for adults is at least 8 hours each night. Indeed, the National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7-9 hours of sleep for adults between ages 24-64. However, everyone is different and you may not need 8 hours each night to feel well-rested. On a daily basis, try to practice good sleep hygiene, and even if you have a few nights of bad sleep, you will feel more refreshed in the long term!
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Resident Expert, Psychologist