F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.” To the 79 percent of people who don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, this quote is all too relatable. For many, getting a good night’s sleep feels about as likely as winning the lottery.
Despite fatigue being so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called it a “public health problem,” a lack of sleep is often not taken as seriously as other maladies. Rather, it’s seen more as a nuisance to be ignored or medicated away. But a healthy night’s sleep is more than just a way to avoid morning crankiness. It’s essential to a healthy life.
Not only is a lack of sleep linked to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it also carries physical repercussions. Poor sleep can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart attacks. Fatigue also contributes to more than 1 million car accidents every year and plays a role in many medical mistakes. Healthy sleep habits are as important as a nutritious diet and regular exercise. In fact, good sleep is foundational to maintaining your healthy habits during the day rather than reaching for extra cups of coffee or sugar fixes.
For many poor sleepers, the easy solution is a trip to the pharmacist. In fact, half of the population uses two or more remedies in their fight to fall asleep. But medications can come with side effects that often negate their benefits and rarely offer long-term solutions to the underlying problem. There will always be a few people for whom no other remedy works, but for the majority suffering from sleep disorders, the solution is much simpler: creating a better sleep routine.
The sticky science of sleep
The main issue with a medication-first strategy is that it’s an attempt at a simple solution to a complex problem. In fact, researchers are still coming to grips with just how complex the science of sleep actually is. To quote sleep scientist Jeffrey Ellenbogen, “Sleep is not monolithic. It’s a thousand different things.” It’s a tall order to solve a thousand-factor problem through a single pill.
Sleep isn’t just about unconsciousness. Sleep essentially curates and synthesizes our experiences throughout the day. On a molecular level, our sleeping brains operate differently from our waking brains. Artificially tampering with sleep has the potential to disrupt that healing process.
Of course, for many people, medication seems like the only solution, but there are real, practical solutions to poor sleep that don’t require medication.
How to kick the meds and get the best sleep of your life
When it comes to getting more high-quality sleep, it all boils down to addressing two key areas: lifestyle issues and formed habits. To see what works best for your sleep and your life, focus on changing your behavior for at least a week. Start by exploring these four steps:
1. Cut out screens even earlier. There’s a good chance you already know about how blue light messes with your circadian rhythm. It also wreaks havoc on your melatonin secretion and decreases your REM sleep, meaning that even if you manage to get a good amount of sleep, you’ll still wake up feeling like you’ve been shorted.
Don’t be fooled into thinking nighttime display modes on your electronic devices are enough to fix the problem. Even when screens are set to emit warmer-colored light, the brightness still suppresses sleep-inducing melatonin. And spending time looking at screens when you should be winding down can keep your brain alert rather than gently set it to sleep mode.
Stop using screens an hour earlier than you usually would. This is especially important if you typically take your phone to bed for a quick scroll through email or Twitter right before turning off the lights. Resist the urge, and embrace a screen-free bedtime.
2. Create a sleepier environment with muted lights. Like the brightness of your screens, the brightness of your environment can suppress melatonin. Turn down the lights in your living space an hour earlier than normal to create a darker (and, therefore, sleepier) environment.
This doesn’t mean you should operate in complete darkness or even eye-straining dimness for the hour before bedtime. Instead, choose soft light when you can, and keep illuminated only the lights that you actually need. This also helps keep your bedroom reserved for sleeping versus TV-watching or other brain-stimulating activity.
3. Experiment with a lower bedroom temperature. Studies have shown that a lower temperature is more conducive to a deep sleep because it signals to your brain that it’s time to slow down and get ready for a mini-hibernation.
Don’t create an igloo inside your home, however. If your body is using energy to get warm, you’ll have a harder time getting to sleep. Maintaining a steady bedroom temperature throughout the night is also important, so try to keep those windows closed.
4. Soothe that restless brain. If an overactive mind makes it difficult for you to shut down, the first step is to figure out what’s causing it. Depending on the root of your mental restlessness, you can work to settle the mind through a variety of methods, including simple breathing or meditation techniques or even doodling or coloring for a short period before bed.
If anxiety keeps you up at night, therapy or simply talking it out with a partner or friend might help calm your buzzing mind. Not every technique will work for every person, so don’t be afraid to try new techniques, like making a cup of herbal tea or setting aside 30 minutes of old-fashioned book reading, if your first attempts fail.
Once you’ve found the right sleep triggers for you, the key is to build a routine around healthy practices. Eventually, the routine itself becomes a way to signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
The temptation to raid the medicine cabinet to remedy a sleeping problem is understandable, but it often requires only a few small adjustments to implement a nightly routine that transforms the way you sleep. Give it a try for a few weeks. The best thing in the world is to try to sleep and to succeed.