How to Get A Good Night’s Sleep

How to Get A Good Night’s Sleep

Is your monkey mind keeping you awake at night? Headlines? Both? And could regulating light or inhaling lavender help? We curated a story that appeared in Vox on the subject of getting to good night’s sleep. It was written by Sean Illing, a science journalist who spent months researching the subject because he has struggled with insomnia all this life. Promise the results of Illing’s research won’t put you to sleep. 

I’ve struggled with insomnia nearly all of my adult life.

Typically, I’m able to fall asleep within an hour or two, but often it takes much longer, and the anxiety about not sleeping has made it so much worse. I’ve accepted that this is something I just have to live with.

A few years ago, I started wearing a sleep mask and turning on cable news so that the mindless banter in the background would distract me from my thoughts long enough to pass out. This isn’t the wisest strategy, but it has, occasionally, worked. Lately, I’ve started listening to meditation apps that play sounds of waves crashing or fire crackling.

If any of this resonates with you, you might be interested in a new book by Henry Nicholls called Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest. Nicholls, a science journalist in England, chose the topic of sleep in part because of his personal experience with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. So he decided to write a book about how to sleep better.

Nicholls surveyed the latest medical research on sleep, interviewed many of the researchers involved, and underwent intense sleep therapy to treat his own condition.

I spoke to him recently about what he learned and about some of the practical things you can do to get a better night’s sleep.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What’s the key to a good night’s sleep?

Henry Nicholls

The simplest thing is to work on something called “sleep stability,” which is very common advice in insomnia clinics and something my physician, Dr. David O’Regan, recommended as part of my cognitive behavioral therapy course for insomnia.

Sleep stability means pinning your bedtime to the same time every night, even on weekends, and waking up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. The key is to settle into a groove or a cycle that your body understands and responds to. Once you do this, it’s really quite amazing. You’ll sleep better, feel better, have more energy, and worry less.

You have to figure out what the earliest time you need to get up during the week for work is, and then build a routine around that. You subtract the number of hours of sleep you need from the time you have to get up, and that is your bedtime. And you do not go to bed before that time ever, unless you’re just exhausted and can’t help it.

Sean Illing

How much sleep is enough?

Henry Nicholls

Everyone varies, and this is why you need to find out how much your brain needs. And you do that by keeping a sleep diary over a week or two, and just taking an average of how many hours you are actually sleeping. So not lying in bed, but subtracting the time it took you to fall asleep and any time you lay awake in the night. That’s the amount of sleep your brain got that night.

And you average that out over a couple of weeks, and that tends to be a good reflection of how much sleep you need. That helps you work out when you’re going to go to sleep or not. And it also tells you whether you are average in the population.

But it varies by age. Children need much more sleep, teens still need a lot of sleep, and, as an adult, you’re probably looking at somewhere between six and nine hours of sleep in order to be healthy. Again, though, it depends on your particular brain — not everyone needs the same amount of sleep in order to function well.

Sean Illing

So this conventional myth that everyone needs eight hours is just that — a myth?

Henry Nicholls

It’s a useful goal, but it’s not true that everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night. This is something I learned during my cognitive behavioral therapy, and books like Colin Espie’s Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems make the case pretty convincingly.

A lot of people get obsessed with this goal of getting eight hours of sleep every single night, and because they’re someone who just doesn’t need that much sleep, or they can’t reliably sleep that long, they get anxious about it and that actually creates issues with insomnia.

Sean Illing

Over the years I’ve tried over-the-counter sleep aids, but I’ve generally resisted this out of fear that it’ll create a dependency. The only thing I take now is melatonin, which seems safe. What did the sleep specialists you spoke to say about people using melatonin or other over-the-counter or prescription meds to help with sleep?

Henry Nicholls

Well, I think the approach to sleep should be really simple stuff first. I’m not a physician, so I can’t give advice about which medications to take and when, but the consensus among the specialists I spoke to was that you should try to get your sleep stability right first, and make sure that you’re getting consolidated sleep and not waking up all the time.

To do that, you have to implement basic sleep hygiene, which is not drinking caffeine after midday, or exercising too late, or drinking alcohol before bed, and just eating sensibly.

Do these things and you’ll be less likely to wake up with your brain looking for another fix. And if doing natural things like this doesn’t work, then it might be wise to consult with a specialist or a doctor.

Sean Illing

Is bad sleep better than no sleep? In other words, is it better to just get up and do something productive rather than lying in bed for hours frustrated about not being able to fall asleep?…

Finish reading here and watch the video associated with this story.

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