Organizations have developed numerous sleep hygiene tips to help you slip into sleep and stay asleep. The National Sleep Foundation, for instance, recommends doing things like establishing a regular relaxing routine before bed, setting up a sleep-friendly environment so that the temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees and the room is dark, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, and getting regular aerobic exercise.
Although these strategies are certainly worth following, they won’t work unless you first shift your attitude about sleep. “You need to view sleep as an investment, not an expense,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. “Just as you have to invest money to make money, you also have to invest in sleep, and though it might take time, it’ll pay off in the long run.”
That starts by realizing that bragging about sleeping too little is akin to boasting about eating five Big Macs in one sitting. Instead, schedule sleep in your to-do list, and make sure you’re aiming for at least seven hours.
“Although everybody has a different sleep need, most people need between seven and nine hours,” says Britney Blair, PsyD, CBSM, a California-based clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist.
Don't force sleep
You should also know that you can’t force yourself to go to sleep. For example, if you’re running a race or giving an important presentation the next day, telling yourself when you crawl into bed that you have to sleep will backfire. “Sleep isn’t something you do, but rather something that happens to you when the situation permits,” Grandner says. “If you try to force yourself to sleep when you’re not ready, you’ll then be up and drive yourself crazy trying to fall asleep.”
Instead, go to bed when you’re sleepy—you should fall asleep in fewer than 30 minutes, Brown says—and know that one bad night of sleep won’t kill you, even if you have a big event the next day. “It’s less about the sleep you got last night and more about the sleep you got in the last week or two,” Grandner says. In other words, if you’ve been maintaining good sleep overall, one or two nights of bad sleep won’t hurt you, which is why it helps to bank your sleep a week or two prior to important events.
Another comforting fact? Studies show that people rarely have two bad nights in a row, let alone three, meaning that you will eventually get a good night’s sleep, Grandner says. If, however, you’re having sleep problems at least three nights of the week for at least three months, you could have insomnia and should seek help from a sleep specialist.
You should also know that waking up several times during the night is normal. Good sleepers actually awaken five to eleven times, but because sleep has an amnestic property, you won’t remember most of them, Brown says. Unless, that is, you break a cardinal sin and see a clock face or a turned-on TV. “If your eye catches something of interest, you’ll wake up and won’t be able to fall right back to sleep,” he says. Worse, any worries you have will seem more terrible at night, namely because of the way your brain is hardwired, making you think less rationally and more emotionally. Give yourself permission to let go until the morning, when you’ll be able to rethink it.
But what if you wake up and can’t fall asleep? Get out of bed (it should only be used for sleep and sex anyway) and do something that makes you sleepy like reading or listening to soothing music, Grandner says. As soon as your eyelids get heavy, return to bed.
Just don’t rely on sleep medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription. Although they can help you sleep, especially in cases where you’re facing a short-term stressor, they’re not designed for long-term use; you can become dependent on them and so tolerant that you have to keep taking more, Blair says. Instead, two to four days is about the maximum you should use them. Meanwhile, some supplements, including melatonin, could improve sleep naturally.
Society’s views on sleep are starting to shift toward scientific realities, and you can be part of the change by making sleep a priority. Sleep when you die? Not anymore. You’d rather sleep to live.