In the future, we might be able to program a good night’s sleep, thanks to cutting edge technology. Maybe everyone will have a hibernation chamber like astronauts do in movies, or we’ll catch some extra zzz’s in our self-driving cars.
But right now, sleep is difficult, easily interrupted, and all too elusive.
So what’s someone in need of deep sleep to do? Well, start with cutting the crap out of your day and silencing your mind at night.
Stop Staring at Screens
Before the lightbulb was invented, people slept, more or less, according to the sun’s cycle. There wasn’t much that could be done after dark, so humans got up when the sun rose and went to bed when it set. Fortunately, the circadian rhythms in our body matched this sun cycle, secreting more melatonin, our body’s natural sleeping hormone, as the night progressed.
But we messed that all up. Not only do we have lightbulbs that can give us daylight (or a close approximation of it) 24/7, we also have blue light glowing from our computer screens and cellphones. That last part is a big problem, because artificial light suppresses melatonin, throwing our circadian rhythms out of whack. Blue light, like the kind emitted by most electronics, is something we humans are particularly sensitive to. When we expose our eyes to its unique wavelength right before bed, at least one study showed it becomes harder for us to fall asleep, or get much time in the REM cycle of sleep where we dream.
Clever cellphone addicts know there’s already a technological hack to be found: Apple long ago introduced a “Night Shift” mode on its cellphones that turns that blue light yellow, potentially reducing the negative side effects of electronics in bed. It’s available on computers, too. While these might work for already well-adjusted sleepers, experts still recommend powering down electronics at least an hour before you want to sleep. Reading from a book with a normal lightbulb will allow your body to relax in a way reading an ebook off a blue light — or even sundowned — device most certainly won’t.
Say No to Naps and Coffee
Because so many of us have screwed up our sleep schedule, we often rely on hacks to keep us going throughout the day. Some chug coffee, others nap; and some of the hardcore among us do both. While science suggests coffee and naps are overall neutral or beneficial to your health, if you’re an insomniac, all they’ll do is keep a bad cycle spinning.
Caffeine is literally made to keep you awake. And it does its job really well. So if you need to sleep, it’s got to be the first thing to go. But it isn’t only coffee you need to quit. Other secret sources of legal stimulants include chocolate, tea, most sodas, decaf drinks, pain relievers like Midol and Excedrin, energy drinks (yes, even energy water), and more. As Harry Potter’s Mad Eye Moody would say, “constant vigilance!”
Naps, meanwhile, are the best thing in the entire world. But they can be disruptive, especially when they last too long. Naps over 20 or 30 minutes are likely to cause sleep inertia, where you feel groggy and disoriented upon waking. And napping later in the day can make you feel alert for too long, pushing a full night’s sleep farther and farther back.
It sucks to consider giving up on life’s greatest joys, but if you’re serious about getting a better night’s sleep, these shortcuts have to be the first things to go.
Get Into Position
If you’re still struggling to sleep, it might be a structural issue — literally. If you live on a busy street, using white noise machines or a fan can be crucial in blocking out traffic or other disruptive sounds. Plus, your room should also be cool, as experts say 60 to 67 degrees is the sleep sweet spot — a terrifying prospect given climate change and the cost of air conditioning. If you have allergies, sleeping on bedding made of down might make them worse, as can an old and musty mattress. So use a microfiber or other allergen-free materials, and replace your mattress every decade.
Silence Your Thoughts
While a lot of sleep problems are physical, many people’s nighttime issues are strictly psychological. One of the biggest obstacles to a good night’s sleep is feeling unable to calm your thoughts. If this is what’s keeping you from sweet dreams, experts have a variety of tactics to help.
Before going to bed, try writing down what you’re worried about, whether that’s with some freeform journaling or a to-do list. Knowing it’s all on paper and waiting for you tomorrow can help you sleep tonight.
Once you’re in bed, many sleep experts recommend using a mantra to keep your thoughts focused as you drift off. Instead of letting your mind wander to all of the scary, stressful places it so desperately wants to go, keep it centered around repeating a phrase — preferably one that doesn’t remind you you’re having trouble sleeping. Perhaps, “Serenity now”? Or maybe just “SHUSH!”
If words don’t cut it, images might. Guided imagery is a technique where you focus on things that soothe you — and only you. Go for the super specific, like your favorite meal or a memory from your childhood. Focus in on it until you feel calm.
Lastly, you can harness the power of your own breath. For example, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise requires you to breathe in for just 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale fully for 8 seconds. It can feel hard on your lungs and push your chest to the max, but it might finally let you unwind.