BY LISSA COFFEY
The Better Sleep Council leads you through a weeklong plan to improve your sleep—and you don’t have to leave home
Editor’s note: Savvy mattress retailers want to do everything they can to help their customers sleep better, including offering them sound advice and tips. Feel free to share this great guidance from Better Sleep Council spokeswoman Lissa Coffey with your shoppers (with credit given, of course). The BSC is the consumer-education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.
Better Sleep Council research has found that 79% of people would feel better and be more prepared for the day if they had an extra hour of sleep. A similar percentage (74%) of people over the age of 30 say they have difficulty concentrating and experience higher stress levels after a bad night’s sleep. So valuable is sleep that 30% of people are willing to pay $100 or more for an extra hour at night!
With this in mind, we’ve come up with a solution. No, put away your wallet: Sleep is not for sale. But we will take you on a seven-day sleep retreat so you can get the necessary rest you crave. And you don’t have to go anywhere: All our suggestions can be implemented right in your own home. Ready? Let’s get started!
Day 1: Start good habits
When you have a class or a meeting to attend, it’s on your schedule and you give yourself enough time to get there so you won’t be late. Put sleep on that same level of importance. Schedule a bedtime and stick to it. And just as with other appointments, leave yourself enough time to prepare for bed so you’re not late. For example, if you need to get up at 6 a.m., 10 p.m. is an ideal bedtime. Set an alarm on your watch or phone for 9:45 p.m. and stop what you’re doing then. This gives you time to go through your nighttime routine: Get your jammies on, brush your teeth and write in your gratitude journal.
If you like to take a warm bath before bed or read to relax, then allow some extra time for that. At 10 p.m., you want to be in bed with your head on the pillow and the lights off. The first few nights, you may try to postpone bedtime or think “just one more email” before turning in, but don’t fall into this trap. This retreat is about making sleep a priority, and getting into good sleep habits is vital!
Day 2: Create a sanctuary
Does your bedroom look like a bedroom? Or does if function as an office or a gym? The bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex: Nothing else. If you’ve got a desk in there or, worse, if you work on your laptop in bed, stop tonight. If you’ve got your treadmill in the bedroom or a big-screen TV, today is the day to move them out.
Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary. And the star of the room, of course, is your mattress. Make sure your mattress is in good shape and that it provides you both comfort and support. Too often, we hang onto our mattresses for much longer than we should. So, today, take a good look at your mattress. If you’ve had it for five to seven years and it’s not as comfortable and supportive as when it was new, it’s time to break up with you bed.
Take a good look at your bed linens and pajamas, too. You want soft, breathable materials for both. And, while you’re at it, get new pillows. Bed pillows should be replaced every two years.
Day 3: Quiet your mind
How long does it take you to fall asleep? Most of us can’t answer because when we’re in a sleepy state, we’re blissfully unaware and can’t remember actually falling asleep. But we certainly notice when it’s taking too long. “Sleep latency” is the term for the time it takes to go from a wakeful state to a sleeping state.
William C. Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center in Palo Alto, California, studied this and came up with the Multiple Sleep Latency Test as a measuring tool. Dement discovered it typically takes about seven minutes for alpha waves to dominate the brain. In this state, we feel peaceful and hazy. After about five minutes of alpha waves, theta waves take over, and we are in the first stage of sleep. Generally, it takes a person 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. If it takes you less than five minutes, you’re probably overtired or sleep deprived. If it takes you longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, you may be sleeping too much or you may not be practicing good sleep habits.
The idea behind the practice of counting sheep may have a place in helping us fall asleep more quickly. The goal is to clear the mind and slow the brain waves. You can do this by meditating. The reason most meditations start with counting the breath is that within just 10 seconds of this, the brain starts synchronizing neurons in a way that mimics what takes place during sleep. It’s an easy way to get the mind to settle down. Take long slow breaths and relax any parts of your body that feel tense.
Day 4: Reduce your stress level
There is a strong link between stress and sleep: The more stressed we feel, the more difficult it is for us to sleep well. And the less sleep we get, the more easily we feel stressed. Today, let’s look at how we can reduce the stressors that affect our sleep.
- Stop overworking, overscheduling and overthinking. Eliminate this stress by allowing for at least one hour of downtime before bedtime. If you have a 10 p.m. bedtime, stop working at 9 p.m. Put your next day’s to-do list in writing and then set it aside, ready to be tackled in the morning. Then step away from the screens! The blue light emitted from phone, computer and TV screens keeps your brain active, which is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
- Reduce your “green” deficit. To balance the time we spend at school or work under unnatural light, make sure to spend some time outdoors each day. Take a walk in the morning sun or after dinner in the moonlight. A daily dose of fresh air and a little exercise go a long way in helping to achieve a restful night.
- Cut the caffeine. Caffeinated drinks seem to be a go-to elixir for people who are stressed out, but they can do more harm than good. Caffeine can exacerbate stress levels—and negatively affect both the quantity and quality of the sleep you get. Today, start on a plan to reduce your caffeine intake to zero! Maybe you can go cold turkey or maybe you’ll have to taper off. At the very least, don’t consume any caffeine after 2 p.m. When you are caffeine-free, you’ll see how much better you sleep at night.
Day 5: Stop the interruptions
A new baby, trips to the bathroom, outside noises—there are lots of reasons why our rest may be interrupted. Unfortunately, interrupted sleep may be as harmful to the mind and body as getting no sleep at all. One explanation for this is that sleep happens in 60- to 90-minute cycles as we progress from slow-wave sleep to REM sleep. When sleep is interrupted, the body starts the cycle all over again—we can’t just pick up where we left off. That means we miss the more restorative, deeper phases of the sleep cycle.
Here are some ways to make sure your sleep isn’t interrupted:
- Avoid heavy or spicy meals too close to bedtime. The body needs three hours to fully digest a meal. Don’t make it try to digest while it’s also trying to sleep.
- Avoid alcohol after dinner. Many people think alcohol helps them sleep. It may help get them to sleep, but it also causes people to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Keep children and pets out of your bedroom. Everyone needs their own bed and their own space to sleep. Children should learn to sleep in their own beds so they sleep uninterrupted, too.
- Avoid blue and white lights in the bedroom. Such lights interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. If you need a night light or a digital alarm clock, use a low-wattage red, yellow or orange light bulb. These colored lights don’t affect melatonin production.
Day 6: Enjoy sleep
Our dreams are a great part of getting a good night’s sleep. Dreams take us on grand adventures, help us come up with creative solutions and entertain us. A lucid dream is a dream in which we become aware that we are dreaming: Our waking consciousness becomes a part of the dream. When this happens, we can direct our dreams. We can fly, time travel or explore distant lands.
Did you know you can develop the skill to be lucid in your dreams when you want to be? It’s pretty simple. First, set the intention before you go to sleep that you want to be aware in your dreams. And set an intention for what you want to dream about. Write it down or say it out loud in the present tense: “I am traveling to Italy tonight!” Sometimes we become aware that we are lucid dreaming, get excited and wake up. If this happens and you want to go back to sleep, settle in and say to yourself: “I am aware I am dreaming and I choose to continue the dream.” If you want to start a new dream, imagine yourself changing the channel and stepping into a new screen.
When you wake up in the morning, write down your dreams to gain some insight into what is going on in your inner world.
Day 7: Reap the rewards
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are evident in the way we feel: happy, energetic, focused, creative, optimistic. Here are just some of the rewards that we can reap by investing in our sleep:
- An improved memory: During sleep, the brain consolidates memories and skills so that we better synthesize all we have learned during the day.
- A decrease in inflammation: Better rest means lower blood pressure and a lower risk of heart attack.
- More success: Students who sleep well have better focus and earn better grades. Similarly, Stanford University studies show that well-rested football players suffer less fatigue, have more stamina and record improved sprint times.
- A healthy weight: Researchers at the University of Chicago found that people on diets who slept well lost more fat than those who were sleep deprived. Those who got more sleep also felt less hungry.
- Fewer accidents: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driving while tired accounts for the highest number of fatal single-car crashes. Lack of sleep affects a driver’s reaction time and decision-making ability.
- More happiness: Good rest provides more emotional stability. A lack of sleep can contribute to depression.
Lissa Coffey is a relationship expert, author of several books and broadcast journalist. A spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council, she stars in several videos that offer sleep and mattress-shopping tips for consumers.
- “11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep” by Alyssa Sparacino (Health.com, July 2013)
- “The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness and a Good Night’s Sleep” by William C. Dement and Christopher Vaughan (Dell Trade Paperbacks, 1999)
- “Meditation and its Regulatory Role in Sleep” by R.P. Nagendra, N. Maruthai and B.M. Kutty (Frontiers in Neurology, April 2012)
- “Study: Interrupted Sleep May Be as Harmful as No Sleep at All” by Dr. Joseph Mercola (Mercola.com, July 2014)