If your sleep schedule is all over the place (welcome to 2020), here's how to stop "living paycheck to paycheck" with your sleep.

By Rachael Schultz
Oct 05, 2020 @ 2:00 pm
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Exhausted from 2020? You're not alone. With anxiety levels spiking, sleep problems — including difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep — are all on the rise.

Before coronavirus hit, we already had a sleep crisis on our hands. According to a 2019 study in Sleep Health, more Americans are having trouble falling and staying asleep than five years ago. Unsurprisingly, the researchers point to phone use before bed and midnight text alerts waking you up as two of the biggest culprits for worsened sleep.

“Everyone has a roughly 24-hour internal clock — referred to as our body clock or circadian rhythm — that is largely regulated by light and darkness,” says Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator in Fairfax, VA.

Darkness prompts the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep. But bright light — especially blue light like that on our phones and tablets — suppresses production of the hormone. Exposing yourself to bright lights and blue lights in the hour or two before sleep, therefore, messes with your body’s sense that it’s time to hit the hay, she explains.

Here’s the thing: Devices before bed are definitely effing with us. But there are a lot of other factors at play making it hard to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, says Michael A. Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Arizona. “The main one, I believe, is that we live paycheck to paycheck with our sleep — we sleep as much as we have time for at the end of a busy day rather than seeing sleep as an investment in tomorrow's productivity and mental health,” he says.

And if you think you’re fine living off five hours, rest assured you are not. “Sufficient sleep is considered an optional luxury for too many – not the biological necessity it is,” says Cralle. People often think they can overcome their need for sleep with caffeine (not true) or condition themselves to need less than eight hours of sleep (also not true).

“Many people have told me over the years that they are "short sleepers" — that they do fine on five hours of sleep or less — and that's simply not the case,” she says. “The vast majority of adults require seven to nine hours per night for optimal health and functioning.”

Considering better sleep can help everything from your immune system to your workout performance to your ability to lose weight and actually be productive at work, why would you not tweak your life to rest better?

So do yourself a favor and set yourself up for a much less cranky 2020 by adopting these 11 tips to fix your sleep schedule.

1. Lower your lights.

Ideally, avoid screens (that’s phones, tablets, and TVs) for at least one full hour before bed, Cralle says. But since it’s 2020 and we know that won’t always be doable, more realistically you want to focus on avoiding bright lights and minimizing blue light. Put your bedroom bulbs on a dimmer so you can keep the light low while cleaning up before bed; use an amber reading light (like this one) for your paperback book (the color won’t disrupt your melatonin production the way white light will) or an amber night light for midnight wakeups; and when you have to use your phone, consider investing in a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses which some studies show may help improve sleep. Making a point to get outside to grab lunch or go for a walk can also help, since bright natural light during the day can make you less sensitive to evening light, Cralle says. And of course, it's not just about artificial light — your bedroom should be pitch dark for optimal sleep quality, Cralle says, so it's worth investing in blackout curtains or a sleep mask.

2. Eat early.

Eating dinner too close to bed and noshing on fat and carbs late can hurt your sleep quality, research shows. Aim for your last full meal to be at least two to three hours before bed, Cralle says. If you’re hungry when you turn in, have a snack of pure protein, like a cup of Greek yogurt or a protein shake, or high in fiber, like an almond butter protein ball. Either are enough to make you full and research shows small meals under 150 calories made up of just a single macronutrient can actually be good for your health. Protein, specifically, before bed on a day you lifted weights can boost your gains in muscle mass and strength, studies show.

3. Set a bedtime routine.

“We don't give ourselves enough time to wind down. We need time to be able to prepare for sleep or else it can cause insomnia,” says Dr. Grandner. A consistent bedtime routine helps transition your mind and body from wake to sleep and serves as a ‘cue’ that it's time for sleep, Cralle adds. The number one thing you can start doing to fall asleep faster and fix your sleep schedule, both experts agree, is to move through the same motions before getting into bed; then getting into bed, turning the lights out, and waking up at the same time each night and morning.

4. Shower at night.

Sixty to 90 minutes before bed, take a warm shower or bath. It’s not only relaxing but also raises your skin temperature. After, as the heat transfers out to match your cooler bedroom, you experience a drop in body temperature that will help induce sleep, says Cralle (and a 2019 study in Sleep Medicine Reviews).

5. Spark digital-free joy.

Since screens before bed are the enemy of decent sleep, find something analog that’s both relaxing and calming and that you’ll look forward to (and therefore be more likely to actually pick up), Cralle advises. Think: reading, knitting, coloring, even puzzling. If books are your jam, stick with non-fiction — it’s easy to get caught up in a good novel and stay up way past your bedtime, she adds.

6. Make a to-do list for tomorrow.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found people who took five minutes at night to write out tomorrow's to do's fell asleep much faster, and the more specific the list, the quicker they were snoring. “[Anxieties] seem more manageable when written down on paper,” Cralle explains. Write out any task big or small, then leave the list in the kitchen or study when you head to bed, she says — out of sight, out of mind.

7. Skip the nightcap.

Alcohol will help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts REM sleep during the second half the night and causes you to wake up more often, reports a 2015 study in Alcohol. Because it messes with your REM cycle, you’ll be more drowsy and unfocused the following day, Cralle adds. What’s more, bedtime booze affects women’s sleep cycles more than men, the National Sleep Foundation reports. If you’re going to have a drink before bed, cut yourself off three hours before bed to minimize sleep disruptions, she advises.

9. Upgrade your mattress.

Most mattresses have a lifespan of about eight years, says the National Sleep Foundation. It’s a spendy upgrade, but your sleep pad is one of the most important pieces of furniture in a home, Cralle says. Most obviously, an uncomfortable surface is going to make you sleep worse overall and wake up more often. And since partners and pets moving in the night can also wake you up, rest assured (pun intended) that the updated materials and technology in many new mattresses minimize how much you feel these disturbances.

10. Play white noise.

“Our brains continue to register and process sounds during sleep, and as such, noise can be a significant sleep stealer — even noises that don't fully wake you,” Cralle says. At the least, use a white noise app (like Atmosphere or Sleep Pillow), but also consider things like laying carpets down on creaky floors, investing in sound-absorbing heavy drapes, and/or sleeping with earplugs.

11. Get out of bed.

If you’re tossing and turning or wake up and can’t fall back asleep, your best bet is to actually get up. “You want to minimize the time you spend awake in bed or else you can accidentally program your brain to be awake in bed rather than go to sleep,” says Dr. Grandner. Once you're up, stick to mildly-stimulating activities in dim light — grab a book or puzzle instead of cleaning, watching TV, or doing a little work.  Once you’re sleepy again, head back to the bedroom.

12. Wear your smartwatch.

If you consistently feel exhausted after eight hours of shut-eye, look at the sleep report from your smartwatch. “A typical healthy adult wakes up 10 to 20 times per night or more — that's perfectly normal, and we don't usually remember those awakenings,” Dr. Grandner says. The problem arises when one or more of those awakenings takes up more than just a few minutes. “If you're awake for more than 30 minutes during the night, you might actually have an insomnia disorder that requires treatment,” he adds. If your report shows long wake-ups (or you know this happens regularly), consider seeing a sleep specialist.