7 Things a Sleep Scientist Wants You to Know About Getting Better SleepNone By Jared Minkel, Ph.D.
One of the most important scientific findings for sleeping better is what we sleep researchers call the “two-process model.” Many of the best recommendations for sleeping better are based on them, so it will help to understand how they work together.
Are You Feeling the (Sleep) Pressure Yet?
The first part of this process is sleep pressure. The longer you're awake, the more sleep pressure builds up, trying to put you to sleep. This is why in general, the longer you’re awake, the sleepier you feel.
If you are having trouble sleeping, sleep pressure is a good thing! It builds up throughout the day to make sure that when you get into bed, you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep all night. As soon as you fall asleep, this sleep pressure starts to evaporate, so you want to make sure that you have enough sleep pressure built up to make it through the whole night.
Imagine a daredevil being shot out of a cannon. If he doesn’t have enough pressure built up, he won’t make it to the safety net and will land on the hard ground instead. If you go to bed without enough sleep pressure, you won’t make it until morning—you’ll wake up in the middle of the night.
After a night of poor sleep, you might wake up feeling sleepy, but as long as you don’t take any naps, you’ll be able to fall asleep quickly the following night. Sleep pressure helps you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep through the night. It can also help you get more consolidated “deep sleep” that you may find more restful than what you’re getting now.
Why We Can Actually Stay Awake All Day
The second process in the two-process model makes you feel more awake and alert. Without it, you’d wake up feeling great and just get sleepier and sleepier throughout the day until you finally lost consciousness at night. That’s not how sleep works! There's also an underlying biological process that makes you feel awake and balances out the sleep pressure that builds throughout the day.
An interesting thing about the wakefulness process is that it is based on your internal clock and has a steady rhythm—whether or not you are asleep. The scientific term for a rhythm that repeats daily is a “circadian rhythm.” This process can be thought of as an internal clock that determines when you can fall asleep and when you should wake up.
When it’s working right, this clock balances out sleep pressure and lets you feel relaxed but alert all day long. People with sleep problems usually have a clock that either is not set right or does not line up quite right with their sleep pressure. The timing of your internal clock is strongly influenced by sunlight, but can be influenced by artificial light as well, especially from electronic devices close to your eyes, like your laptop or iPad.
Because your internal clock increases wakefulness throughout the day to balance out sleepiness, it's typically low in the morning and strong in the evening. This is why people with sleep problems often feel really tired in the morning but then can’t sleep at night. Teenagers often have internal clocks that are set too late, so they tend to fall asleep around 2 a.m. and can sleep until 10 a.m. (or later).
7 Things to Stop Doing to Get Better Sleep Tonight
Now, I'm going to share some of the best recommendations for better sleep, which are based on the two-process model I described above.
1. Don’t Nap
Remember, you want sleep pressure at night, so using it up during the day is usually a mistake. Sleep pressure also evaporates about twice as fast as it builds up, so if you take a 1-hour nap, it could take 2 hours to get that sleep pressure back. Now you’ll have to stay up long after your wakefulness has been going away, which is very uncomfortable. To make sure you balance sleepiness and wakefulness, it’s best to avoid naps. However, if you're completely exhausted, a short nap (20 minutes or less) is better than a long nap.
2. Don't Freak Out About Not Getting Enough Rest
If you don’t get much sleep on any given night, that’s okay! You’ll go through the day with more sleep pressure than you’re used to, but that night, you’ll fall asleep faster than usual and sleep more deeply.
3. Don’t Spend More Than 8 Hours in Bed
People who sleep poorly often try to get more sleep by going to bed earlier, but this just makes things worse. Remember, your internal clock only lets you sleep at certain times. If you try to sleep too early, you will either stay awake for hours or wake up a bunch throughout the night. Go to bed later and you’ll feel a lot better!
4. Don't Rely Too Much on Sleep Meds
Be careful about using medication or herbal remedies to help you sleep. They can make it harder to know what your own two processes are doing. Remember, those two processes are still there even if you take something to help you sleep. Don’t take it too early or you won’t make it through the night. Some medicines and herbs can make you feel sleepy during the day, so talk to your doctor if you are really exhausted during waking hours. The medicine might not be helping.
5. Stop Trying So Hard!
If you can’t fall asleep at night, just let some time pass rather than “trying” to sleep. Falling asleep is something your body does without you, like fighting off illness. If you don’t fall asleep pretty quickly and notice you’re getting frustrated, it’s better to get out of bed and do something pleasant, but not too exciting. Looking through photo albums, flipping through a magazine, or reading a book can be helpful. After 30 minutes, you'll have more sleep pressure and less wakefulness. Try again and see if it works. You can repeat this as many times as you need to.
6. Avoid Bright Lights
Bright light from TV and portable electronic devices in the evening can delay your internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep when you want to and harder to wake up in the morning. You’ll sleep better if you minimize screen time after dinner.
7. Don't Use Melatonin Without Understanding How It Works
Only use melatonin if you have a sleep specialist helping you. Melatonin influences your internal clock and won't be helpful if you take it at the wrong time.
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