7 Pieces of Advice For Better Sleep That Don't Work
by Madeleine Aggeler
A side view of a young female sleeping in her blue pajamas.
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Few landscapes are as unsettling, menacing, and utterly treacherous as the barren stretch of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. One minute, you’re curling up in your comforter, snug as a lil’ bug, and the next, you’re trapped in a screening of your life’s greatest failures. Remember that time you bent over and ripped your pants in front of your high school crush? NOW YOU DO. Everyone seems to have tips on how to escape this no man’s land, but there’s a lot of advice on getting a good night’s sleep that don’t actually work.

Besides being a Top Five way to spend your time (you’re laying down, you don’t have to wear pants, and sometimes you get to make out with Bradley Cooper in your dreams) sleep is essential to a person’s physical and mental health. While we snooze, our bodies go to work rebuilding and healing themselves, repairing heart and blood vessels to maintain cardiovascular health, forming new pathways in the brain to facilitate memory and learning, and strengthening our immune systems to guard against disease. This means that skimping on sleep can have serious consequences for our health and well-being. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), not getting enough sleep is associated with higher risks of chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults aged 18-60 get at least seven hours of sleep, but a 2016 study by the CDC found that one in three Americans don’t meet that goal. Their findings indicate that sleep is linked to a number of socio-economic issues, and that those who may already be vulnerable due to their race, health, education, or employment status, also struggle with not getting enough rest, and the subsequent consequences on their health. Healthy sleep duration was lowest among Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, and non-Hispanic black (54 percent each) and highest among non-Hispanic Caucasians (67 percent). Seventy-two percent of those with college degrees got a full night’s sleep, compared to 60 percent of the employed.

Clearly, sleep and all the questions surrounding (Who’s getting it? How do we get enough of it?) are complex issues, and while we may not have all the answers yet, the least we can do is dispel some of the common myths about how to get a good night’s rest. If nothing else, hopefully we won’t be trapped alone with our thoughts for so long.

Count sheep.

Counting sheep always raised a bunch of questions for me. Who are these sheep? Why are they escaping their enclosure? How high can sheep even jump? Does the farmer's insurance cover the vast exodus of his livestock?

It turns out I'm not the only one confused by the image of leaping ovines. In 2010, scientists at Oxford University found that participants who were asked to count sheep fell asleep on average 20 minutes slower than those who were asked to picture a tranquil scene, like a beach.

Counting sheep, the scientists suggested, was simply too boring, whereas picturing a beach or a field both relaxes us and requires enough concentration that we drift off faster.

You can "catch up" on sleep.

We've all done this at some point: you coast through the week on four hours of sleep a night, and figure you'll make up for it by never leaving your bed the whole weekend.

Researchers from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that we actually accumulate sleep loss, and while a big sleep may help initially, performance will deteriorate throughout the day.

"Individuals who get too little sleep during the work or school week but try to catch up on weekends may not realize that they are accumulating a chronic sleep debt," explains Dr. Daniel Cohen, the study's lead author.

Instead of trying to binge sleep, experts recommend getting to bed and waking up at the same times every day in order to maintain your circadian rhythm.

Watching TV can help you nod off.

I spent the entirety of 2011 falling asleep to the soft glow and dulcet tones of "Law & Order: SVU". There were some downsides; besides the nightmares and the constant, nagging certainty that everyone around me was a violent pervert, it didn't actually help me sleep.

TVs, computers, and cell phones emit a blue light that prevent us from dozing off by tricking our brains into thinking it's earlier than it is, and affect the quality of our sleep.

So instead of falling asleep to Netflix, try unplugging before bed by reading a book, or writing in a journal.

Drinking alcohol/smoking weed will help you fall asleep.

Is there any better feeling than being wrapped in the warm embrace of sleep after a long night of Chardonnay? Well, as quickly as we may fall asleep when we're under the influence, when the effects wear off a few hours later, our sleep is much more fragmented, and of lower-quality.

In the case of alcohol, Dr. Nitun Verma, a specialist in sleep medicine, told Lifehacker, "Alcohol shortens the time to fall asleep and arousal threshold changes (while under the influence little noises don’t wake you up). It wears off in the middle of the night so your arousal threshold changes. This is bad because little noises and things wake you up more and the second half of sleep is pretty low quality."

As for marijuana, continued consumption reduces your slow-wave sleep, which in turn reduces the overall restfulness of your night.

If you wake up in the middle of the night, stay in bed.

As a small child (and a 25-year-old woman) whenever I'd shake my mother awake in the night because I couldn't sleep, she always told me to lay there until I drifted off again. But according to experts who, presumably, weren't under the duress from a sleepy human looming over their side of the bed, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

In this short video, psychologist Richard Wiseman suggests writing down the thought or idea that woke you up, or getting up and doing something relaxing (that doesn't involve staring at a screen) until you get tired enough to fall asleep again.

The older you get, the fewer hours of sleep you need.

If you were looking forward to your 70s being a non-stop, sleepless whirlwind of adventure and casual sex, not so fast.

"Older adults benefit from getting as much sleep as they get when they were in their 30s," Dr. Sean Drummond, a sleep expert from the University of California - San Diego, told The Telegraph. "This varies from person to person but whatever you slept when you were 35 should be the same from 75. The problem is people find it harder to sleep as they get older and they think that that is a sign that they need less sleep but that is not the case. The quality of sleep may go down but they must maintain the quantity. This will have relevance to age related cognitive decline."

Exercise before bedtime

If you've been having trouble sleeping, you may be tempted to wear yourself out before bed by going on a quick run or doing some yoga.

The science on this is sketchy. While some studies have found that exercise before bed can actually prevent you from getting to sleep, because the endorphins and energy produced by working out can keep awake, other research has found no discernible difference in the sleep quality of those who exercised before bed and those who didn't.

In any case, it doesn't seem to be much help.