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In today’s world of chronic sleep deprivation, the blessings of a good night’s sleep may seem impossible to find.
We are no longer like our ancestors, learning to sleep when the sun goes down and rise when it awakens. We have replaced our natural rhythms with artificial ones, generated by blue light from too many screens – televisions, computers, smartphones, gaming devices and more.
To get those sleep rhythms back in sync we need to sleep-train our brain, said clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Grandner. He directs the sleep and heath research program at the University of Arizona, and the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson.
“Sleep is highly programmable and adaptable to the situation,” Grander said. “So create the situation you want it to adapt to, do it often, and before long your brain is going to say ‘Look, this helps me sleep.’ “
Here are his top three ways to train your brain to fall asleep.
1. Make a schedule, and stick to it
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body to regulate when you get sleepy and when you wake up. As night approaches, levels of melatonin rise, becoming a key signal to the body that it’s time for bed. Production of melatonin is stopped by light – so levels naturally fall as daylight approaches, getting you ready to greet the day.
To work properly, Grandner said, the release of this hormone needs to occur at regular times. So if your bedtime and wake up time change from day to day or on weekends, he said, your sleep rhythms aren’t predictable and the body doesn’t know how to respond.
“You want to build a reliable rhythm, much like the drummer counting the beat for the band,” Grandner said. “By controlling when you wake up and go to bed, you’re setting the beat.”
One way to make that happen is to have a standard wake up time, even on weekends, vacations or after a night of poor sleep.
“We can’t always control when we’re sleepy but we can control when we wake up, which activates a little timer in the brain that sets our rhythms for sleep,” Grandner said.
“The brain likes regularity and predictability,” he added. “Waking up at the same time every day, and then adding light and movement as soon as you wake up, will set your other rhythms for the day and give you increased energy and mood.”
2. Don’t lay in bed awake
It’s a golden rule in sleep medicine, backed by “decades of data,” Grandner said. In fact, he said this tip is so powerful that when used in his sleep clinic it “can even beat prescription sleep medications.”
“The best sleep tip you can ever give somebody is get up – don’t lay in bed awake but not sleeping,” Grandner said. “Whether it’s the beginning of the night or the middle of the night, if you’ve been awake for 20 or 30 minutes, get up and reset. Maybe you just need five minutes to get sleepy, or maybe an hour, but don’t spend that time awake in bed.”
Why is that so important? Because lying in bed awake can form an association in your brain that can lead to chronic insomnia, Grandner explained. Instead of being a restful spot where you peacefully fall asleep, your bed becomes an anxious place where you toss and turn and wake up tired.
“It’s counterintuitive, but spending time in bed awake turns the bed into the dentist’s chair,” he said. “You want the bed to be like your favorite restaurant, where you walk in and you start getting hungry even if you just recently ate. You want the bed to do that for sleep.”
Establishing that positive relationship between the bed and sleep can be beneficial on nights where your schedule has to be erratic due to work or travel, Grandner added.
“Let’s say you need to go to bed extra early,” he said. “The bed now has the power to help overcome your racing mind and allow you to fall asleep.”
3. Change your attitude about sleep
Many people view sleeping as the final thing they have to do in a jam-packed day, worth delaying to catch up on housework, schoolwork, office work or the latest binge-worthy television series.
That thinking needs to be changed, Grander said.
“Don’t see your sleep as the amount of time you have left in your day,” he advised. “See your sleep as the amount of time you need in order to set yourself up for a productive tomorrow.”
It may sound like a small shift in thinking, but it’s an important one, Grander added.
Most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep to be fully rested, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if a person needed to rise at 7 a.m. each day, backtiming eight hours would require a bedtime of 11 p.m.
“Now you know when you have to stop and get ready to go to bed whether you’re done or not,” Grander said. “The problem is we don’t stop, and we don’t disconnect. And that’s to our detriment and it makes the next day more stressful.”