Nerds tend to be night owls. Whether it’s the late night gaming marathons, the all-night coding sessions, or the general avoidance of our harsh daytime sun, we tend to have a pretty disrupted sleep schedule. So like depression and anxiety, the problems of poor sleep are pretty familiar to us nerds.
If you don’t sleep, you will die. There is a rare genetic disease that prevents a person from achieving deep or REM sleep, leading to death within 18 months. Acute sleep deprivation can impact your mood, attention, concentration, memory, blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. Long term disrupted sleep increases the chances of diabetes, stroke, heart attack, obesity and cancer. It is both a symptom and cause of many mental illnesses, including depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.
I’m not trying to sell the benefits of sleep to you, you probably already know them. Sure, it would be nice if we could get by without it, but for still-unclear reasons we absolutely need it.
The problem is that just because we need to sleep doesn’t mean we can sleep. Sleep is one of those things where the harder you try to make it happen, the less likely it is to happen. And just like those other things, trying too hard can leave you frustrated, unsatisfied, and and tangled up in your bedsheets.
Up to 40% of people experience some kind of sleep disturbance, ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea to “excessive sleepiness”. Luckily, most of these conditions are highly treatable. Some conditions, like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, require medical treatment through medication and devices. Insomnia, which affects up to 10% of the population, is well treated by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, leading to improved sleep in 85% of cases.
So even though sleep scientists may not have the best handle on why we sleep, they’ve got a pretty good idea about how to sleep. But what about that 30% of people who aren’t happy with the amount of sleep they are getting, but don’t qualify for full blown insomnia?
Sleep hygiene refers to general habits that are meant to improve sleep quality. Like dental hygiene, these are day-to-day steps that you take to improve your health in this area. These aren’t targeted interventions or one-and-done solutions, these are consistent lifestyle practices that you do (or try to do) every day to improve your sleep.
I’m not going to do a deep dive into theory behind each of these, but I do want to touch on it to highlight the fact that there is science behind these habits. These aren’t “one weird trick” or “sleep scientists hate him” kinds of suggestions – these work.
Some of them operate under the idea of classical conditioning, or associative conditioning. You might remember about Pavlov’s dogs in Psych 101. Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed his dogs, and soon the dogs began to salivate every time they heard a bell ring. For these, you want to pair particular habits to feelings of sleepiness, so that when you do them, you start to feel sleepy.
The other big theoretical underpinning is what we call circadian rhythm, or internal sense of where we are in a day/night cycle. Humans are diurnal animals, which means that we sleep at night and are active in the day. This isn’t a conscious choice or societal pressure, this is biology. Our body has an internal clock that tells us when it’s time to be asleep and it’s time to be awake, and in nature that clock would be pinned to the rising and setting of the sun. When our sleep is disturbed that clock can go out of whack, so some of these habits are ways to get it back on track.
Save the Bed for Sleep
Your bed should be your #1 trigger for feelings of sleepiness, so you want that classical conditioning association to be strongest here. That means the bed should only be for sleeping. It’s fine to have sex in the bed, because that tends to release endorphins and oxytocin which can lead to feelings of sleepy relaxation, but you should NOT be eating, reading, browsing Reddit, or watching Netflix in your bed. Also bad is to stare up at the ceiling, trying to will yourself to sleep. If you’re not sleep, get out of the bed, even if it’s 2am. Go do something relaxing in another room until you feel that sleepy feeling, then go back to bed.
This also means that you should only sleep in the bed. When you sleep somewhere else – the couch, the easy chair, class, meetings – you weaken that association between bed and sleep. Only sleep in the bed, and sleep only in the bed..
Consistent Sleep/Wake Schedule
This is one where both the classical conditioning and circadian rhythm helps us out here, because if we can keep our internal clock ticking at the right rhythm, we can encourage good sleep. Your body will get used to your bed time, both due to this internal clock and your mental association between that specific time and sleep. Importantly, set a wake-up time as well, even if there’s nothing that you have to wake up for. Sleeping in, even sleeping in to compensate for a late night, can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm. So as weird as it sounds, set an alarm on the weekends.
Seperate Day/Night Activities
You want to be very explicit about your transition between day time and night time activities, so that your hypothalamus – which is the part of the brain that is responsible for sleep – can get the hint that it’s time to start shutting down. Try to avoid any daytime activities for at least two hours before you sleep. This includes heavy, meal-like eating (small snacks are fine), exercise and stress-inducing activities like work tasks. This should go without saying, but no stimulants like coffee or energy drinks before bed. Ideally, none in the afternoon either.
Reduce Lights Shining in Your Eyes
Light is our primary signal for the difference between day and night, so be mindful of what signals you’re sending to your brain with the lights in your screens and your house. Try to make sure you expose yourself to daylight during the day to give your circadian rhythm a solid refresh, and then limit your exposure to light at night. This can be helpful in the morning, because if you can find a way to get some sunlight onto your face it’s a natural way to get yourself going. Blue light seems to be a particular signal for daytime, so use apps like f.lux to tint your screen to red/orange tones after sunset.
Your sleep environment, then, should be as dark as possible. Try to eliminate sources of light in your room, including chargers. You can also limit noise exposure by using a white noise machine or fan to drown out distracting nighttime noises.
Have the Same Routine Every Night
You want to build in as many signals as possible for your hypothalamus that “hey, this is time to go to sleep.” So have a consistent ready-for-bed routine. You can include your general nighttime hygiene activities, like brushing your teeth, as long as they are consistent and not too energetic. I also think of this as a good time to work in a relaxation exercise like diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Think about the bedtime routine for a kid – you’d have them brush their teeth, put on their PJs, then you’d read them a story and kiss them goodnight. Same thing for you.