I love sleep.
It used to be shamefully slothful to say that. In fact, some circles still equate getting eight hours of sleep with laziness. But lucky for me, sloths are cute now and science is coming around to sniffing out the research that my body has known all along: sleep might just be the best preventative medicine around. Aside from the angry hoard of kids who are so over naptime, there’s no arguing—good sleep feels amazing.
At the start of the pandemic, I was gorging myself on a sleep buffet. Then I talked to a friend: they hadn’t slept in two days. And then I would read on the internet all the reports of vivid dreams: a dead president walking through a comic book shop and other bizarre tales. Right on cue, everyone’s sleep was going haywire in step with the world pandemic.
None of this surprised me.
In a former life, I was a sleep coach. I helped adults, much like a virtual personal trainer, in their endless pursuit to wake up feeling a little more rested and rejuvenated for the day ahead. This was an endless party trick as many folks could finally ask:
- Why do I keep waking up at 3am like clockwork? (That’s quite common and not always a cause for worry. A lot has to do with the timing of your circadian rhythm and also it might be a habit your body is now just used to.)
- Is melatonin safe? (the good news: doesn’t carry the dependence risk like sleeping pills but the bad news: as a supplement it’s quite loosely regulated.)
- How can I be exhausted but can’t fall asleep? (Are you looking at screens before bed? Are you stressed? There are all sorts of angles to approach this one.)
- And what in the world was my take on midday naps?! (I’m a fan! Keep them around 20-30 minutes so you don’t go into deep sleep and wake up groggy).
To the endless disappointment of new parents: I have zero skills in helping your newborn sleep (and it apparently wasn’t any relief when I told them babies don’t even develop a circadian rhythm until 3-6 months of age, so..uh…hang on in the meantime?).
But for adults? Yeah, I can help you sleep better. It’s a little bit about your environment and a lotta bit about your habits and dealing with your stressors.
So right now, maybe you’re not sleeping as well as you want to. Or maybe you never sleep as well as you want to. The good news is whether you have dollars to throw toward this problem or no dollars at all to spare, there are things you can do for free and not-free to help you sleep better.
To start, I want to tell you what I would tell my clients (and what I practice myself): your environment is crucial to your sleep quality. You want your bedroom to be cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Make it into your bedtime cave. If it’s not, well, here are some things that might help:
Sleep Mask – $
I used a sleep mask for a very long time because I was too lazy to install blackout curtains.
Although wearing a sleep mask made me feel like a ‘50s housewife, it worked like a charm and maybe that’s why all those women have such glowing skin on those old posters.
Why it works: When light isn’t hitting your eyeballs, this cues your body to start cranking out melatonin. I’m sure you’ve heard of that hormone in chewable pill form. Did you know your body creates an ocean of it every night quite naturally? When you use an eye mask, it helps your body do its thing by blocking any extra light, however dim, from entering through your eyes.
What I use: For a while, I used a Bucky 40 Blinks sleep mask which my husband exclusively called my “eye bra” (look at the picture and you’ll see why). I switched a year ago to this Alaska Bear eye mask in sumptuous silk and I feel like a diva whenever I use it. Spoiler alert: we finally installed those blackout curtains and now I just use my eye mask whenever I travel.
Budget Category: Clothing
Ear Plugs – $
Good for snoring partners and road noise. These aren’t a recommended long-term solution (to allow your ear canal to adequately drain. Ewwww), but I always keep a few pairs handy especially when I travel.
Why it works: You don’t need too much sleep science to convince you of this one: your ears don’t have an off button.
What I use: I have no clue what brand I use. I picked up a pack of the foam ones from Target. I have a little travel bag with a few pairs of ear plugs and my sleep mask that I keep in my suitcase.
Budget Category: Groceries (I never split my purchases out by food and sundries. I didn’t even have the word “sundries” in my vocabulary until the lovely Hannah from YNAB used it in her budget.)
This only has a little to do with actual sleep and a lot to do with how you feel about sleep. Just like budgeting, you have to find small moments of delight to encourage a new habit.
Why it works: This one delves into behaviors and motivation rather than sleep science (granted, temperature makes a big difference). If you’re trying to kick start a new healthy sleep habit, maybe a new sleep uniform is just what the doctor ordered. If you’re someone who gets too hot, look for lightweight, breathable fabrics like cotton or linen.
What I use: When an old coworker talked about how she had legit grown-up pajama sets, I finally gave up my mismatched sweatpants and t-shirt for good and picked out a few sets from Target and Amazon. Bonus: I went for cooler pajamas and this greatly reduced the amount of times I was waking up hot.
Budget category: Clothing
Sound Machine – $$
Whoooooooooooooshhhhhhh. This one is a big deal. You might think sound machines are just for babies but nope, no way. We use ours every night. Hello darkness my old friend: it’s the sound of silence. Well, sort of.
Why it works: The goal is to create a consistent aural environment in your bedroom that drowns out any blips in the night: the car drive by, the road noise, the critter outside, your softly snoring partner. Fewer interruptions means longer stretches of consistent sleep.
What I use: We bought this sound machine from Amazon. It works just fine, though it has a slightly speaker-ish sound. Someday I might upgrade to a Dohm that uses a real fan (parents, this one might look familiar as it graces quite a few baby registries!).
Budget Category: Home expenses
Lighter-Weight Blanket – $$/$$$
A super common but overlooked problem for many nighttime wakeups is your blanket stack. One partner gets too hot, the other one is cold, or you wake up in the middle of the night sweating (and yes, hot flashes are a very real thing getting in the way of quality sleep). A quick fix: opt for a lighter blanket.
Why it works: Your body temperature actually drops a degree or two throughout the night. If your body temperature can’t drop, you stay in a lighter sleep and are more prone to wakeups.
What I use: An easy solution in our house was switching from a down comforter to a summer-weight blanket even in the winter (we live in chilly Michigan). I sleep with an extra throw blanket on my side and neither of us wake up too hot (unless we had a few drinks the night before but that’s a whole nother story). If you’re someone who struggles to find that extra dose of calm at night, a weighted blanket is an option worth trying.
Budget category: Home expenses
Blackout Curtains – $$$
If I could only have one thing on this list, it would be the blackout curtains. From the day we installed the blackout curtains, I was waking up less and felt more deeply rested in the morning.
Why it works: Light plays such a key role in our body’s circadian rhythm. All the extra light that’s part of our modern culture came on so fast our body hasn’t really had time to catch up. Light pollution from outside can make us less sleepy and might prevent your body from really getting into that lovely deep sleep.
What I use: We picked up a few sets of curtains from Costco (I think these?) and then bought curtain rods on Amazon. When the lights are out I can’t see my hand in front of my face and it is GLORIOUS.
Budget category: I think I spent my fun money on this, or at least partly my fun money. My husband wasn’t sold on the need for them but he’s since come around. I should really request a fun money refund.
Upgrade Your Bed – $$$+
If you’re waking up with a sore back or sore neck, or you find yourself frequently tossing and turning, you should take a good hard look at your mattress and pillows.
Why it works: The support in a bed breaks down over time (especially if you have a foam mattress) and if it just doesn’t feel supportive anymore, it might be time. Sure this one might have to be saved up for, but oh boy is it worth it.
What I use: We have a really gourmet bed. Not everyone needs a bed like this. I wasn’t kidding when I told you I love sleep—and our setup reflects that (though goodness knows I worked at the company and got a super duper steep discount). I drive an old car but I sleep on a Cadillac of beds, and that spending lines up perfectly with my priorities (and also…I spend 2400% more time in my bed than my car). Whenever I am away from home, I miss my bed dearly.
Budget category: Wish Farm
Just because they’re free doesn’t mean these are easy! Work to make little changes to your sleep environment.
- Turn down your thermostat or open a window. The ideal sleeping temp is somewhere between 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit. Sound chilly? Try it for a few nights and see if you wake up feeling any more rested.
- Move your phone charger to a different room. Screens are a double whammy: scrolling through your social feed excites your brain rather than calms it, and the blue light from your electronics tamps down on that natural melatonin production. Moving your charger is a thing you only have to do once, and it’s a nice little reminder to keep that screen out of the bedroom.
- Set a bedtime alarm. Just like a wakeup alarm, a bedtime alarm helps satiate your body’s craving for a consistent, predictable rhythm.
- Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. This goes back to your body’s ability to form associations. The more you associate your bed with stress, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just get out of bed and listen to a podcast in the other room until you feel yourself getting sleepy again.
- Cover up light from your electronics with tape. When the lights are off in your bedroom, is it dark like a cave? Or do you have little pinpricks of light from electronics or alarm clocks? Cover up those lights for that delicious darkness.
- Trouble sleeping? Try a podcast. If you’re someone that has a hard time turning your brain off and falling asleep, this podcast will definitely help. It’s dry, boring, and remarkably comforting when you feel alone in the deep dark night.
I could go on and on about proper sleep hygiene but I’ll leave you with that list. Granted, if you are concerned you might have a sleep disorder, that’s a different story: I recommend seeing a sleep specialist as soon as you’re able.
For everyone: don’t overlook sleep as an underdog of health for thinking more clearly, staying motivated, processing the topsy-turvy emotions du jour, and keeping your immune system strong. Sleep is worth its weight in gold. Or platinum. At the very least it deserves some love in your budget. And with that, I wish you the sweetest of dreams.
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