The Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep

Bedtime routines are key. Calming scents and beauty rituals can help, too. (And so can dogs!) We asked the author of How to Sleep for his best advice for falling—and staying—asleep.


It’s likely not a stretch to say that most of us have spent some part of the last few months struggling to sleep soundly, both anxious as we drift off and awakened by weird dreams. But we need sleep now more than ever: it’s how humans’ bodies and brains are restored and recharged, and our metabolisms and immune systems are tied to it. It’s also the time when our skin repairs itself—which is why we’ve introduced Gold Recovery Intense P.M., our most supercharged serum yet. Fortunately, Rafael Pelayo, MD, a sleep medicine physician at Stanford University School of Medicine, is publishing his new book, How to Sleep, just in time. We asked Dr. Pelayo how we can sleep better during this unusual time, and not get frustrated when we don’t.

Many of us are working and generally living more in our bedrooms these days. What are the pitfalls of this habit?
The main thing you want to do when you're spending so much time at home is to build in that sense that the day is over, and to think of creating spaces within your home, no matter how small it is, so there's a distinction between where you sleep and where you are spending your awake time. Especially if there’s stress in your day, if you’re not enjoying your life, it'll be an issue when you get to sleep. Where you sleep should be a sanctuary. If you’re reading, writing, and using your bed as a desk, your body gets used to the feeling of being awake in bed. You want to create more of a distinction.

“I think of it as tucking yourself in, like when you were little. Sleep is the ultimate form of self-care—it's the natural way the brain has evolved to take care of itself.”

How do you start to do that?
You need to take time in the evening to give yourself closure. Problems always seem worse at night than in the morning. One technique we can use to shift gears is called scheduled thinking time. Usually when people wake up in the middle of the night, it's from this feeling of leaving things unfinished. I’ve got to take care of this or that. So give yourself a chance to think. Get a journal—not a computer—and write down what you have to do tomorrow, from the most mundane—buy milk, send a birthday card—to the bigger concerns on your mind. Then close the notebook and put it aside. It’s great to do it in the evenings, when our brains have a second wave of alertness. But if you do find yourself thinking about something during the night, don't get up and write it down, because then you’re rewarding the insomnia. If you do this scheduled thinking time every day, it'll become routine. And we really want routines in place, because routines imply monotony and monotony implies safety. I think of it as tucking yourself in, like when you were little. Sleep is the ultimate form of self-care—it's the natural way the brain has evolved to take care of itself.

Can you say more about that feeling of safety and how to build it?
We want our routines to be comforting. So an evening beauty regimen, where you’re taking care of your skin, thinking how much you enjoy the ritual of using these luxury items and that it’s all part of taking good care of yourself…that’s joyful. If you do the same task but you hate it, maybe because it reminds you that you aren’t happy with something about yourself, then it’s not a helpful routine.

Relatedly, I sometimes meet people who tell me they like to read in bed, but feel guilty about it because it’s “bad.” But if they sleep well and they enjoy reading, and it’s a predictable way for them to wind down, then great.

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How about watching Netflix in bed? We’ve all heard that blue light frequencies emitted by electronics can be disruptive to sleep patterns.
Blue light’s an issue, but it’s just a component. The content of what you’re watching is key: what does it mean to you? Is it upsetting or scary? Or is it comforting? Like watching Friends for the third time, or a series you really enjoy and are looking forward to. So yes, you want to avoid blue light if you can, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. Also, people will say they’re putting a blue-light blocker on their screen and to me that’s a little like putting a filter on a cigarette. If what you’re watching is disturbing, then the filter won’t make a difference.

Same with phones, then?
Today when we do sleep studies and video subjects, we turn off the lights and can see that the subject immediately reaches for their phone. If it’s an enjoyable nightly ritual and you sleep well, then it’s fine. But if you’re seeking information and distracted by headlines, then you are really giving your body mixed signals when you're lying in bed—you're saying I want to sleep, but you're holding the phone in your hands. I compare it with going to the gas station and leaving the car running at the pump. You want to turn off the engine before you fill up with gas.

Alcohol: Is it good or bad for sleep?
It’s a double-edged sword. Alcohol makes you fall asleep faster, but it actually is metabolized by the liver fairly quickly and doesn't last that long, so the effects wear off quickly. And then people usually have a worse quality sleep. You want to go to bed sober. If you want to have wine with your meal, great, enjoy it! Give yourself an hour per drink before you get into bed as a rule of thumb. I joke that you can drink for breakfast, but not after dinner! Also, people snore a lot more when they’ve had alcohol, which can be disruptive.

What’s the rule on caffeine?
Caffeine lasts about six hours. So think about when you want to fall asleep and count back six hours. There are some people who metabolize it faster than others. But I think it makes sense to have some caffeine in the middle of the afternoon if you're not going to nap and you're going to be working into the evening. But other people are slow metabolizers and have coffee in the morning and say they can't sleep at night. Generally it does last longer than you think.

Speaking of naps, now that so many of us are working from home, should we be sneaking one in?
Do you sneak in food when you're hungry? Listen, it's okay to catch a nap. There shouldn't be any guilt. If you feel like you’re hiding it and think What if they catch me? then you become vigilant and that'll stop you from napping. Ideally, naps should be brief. The research shows somewhere around 40 minutes or less. If you nap more than that, you feel weird and sluggish. Basically, once we sleep that long we want to keep sleeping, so we wake up feeling out of sorts.

How about people who want to block all sensory input, like with eye masks and ear plugs?
Again, if somebody is doing it and they're happy with it, they’re not going to come see me. If they’re doing it and they’re still sleeping poorly, then we need to look deeper. What also happens when you put in the ear plugs is you become more vigilant about noise—say, a flushing toilet—and because you are going to sleep believing you must be vigilant about noises to help you sleep, your brain forces you to sleep more lightly. We also get the opposite, people who live in the city who can't sleep in the countryside because it's too quiet and they're used to noise.

We talked about some sleep hygiene tactics: writing down your thoughts, minimizing blue light, introducing comforting rituals, avoiding alcohol or caffeine too close to bed. How about scent?
The evidence shows that aromatherapy has some benefits. The smell of lavender, for example, is reported to have a calming effect and was shown to provide subjective improvements in sleep in multiple studies. This is because it is the one sense that remains online even when we are deeply asleep. It’s arguably a holdover from prehistoric times when we needed to be alert to predators’ scents. Aromatherapy, whether through a scented mist on your pillow or a room diffuser, can be a pleasant way to drift off to sleep, but it is likeliest to help only those with mild sleep problems.

“Smell is the one sense that remains online even when we are deeply asleep. It’s arguably a holdover from prehistoric times when we needed to be alert to predators’ scents.”

You say people sleep better with dogs in the bedroom. Why is that?
Yes, it’s true! It’s women actually. There was a study done on this, that women specifically slept better with dogs in the bedroom—not in the bed. I think that dogs are complementary to our sleep from an evolutionary perspective. We know that dogs evolved from wolves. And we think that the first domesticated animal ever was actually wolves that became dogs, and dogs let us have agricultural societies and are predators of the big cats, like lions and tigers, that hunt at night. So it made sense that we would have this animal that we would bond with that can see better in the dark than we do and watch over us while we sleep—and we, on the other hand, take care of them.

When should people see a sleep doctor?
If you're frustrated you sleep. But the key is if no matter how much sleep you get you're still tired, then it's not your lifestyle, it's something physical. You should not wake up tired and miserable, just like you should not leave a restaurant feeling hungry. Then we look into the physical issues, which could be anything from a bad pillow or mattress to sleep apnea, thyroid issues or heart issues. Any medical problem you can think of has a sleep component to it.

What do you most hope people take away from your book?
I want people to understand sleep, because once you understand it, you can deal with it. The good news is that no matter how poorly you think you’re sleeping, you’re going to get better. The part of the brain that handles sleep is really well protected.

And I think an important concept for people to think about is not that they have to go to sleep, like it's a chore putting out the garbage, but that you get to go to sleep. It's such a privilege to have a safe place to sleep. Not everybody has that, right? You get to sleep. That's amazing. People take it for granted, but it's a wonderful thing to have.

 

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