What You – And Society – Can Do to Help Yourself Sleep Better

Dr.Lauren Whitehurst
April 7, 2022
A person sleeps on their pillow

Many of us know that sleep is important and that we often feel terrible when we don’t sleep well.  Still, over one in three U.S. adults do not get enough sleep at night, suggesting we may not know how integral good sleep is to our health, or how to integrate sleep as a practice in our daily lives.

On a biological level, sleep is key to helping us maintain and restore our brain’s and our body’s resources. Our cells are regulated by sleep; when we don't get enough sleep, our cells send out an inflammatory response, basically alerting the body that we are sick. Under consistent sleep losses, this will lead to mild, yet constant, inflammation that can make it harder to get over illnesses when we do get sick and can make us more vulnerable to chronic health issues.

Sleep also supports the brain’s ability to learn and store information. When we learn new information during the day, the cells in our brain take that information and store it away during sleep, so that later when we need it, we can find it. When we don’t get enough sleep, our ability to remember suffers.

Sleep plays a key role in our relationships too.  Emotional and cognitive restoration are linked to our nightly sleep period. If we don’t get enough sleep, our ability to assess emotional cues and to respond compassionately to loved ones may be disrupted.  Think about the irritability or overwhelm that can result from acute sleep loss, when something that seems easy one day can feel like a much larger burden on a day when we don’t get enough sleep. 

Sleep loss also makes us more sensitive to negative cues in our lives. Some of our most basic biological systems are set up to alert us to danger.  When we're well slept, our rational brain areas can help us sort through complex emotional cues, but when we’re sleep deprived, our brains default to basic stress alert systems, which often shape our interpretation of the world and bias our memory toward negative experiences.

Now, at this point, many sleep experts might give you tips on how to get better sleep.  However, I think we should first examine the societal structures and norms that are often the most robust challenges to the prioritization of sleep. For example, you can't sleep well if you are not well-fed or don't have access to safe shelter.. Another example is the lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. It is well-known that babies do not have established sleep rhythms - they wake up regularly during the night hoping for food or emotional support. Yet in the U.S., we do not have paid parental leave. For many parents to support their children, they must work at a time plagued by extreme sleep deprivation. This is a policy decision that values a person’s role as a laborer over their role as a parent. Access to adequate sleep should not be a privilege, reserved for those who can afford it, but a right that each person should demand.

Okay, now that we understand that there are societal shifts necessary for sleep to be a universal priority, there are still some things that we can do to better support a healthy sleep practice that ensures we feel good, well-rested, and healthy. Here are three examples.

First, get rid of any guilt around sleeping. Give yourself permission to explore how you feel when you’re tired and how you feel when you’re well-rested. Take note of the differences and start to listen to your body’s cues. When you feel tired, prioritize your sleep needs. Don’t feel bad about it. Enjoy it. Revel in it.

Second, be intentional.  For many of us, quiet moments at night feel precious. You want to spend your nights doing things that are for you, and I would never want you to sacrifice pleasurable moments. Instead, my advice is to be intentional about them. That may mean you select fewer activities prior to sleep.  Maybe you read that book you love one night and watch that Netflix show you are obsessed with the next. Basically, it’s about saying to yourself, “I know that I'm a better parent or better friend when I'm well slept.  So, even though I want to read this book and watch that show, I will savor them on different nights.”

Third, I try to ensure that my bedroom is a sleep haven. My bed is for sleep and sex; nothing else has a place there. This means that I don’t lie awake stressing in my bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm having a hard time sleeping, I don't want to associate my bed with that, so I get up and do something else.  I might sit on my couch and work out my stress there. I may look out the window for a bit until I start to feel sleepy again.  Or I might do something simple like folding clothes or doing light stretching. I keep the lights low – I have little nightlights all over my house just for this purpose.  Once I am feeling sleepy again, I will go back to my sleep sanctuary and resume my favorite activity.

Finally, we all experience times of sleep loss in our lives. This happens. If you have a few rough nights, don’t stress. Our bodies are resilient. Make some time for a midday nap or give yourself extra time to catch up on the sleep you lost.

Society doesn’t make prioritizing our sleep easy; extend yourself some grace. And as we begin to value our individual access to safe, healthy sleep, larger cultural shifts are possible. The world where we have access to the sleep we deserve may be a dream now, but together, we can make it our reality.

Dr. Lauren Whitehurst is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who researches the cognitive effects of sleep with a focus on sleep equity.

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