Adults in America are chronically sleep deprived; one in three of us don’t get enough sleep. At the same time, doctors are beginning to realize just how critical sleep is for human health.
“I used to say sleep was the third pillar [of health],” said Dr. Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley during an expert panel on sleep at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health conference on Wednesday. “I was absolutely wrong. It’s the foundation.”
But even though people know they should get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, it’s not always that easy. Here are the six sleep tips from the pros assembled at the panel.
Figure out how much sleep you need
Here’s a simple way to tell if you need more sleep: “When you are given the opportunity, and you sleep in, you’re not getting enough sleep,” said Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. So if you typically get seven hours of sleep of night, but on vacation you sleep well past that, that’s a sign, says Zeitzer. (Wake up as usual, and you’re on a good schedule.)
“Go to the bed at the same time, and wake up at the same time,” recommends Walker. That’s a simple way to get your body on a healthy sleep schedule.
Cut back on alcohol
The experts agreed that the concept of the “night cap” isn’t really based in science. “Many people use alcohol thinking it helps,” said Walker. “That’s profoundly untrue. Alcohol fragments your sleep.”
Embrace (some) technology
Tech isn’t always the enemy of sleep—especially when it comes to wearables that track how much you’re getting. “We are trying to nudge people to healthier behaviors,” said Conor Heneghan, director of research at Fitbit, which provides people with sleep-tracking technology.
Surprisingly, experts say that using technology, whether it be phones or wearables, before bed isn’t always an enemy to sleep. “It’s much more the content of what you are doing that is impairing or enhancing your sleep,” said Zeitzer. “I agree that technology is a crutch, but that being said, I don’t think we are going to be rid of it very soon.” Zeitzer says as long as what you’re doing on your tablet or phone is relaxing, it’s not so bad.
“I think it’s more complicated from a parenting perspective,” said Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University. Parents can have a hard time limiting the amount of time adolescents spend on their cell phones, but keeping an eye on that use could help young people get more sleep each night.
Do something that relaxes you
Zeitzer says he doesn’t check email when he’s at home because it stresses him out, but he acknowledges that for other people, it may be hard to cut back. “If checking your email feels like ‘my plate is clean,’ then check your email,” he said. Find an activity that offers that feeling, and go for it.
Consider a “sleep divorce”
Many people spend their nights with a partner, but it can take a toll on sleep quality. About 30% of couples sleep apart—or take a “sleep divorce,” as Walker calls it. That doesn’t always mean a relationship is on the rocks, however. Develop a nighttime routine together, Walker recommends, but don’t worry too much if you wake up in different places.
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