Sleep is critical to our health. But for many of us, a restorative night’s slumber is another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic at the very time we all need it the most. In a nationally representative CR survey (PDF) of 2,851 U.S. adults last November, 28 percent of Americans reported having more trouble falling or staying asleep since the pandemic hit the U.S.
“Not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system,” says Rafael Pelayo, MD, a sleep specialist and clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and author of “How to Sleep: The New Science-Based Solutions for Sleeping Through the Night” (Artisan 2020). “If you add on top of chronic sleep deprivation the stress of an infection, our system can be overwhelmed.”
Poor or insufficient sleep can dull your brain and has been linked to an increased risk of serious illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. The National Institutes of Health has found that improving sleep can help protect against COVID-19, making it more important than ever.
Using our bedrooms as work and exercise spaces or even as classrooms, as many people are doing now, only makes getting a good night’s sleep more difficult, experts say.
“We typically tell patients that the bedroom is only for two things: sleeping and sex,” says Mathias Basner, MD, a professor in the division of sleep and chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. He explains that limiting the bedroom to those activities sends a clear signal to your brain when it’s time to hit the sack. “But obviously we realize that not everybody may have that option.”
No matter how much tossing and turning you’re doing these days, we’re here to help you get on track to better sleep. We explain the smartest ways to prepare for solid snooze time and steer you toward the mattress, pillows, and sheets that will keep you cozy all night long. For those who wake to find themselves baking under the covers at night, we offer a review of mattress cooling pads. And if you’re among the many using a bedroom for double duty, we have tips to minimize the mixed message this sends to your brain. We even offer expert advice on ways to start your day that can lead to a better night’s sleep. (To skip to a section, click on the links below.)
How to Get Ready for Bed
Make a Bed You Can’t Resist
Power Up in the A.M.
The Double-Duty Bedroom
How to Get Ready for Bed
A healthy bedtime routine can help you make the transition from keyed-up to Jell-O-limbed and prepare your body and mind to melt into slumber’s warm embrace. The key is to ease into it. Follow these tips.
1. Try Meditation
There’s some evidence that meditating during the day can improve sleep at night. A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that mindfulness meditation improved sleep in older adults with sleep disturbances. Resources are widely available online, including from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California at San Diego. Some research shows that widely available apps such as Calm and Headspace, which use guided imagery and even bedtime stories to encourage sleep, are effective.
2. Give Your Belly a Break
Stuffing yourself can make you groggy, but experts say that going to bed with a full stomach can cause reflux, which can wake you up. Sue X. Ming, MD, a professor in the neurology department at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, recommends staying away from heavy meals 3 to 4 hours before bedtime. “Especially avoid foods with a high fat content or dense carbohydrates, which stay in the stomach longer,” she says.
3. Put the Plug in the Jug
If sales figures are any indication, people are drinking more during the pandemic. Sales of spirits and hard liquor increased by 33 percent during the first six months of 2020 compared with all of 2019, according to Ibotta, a cash-back app that rewards people for everyday purchases. A drink or two might seem like a good way to quiet the mind before bed, but experts say that alcohol actually decreases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a critical phase of the sleep cycle that helps our emotional equilibrium and enables us to retain things we learn during the day. “Alcohol will get you to sleep,” Ming says, “but you’ll wake up in the middle of the night.”
4. Turn Down the Temp
The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping bedrooms at a cool 65° F for optimal sleep. Being too hot or losing too much heat can interrupt REM sleep and cause people to wake up, Ming says. A programmable thermostat can be set to cool a room just right in the wee hours. Another way to regulate your body temperature is to use a mattress cooling device.
5. Ease Into Bedtime
Building wind-down time into your routine is a good way to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Sara Benjamin, MD, a clinical associate and instructor in neurology at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, recommends a personal-care ritual (washing your face, brushing your teeth, etc.) an hour before bedtime, and then moving on to relaxing activities until it’s lights out. These could include reading, listening to music, writing in a journal, praying, meditating, or doing gentle forms of yoga such as restorative, yin, or yoga nidra, all of which involve little or no movement. Just be sure that whatever you do is calming: no rock and roll, horror flicks, or murder serials.
6. Turn Off the TV (and All Other Screens)
Bright light and the blue light produced by TVs, cell phones, and computers can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. “Cell phone displays are extending the day into the night,” says Lisa Ostrin, OD, an associate professor at the University of Houston College of Optometry. She says that the nighttime mode on devices may reduce the effect of blue light somewhat, but not the stimulating effect that reading email can have on your brain. Sleep experts recommend turning off all screens and dimming bedroom lights at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
7. Fade to Black
Heavy curtains or blinds will reduce light exposure and can improve sleep. “Anything that blocks out light helps you stay asleep or sleep more soundly,” says Ming, adding that darkness promotes the secretion of melatonin, too.
8. Take Some Sound Advice
“If environmental noises disturb your sleep, white noise can be very helpful,” Benjamin says. Generated by a white-noise machine or certain apps, white noise masks sounds—such as honking horns or slammed doors—that wake you or keep you from falling asleep.
9. Consider a Sleep Tracker
Devices such as the Oura Ring are becoming increasingly popular and more sophisticated. (Some fitness trackers and smart watches also offer sleep tracking capabilities.) Research has found that they can do a good job of tracking the overall time you sleep and encouraging good habits by, for instance, reminding you when to power off devices and begin getting ready for bed. Some can even track environmental factors, such as the light and temperature in a bedroom. Benjamin notes, however, that they can’t accurately track sleep stages. Even so, some people find the data on sleep time, as well as on heart and respiration rates and body temperature, useful for gauging how factors like exercise and alcohol may affect their sleep. In rare cases, people can become obsessed with their sleep stats and lie awake at night worrying about what the data will reveal in the morning. If you’re someone who really digs data on your sleep habits, go for it. But if the device becomes one more thing you worry about, it’s better to ditch it.
Make a Bed You Can’t Resist
Follow these tips to create a bed you can’t wait to get into at night.
10. Assess Your Mattress
One that isn’t supportive and doesn’t properly distribute your body weight can cause joint or muscle pain, make you restless, and interfere with your sleep. If you feel sore in the morning or if your mattress feels lumpy, has a permanent depression in it, or is more than 10 years old, it’s probably time for a new one. In our tests, we rate mattresses for how well they support various body types. We also point you to the brands that are the most comfortable based on feedback from 73,676 CR members who purchased one within the past decade. See CR’s ratings of innerspring, foam, and adjustable air mattresses.
11. Pick a Perfect Pillow
The more a pillow keeps your neck and spine naturally aligned, the more comfortably you’ll sleep. “Try to find a pillow that keeps your neck in as neutral a position as possible and doesn’t crane it in any position,” says Joel Press, MD, physiatrist in chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. A supportive pillow can prevent excessive motion and keep your neck in a better position without straining it. The Coop Home Goods pillow, for $60, tops our ratings. You can customize its support by adding or removing filling, and it comes with a generous 100-night sleep trial policy.
12. Choose Your Sheets Wisely
As with all bedding, the most important thing about sheets is that they’re comfortable. To rate cotton sheets, we test how well they fit on a mattress after a year’s worth of washing, how much they wrinkle, and how easily they tear. Our testing panel also grades them for softness. L.L.Bean’s Pima Cotton Percale sheets are nearly as good as the top-ranked Matouk Sierra but are far less expensive ($149 for a queen set vs. $258 for a single fitted sheet). The L.L.Bean set shrank only slightly after a year’s worth of washing, and like the Matouk was judged to be soft. Pelayo says that sleeping on clean sheets can lessen allergic reactions to dust mites, which can make you congested and agitated. CR recommends washing sheets at least once every two weeks.
13. Try a Weighted Blanket
Long used to calm children with autism or behavioral disorders, weighted blankets have caught on with the general public as a way to improve sleep. Sales of these heavy, quilted bed coverings (some weigh up to 35 pounds) were soaring even before the pandemic. “The idea is that weighted blankets give a sense of comfort and may facilitate the secretion of oxytocin,” Pelayo explains. “But to what degree and whether it’s a short-term or long-term effect is not clear. I have patients who like weighted blankets and others who don’t. Those who like them really like them.”
The rule of thumb for choosing a weighted blanket is that it should be about 10 percent of your body weight. Popular models include the YnM (starting at $70) and the Harkla (starting at $110) for a 15-pound blanket. Both are available in weights up to 25 pounds.
Power Up in the A.M.
No matter which side of the bed you wake up on, the way you manage your mornings can set the tone for the entire day. “Our wake-up routine is just as important to the day ahead as a relaxing nighttime routine is to sleep,” says Kien Vuu, MD, an assistant professor of health sciences at UCLA and author of “Thrive State: Your Blueprint for Optimal Health, Longevity, and Peak Performance” (Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, 2021).
Here, the habits that will set you on course to a less stressful, more productive day.
14. Get a Head Start
The right way to start your day actually begins the day before, according to Alexis Haselberger, a productivity coach in San Francisco. She suggests devoting your last 15 minutes at work to making a to-do list for the following day. This allows you to mentally disconnect from work and avoid starting the next day in a chaotic state of mind wondering what to do first.
15. Let There Be Light
A small study published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research found that sleep-deprived people exposed to simulated, slowly increasing sunlight in the morning did significantly better at attention-based tasks throughout the day than those exposed to steady dim light. Based on that finding, you might consider using an alarm clock that wakes you by gradually bathing your bedroom in light. Once you’re awake, soak up some sunshine ASAP. “Getting 10 to 20 minutes of direct sunlight just as soon as we’re out of bed resets our circadian rhythms,” Vuu says, “making it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.”
16. Take a Tech Break
Resist the temptation to check your email, texts, Slack channels, or other electronic communication first thing in the morning or even at the start of your workday. Haselberger says that reserving the first hour of your workday for other tasks helps give you a sense of control over your day. “It rarely makes a difference to others whether we respond to messages at 9 or 10 a.m., but you can get an incredible amount done in that hour if you avoid checking email,” she says. “[Those] are other people’s priorities, but because we are social creatures, the second we’ve read a message, we feel compelled to respond.”
Depending on your profession and how demanding your boss is, your “off the grid” time may be more like 10 to 15 minutes, but that’s fine, too.
17. Begin the Day by Completing a Task
Quickly making your bed while the coffee brews or putting away the dishes while you wait for your toast can give you a feeling of accomplishment right off the bat. “It’s easier to stay productive if you’ve started the day with a small accomplishment,” Haselberger says.
The Double-Duty Bedroom
While experts agree that bedrooms should ideally be reserved solely for sleeping and sex, reality is often far from that ideal. In our survey (PDF), 45 percent of Americans told CR they’ve regularly used their bedroom for at least one other purpose since the pandemic began. (More than 7 in 10 of them said they were doing so even before the pandemic.) Since the pandemic began, though, Americans say they have started using their bedrooms for purposes they didn’t before: as a home office (11 percent), dining room (6 percent), hobby space (6 percent), exercise room (6 percent), meditation space (6 percent), or classroom (5 percent). If you’re among them, the following tips will help limit any negative impact this may be having on how you sleep.
18. Reduce Work Reminders
If you need to use your bedroom as a workspace, experts recommend taking an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. “Clutter, work papers, even phones and other connected devices signal to the brain and body that there is work to be done or a problem to be solved, making it harder to sleep,” says Janet Kennedy, PhD, a psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor. Effective ways to minimize reminders of work include using a laptop rather than a desktop so you can stow it away at the end of the day, tucking your desk into a corner of the bedroom, or using a bedside table for your desk during the day and restoring it to its original purpose when it’s time to clock out. The same advice goes for bedrooms that double as classrooms during the day.
19. Create an Exercise Zone
Exercise, like sleep, is vital to good health. But having hand weights, yoga blocks, and other exercise equipment lying around a bedroom can “trigger rumination and increased brain activity, which can cause insomnia and erode sleep quality,” Kennedy says. So stash them in your closet or put them in a storage container under the bed when you’re not using them. Joanna Teplin, co-founder with Clea Shearer of The Home Edit, a full-service home organization company, recommends thinking of your bedroom the way someone with a studio apartment might, giving each area its own purpose. Place large equipment like treadmills as out of the way as possible, and consider using decorative screens or room dividers to hide them from view.
20. Control Kids’ Clutter
Their art projects and toys have a way of migrating to the primary bedroom. Create a pristine sleep environment by putting everything in bins and placing them in another area of the home at the end of the day, Shearer says.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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