The four simple strategies of REST can help anyone sleep better tonight
Three years ago, a doctor tried to convince me to take sodium oxybate, also known as gamma-hydroxybutyrate. “If gamma-hydroxybutyrate sounds familiar to you, it is probably because GHB is also known as the date rape drug,” said the doctor helpfully.
I was not enthusiastic about this.
“During the day,” he continued, “You’ll need to be on a high dose of amphetamines.”
I was not enthusiastic about this, either.
Why was the doctor recommending such extreme medications? Because I have an extreme neurological disorder: Narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy means that my body has a deficit of the neuropeptide orexin. Orexin helps keep the body awake during the day and asleep at night. Because I lack orexin and cannot get more, my body wants to be asleep and awake at all the wrong times. As a result, I never get a restorative night of sleep and am tired during the day. Very tired. Very, very tired. Research says that I am as tired as a typical person would be after being awake for 48 to 72 hours straight. In other words, every single day of my life, it’s as if I just pulled three all-nighters in a row.
Being tired is a major problem and not just for me. More and more research comes out all the time about the importance of quality sleep. Sleep supports immunity, mental health, productivity, public safety, and more. Books about sleep have dominated the New York Times bestseller list, like neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams and entrepreneur Arriana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. These books make the case that hindered sleep (permanently or otherwise) is more than an annoyance, it is a serious health and safety issue.
Optimized sleep is essential to a well-lived life. As Dr. Walker writes, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.” When my doctor handed me a pair of prescriptions for two different extreme drugs, he was just trying to save me from this frightening fate.
If I filled those prescriptions, I would be in good company. The CDC reports that 9 million Americans take prescription drugs in pursuit of a better night’s sleep. But do those drugs really help?
In my desperation for a good night’s sleep, I’ve certainly tried over-the-counter sleep medications, like Zzzquil. The problem is, I always feel foggy the next day. It turns out, there’s a good reason for this. Sleeping medications precipitate unconsciousness, they do not usher in a restorative sleep cycle. Think anesthesia, not lullabies. Even worse, the side effects are serious. Per Dr. Walker: “Sleeping pills do not provide natural sleep, can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening diseases.”
The more I learned, the less I wanted to fill those prescriptions. It seemed like these drugs would only be masking my sleep problems, not solving them. I don’t like to mask problems, I like to solve them. I decided to face the problem head-on. If my body can’t create cues for sleep at the right times, I reasoned, I would create them for myself.
I began a quest to improve my sleep. In my quest, I learned something amazing: There are things anyone can do, right now, to have better sleep. Things that don’t involve medications. Whatever your sleep quality today, you have the power to make it better. You don’t need a pill to help you sleep better. You just need to leverage the power of REST.
Let me explain. I have read thousands of pages and experimented with dozens of strategies. I have implemented the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, two gold standard resources for information about good sleep. I recommend them both. I’ve also found that just four strategies stand up above the rest as key to preparing the body for a night of sleep. Think of it as a version of the 80/20 rule: These four strategies give you the most bang for your buck.
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Rest Every Evening
I have combined the four most important strategies for better sleep into a protocol I call REST. Each letter of the acronym stands for a key component of preparing the body for sleep. The components are: Reminder alarm, eliminate emitting light, stretch your body, and tuck in your tech.
R is for reminder alarm
To start any new habit, you need something that kicks it off. Scientists who specialize in human behavior call this kick-off a cue, and your reminder alarm will be your cue to REST. The natural bookend to a morning alarm, your evening alarm will be a compensatory tool to make-up for the lack of self-control and higher-level thinking that accompanies end-of-the-day fatigue.
Set your reminder alarm for 60-90 minutes before you like to turn out your light. Experiment to find your reminder alarm sweet spot. As a starting point, start with the time you need to wake up during the week, subtract the 7 to 9 hours in bed that most adults need, then land on a time 60 to 90 minutes earlier than that.
You might think you don’t need this much time, but the truth is your body is not a computer: You do not have a power button that works in an instant. You have a human body that works in a two-million-year-old circadian rhythm. It will not serve you to ignore this aspect of your biology. Having at least an hour to wind down will allow your body the time it needs (yes, needs) to prepare for sleep.
What does this look like in real life? For me, it looks like I have an alarm on my phone that goes off every night at 8:30 pm. Before I began to REST in the evenings, I would head to bed around 10 pm or a little after. Night after night, I would be frustrated that I couldn’t get to sleep until an hour after I turned out the lights. Now that I REST, I am truly ready for bed at bedtime.
I’m not going to lie: My REST reminder is early. I have had to become more honest with myself about what I can take on in the evenings, for work and fun. I’ve had to move the bulk of my socializing to weekends. I’ve had to leave events early. I’ve had to shift things around during the day to fit in personal and professional projects. I knew these changes wouldn’t be easy. But I was surprised at how they weren’t exactly hard. Friends and family were flexible. Changing project timelines was possible. The sky didn’t fall. Even though I objectively made the active part of my day shorter, subjectively, it was as if I made my days longer. Getting proper REST means I have more energy for everything else.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you must stay up past your REST Reminder one night, stay up past your REST Reminder one night. Don’t let that one night be the reason you stay up past your REST Reminder every night. Just last week, I turned off my REST Reminder to attend a good friend’s improv comedy show. The next day, I turned it back on and continued with REST.
E is for eliminate emitting light
Immediately after your REST Reminder goes off, begin to eliminate emitting light. Turn off or remove yourself from all light, especially blue light. The reason for this is simple biology. Just like our biology means that we need 60-90 minutes to transition from wakefulness to sleep, our biology also means that we need the dark to cue our sleep, and not only at the precise moment we want to begin to sleep.
Humans are essentially heliotropic creatures; like sunflowers, our bodies respond dramatically to sunlight. We are in good company. “Light is the primary zeitgeber (entraining cue) for the vertebrate circadian system,” according to Emma J. Wams and colleagues. Sunlight’s absence famously triggers the sleep hormone melatonin, but that’s not the only way light, even artificial light, affects sleep. Dr. Wams and colleagues also observed that light impacts “sleep timing, duration, structure, and quality.” It is critical to control your exposure to light in the evenings.
In my life, this means that just after my REST reminder alarm goes off, I say goodnight to the light. I go to my bedroom. I pull down the blackout shades (Tin foil or black construction paper also work). I turn off the overhead lights. I turn on a pink Himalayan salt lamp and light candles. Some devices glow while they charge; I’ve either covered their lights with a Sticky Note or moved the devices to other rooms.
You may be thinking that you sleep fine without all this attention to the light. Indeed, people can sleep in varying degrees of darkness, but people invariably sleep better in darker spaces. You have to ask yourself: Would you rather survive or thrive?
S is for stretch your body
Once the lights are low, it is time to stretch. When you think about sleep and stretching, you may think about the morning. After all, there’s the classic image of a person wearing a nightshirt and nightcap yawning and reaching for the sky as they step out of bed. In reality, the most important time for that stylish sleeper to stretch might just be the night before.
A 2016 meta-analysis found that meditative movements, like stretching, improve sleep quality. The act of connecting to your body, your partner in sleep, helps prepare both your body and mind for rest. Moreover, stretching releases the tensions that naturally build in the body throughout the day, which promotes relaxation and limits cramps and other pains that may occur in the night and disrupt sleep.
There are many ways to stretch and engage in mindful movement before sleep. While my husband likes to do light vinyasa yoga, I have curated a hodgepodge stretching routine that addresses my aches, pains, and tensions. In other words, a particular approach isn’t important. The key is to move your body deliberately and mindfully. Experiment. Find out what kind of stretching works for you, then do it. You may find that different days call for different nighttime stretches. Let your stretching change as your life changes. Your body is a capable guide.
T is for tuck in your tech
The final key to REST is to tuck in your tech. You may be thinking this falls under E for eliminate emitting light, but tech warrants its own mention, so here it is. Put your phone away. Put your tablet away. Put your laptop away. Put all your tech away. The internet has a lot of content on it. The easiest content to find is the content that has been engineered to engage you. It will pull you in and — because you are tired — you will not be able to pull yourself back easily.
The fact that you get sucked into something on your phone when you’re trying to go to bed and lose 10 minutes or 30 minutes or 60 minutes is not a shameful personal failing, it is an understandable human reaction to technology. There is nothing wrong with you, but there is something wrong with using technology right before bed. Using technology before bed will make it difficult to get to bed on time, either directly or because of the after-effects of exposure to emotionally resonant content and sleep-hindering light (yes, even if you use a blue light filter).
I’ve found that I must put my tech to bed somewhere not near my own. Just across the room works most nights, but if I have something particularly preoccupying awaiting me online, I sometimes place my phone in a different room or even on a different floor of my house. I have placed a small notebook on my bedside table to write down any “I just gotta check this one thing” or “I have to remember to” ideas on. Transfering the notes to my digital to-do list in the morning is simple, and it has eliminated accidental late-night scrolling. To make it easier to tuck in my tech, I set my do not disturb to go on automatically at the same time my reminder alarm goes off. If you need extra support, you can consider using a website and internet blocker app like Freedom.
You may be thinking this could never work for you because your phone is your alarm in the morning. I have the same set-up. Now that I place my phone across the room at night, I have to get out of bed to turn off my morning alarm. I thought it would be a huge pain. I was surprised to discover that it’s a huge benefit. Without easy access to the snooze button, I start my days more promptly. There’s a different quality to my mornings as well. As I looked into it, I learned there is a good reason for this. Alarm clocks jolt us out of sleep, which also jolts the body and heart with adrenaline. Dr. Walker warns that using the snooze button inflicts that “cardiovascular assault” repeatedly and should be avoided. No snooze means less stress, which means a calmer start to the day.
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It’s been three years, and I still haven’t filled those two prescriptions, but I have started feeling less tired. Way less tired. Don’t get me wrong, REST isn’t a cure for a serious neurological disorder. I still have narcolepsy, and I always will (medical breakthrough notwithstanding). But I’m so grateful I learned something I can do every night to give myself the gift of better sleep.
If you want to sleep better too, try to REST for a week and see what you think. Set a reminder alarm, eliminate emitting light, stretch your body, and tuck in your tech. These four simple strategies really work — whether you’re the one in 2,000 who has narcolepsy or one of the 1,999 who don’t.
Remember: If REST can work for me, it can work for anyone.
This essay has also appeared on Medium