With Valentine’s Day around the corner, now is a great time to commit to making sleep a priority, for your own health, and the health of your relationship. As I describe in my book “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep,” it’s time to sleep as if you’re relationship depends on it (because it likely does).
There are some habits and behaviors that help promote sleep. There are some habits and behaviors that get in the way of sleep. If you and your partner are looking to improve your shared sleep together, you might start by looking at how well, or not well, your individual habits and behaviors are working for you. If your lifestyle or certain behaviors are keeping you from sleeping as well as you’d like, it’s very possible the resulting tossing and turning, snoring, or other disturbances you’re creating aren’t helping your partner’s sleep much either.
Factors that Influence Sleep (or contribute to a lack of it)
It seems obvious to say it, but caffeine gets in the way of sleep. Caffeine can stay in your system for several hours. My recommendation is to avoid caffeinated beverages or foods anytime after two or three in the afternoon. Caffeine is, of course, found in coffee. It’s also in teas, colas, energy drinks, chocolate, and even some pain relievers. We all process caffeine somewhat differently, so experimenting a bit with when and how much caffeine you consume in any given day, and tracking your sleep is a great way to figure out what’s working/ what’s not working for you.
Nicotine is found in cigarettes and e-cigarettes and is also a stimulant, so it can make it hard to fall asleep or cause your sleep to be less restful. Smoking doesn’t help sleep in any way, and it’s disastrous for your health, so now you have yet another reason to quit.
It is true that alcohol in high enough quantities can help you fall asleep. However, as your body processes the sugars in the alcohol throughout the night, it can deliver a burst of energy that wakes you up, and then you can struggle to get back to sleep.
Having a big meal late at night can cause problems for sleep. A lighter meal four hours or more before bedtime is better for sleep. The key here is you don’t want your belly to be too full or starving before bed, so that’s why a light, healthful snack, like a piece of fruit, a glass of milk, or a handful of almonds is the way to go, when it comes to a snack before bedtime.
Mobile devices are ruining our sleep (among other things). Not only is it easy to lose track of time checking out Instagram, the light they emit disrupts sleep, by suppressing the hormone melatonin which signals the brain that it’s time to sleep. Just having your phone nearby while you sleep can be disruptive. Best advice is to keep your phone (and other screens) out of your bedroom. And if you have children or teenagers in the home, it’s especially important that you model good behaviors, like keeping technology out of the bedroom, because your kids are watching! Studies have shown that parents who keep their phones in their bedroom are more likely to have kids who have phones in their bedroom. So, model this healthy behavior for the whole family.
We sleep better in a cool space, and that’s partly because a drop in body temperature is one of the key changes that happens as we fall asleep. Keeping the room cool and even nudging your body along towards this drop in body temperature (e.g., by taking a warm bath before bed), can facilitate your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. The ideal temperature is somewhere around 65 to 68 degrees, give or take a few degrees. You also don’t want to be shivering throughout the night, so it’s better to keep the room temperature cool, but layer up with blankets (which you can also throw off as needed). This is especially important for women as they transition through menopause and experience the joys of hot flashes. And for couples, who have different temperature preferences, this is also where having separate covers for each partner is key!
If you ask me, exercise is a panacea for just about anything that ails you, and that includes sleep. Even small bouts of daily exercise can go a long way to improving your sleep. Although the effects of nighttime exercise vary from individual to individual, for most people it’s generally wise to avoid too strenuous or socially stimulating (e.g., at a gym) workouts too close to bedtime. Experiment with the timing of exercise that works best for you, but commit to engaging in some physical activity on a daily basis. It’s good for your sleep and good for your mind and body.
Darkness at night/ Lots of light during the day
You want your room as dark as possible to help bring on sleep. Do what you can to eliminate all light. That includes light trying to come in from your windows. It also includes light emanating from your devices. It all serves to block sleep. Even dimming the lights in your house in the evening hours before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep at night, because dim lights facilitate the release of the hormone melatonin. During the daytime, however, particularly first thing in the morning, get as much light as possible. Natural light is preferred, so open the curtains and get outside as much as possible. Light exposure during the daytime signals the brain that it’s time to be alert and awake, and can boost your energy and mood, setting you up for a good night of sleep, when bedtime arrives.
Potentially one of the most important factors that influences your sleep is when you sleep. Ideally, you’d go to bed AND wake up at the same time every day. Even on the weekends. And if you have to choose one over the other, a consistent wake time is the most important. Wake-up time is the single most important cue for setting our internal biological clock. Wake-up time also influences when we get exposed to light, and light is also a powerful signal to the brain that it’s time to start the day. So, setting a consistent wake-up time is a good first step to setting you up for sleep success that night.
Developing an understanding of your personal “sleep profile,” including your vulnerabilities for certain types of sleep problems, the consequences of sleep loss, and what helps you unwind and what keeps you up at night, when you sleep best, and your specific habits and behaviors around sleep—this is important work to do to improve your sleep, which ultimately could be the best gift of all for both you and your Valentine.
Dr. Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.