Dream Big: Sleep 7 Hours (or More) Every Night

Tired of being...well, tired? We definitely understand; it's why we created this 4-week plan that will help you get some serious zzz's. But, it's not going to be easy as shutting your eyes. You will need to make some difficult decisions (i.e. TV in the bedroom?) and sacrifice a few things (i.e. in-bed phone scrolling). But, don't worry! You won't be doing this alone. Think of it as one big slumber party, where we are all in our own beds...sleeping. Sweet dreams, team!

Week 1: Power Down in 30

Here’s the science: If we’re being honest about how we handle the three pillars of healthy living—nutrition, exercise, and sleep—sleep often gets left in the dust. Who has time? We’re super busy and it’s hard to shut our brains off at night. At minimum, adults need seven hours, but a full third of people aren’t meeting that mark, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walking around sleep-deprived affects our ability to think clearly and make good decisions when we’re, say, driving a car. Newsflash: Being awake for at least 18 hours results in the same cognitive slowdown as someone who has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05% (that’s one to two drinks you didn’t even have!). Over time, lack of regular quality sleep can also raise your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Our goal this month? To get us back to sleep!

Move-the-Needle Monday: First things first. We have to get a handle on pre-bedtime screen use, says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and sleep medicine physician and professor at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Yeah, Dr. Ramar hit us right where it hurts—our phones. It’s hard to put them down and that’s harming our sleep. “The blue light from the electronics tends to disrupt our natural ability to fall asleep in the evening,” Dr. Ramar says. (Why? It is similar in wavelength to sunlight, messing with our circadian rhythms.)

The plan: Shut off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. This includes the TV, your tablet, and of course, your phone. Also, mute your phone notifications—all but the emergency ones—to help you resist the temptation to pick it up again. “The reason is, if you get an alert five minutes before you were to fall asleep, it mentally arouses you to the point that you have difficulty slowing down your mind before trying to go to sleep,” says Dr. Ramar. Those pings are like an alarm clock on snooze, and we all know how comforting that is… not!

  • Monday night: Start by turning everything off before you slip under the covers (no scrolling in bed!).

  • Tuesday night: Turn off the TV and your phone 10 minutes before bed.

  • Wednesday night: Power down devices 20 minutes before bed.

  • Thursday night: Power down devices 30 minutes before bed. If you wind up grabbing your phone once or twice out of habit, it’s OK. Give yourself some grace while you’re learning this new routine!

  • Friday to Sunday: Keep doing what you’re doing (powering down all electronics 30 minutes before sleep). It will feel awkward at first to give up your toys so soon before bed, but practice makes perfect. Make the habit stick by committing to it, even on weekends.

Top tip: Stop reading in bed (especially on your tablet—hello, blue light!). There are two reasons for this, says Dr. Ramar. First: “Most books keep us excited, and that’s not helpful when you’re trying to fall asleep.” OK. Good point. And second: Leaving your book outside the bedroom is a way to train your mind that you’re going to bed to sleep, not read. Instead, use your reading time to wind down before you hit the sack.

That's a wrap on this week, folks. Keeping getting after your dreams and giving these goals your best shot. We'll see you back here next Monday as we move the needle forward!

Week 2: Size Up Your Sleep Space

Here’s the science: Have you heard of the circadian clock? It’s how your brain knows when to be awake and when to be at rest. Your brain performs this helpful function by using light and dark to help it predict when to cue “active you” and when to call in “sleepy you.” Your circadian clock is most sensitive to light from about two hours before your usual bedtime and throughout the night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that something as simple as introducing a little after-dinner mood lighting to your routine can help you fall asleep faster when it’s time for bed. This week, you’re making environmental changes to maximize your body’s full sleep potential.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Repeat after us: “My bedroom is only for sleeping.” OK, and sex. But it’s certainly not a hangout for TV viewing or after-hours work, and how it looks and feels should reflect that. “The bedroom environment has a big impact on how we sleep,” says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and sleep medicine physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

The plan: Revamp your sleep environment. Since many of us are currently working from home (your bedroom might double as an office during the day), it’s especially important to shift gears at night by making small changes in your room to cue sleep. This will be different for everyone, so use your senses to lead the way here, keeping optimal comfort in mind.

  • Monday: Pull the curtains and turn your light off after nightfall. How much light pollution is still filtering into your bedroom? Significant? Consider purchasing thick light-blocking curtains or use an eye mask to remind your brain that it’s dark and that equals sleepy time.

  • Tuesday: Sudden noises might be jarring you awake more than you realize. Try using a white noise machine or app to cancel out the din. If the source of noise is wakeful small children, sorry… that’s the topic for another column!

  • Wednesday: Turn your thermostat down. Your body naturally cools itself to start the process of falling asleep. Dr. Ramar says you can encourage this process by setting your bedroom temperature a little cooler than you’d have it during the day, but not too cold. Around 65 is good.

  • Thursday: Wash your bedding—all of it. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends washing sheets once a week to keep dirt, oil, and sweat from making you uncomfortable. And throw the blankets and comforter in frequently, too.

  • Friday: If you are routinely too hot or too cold, it might be time to invest in the right products that help promote quality ZZZs. The NSF can help you find the right bedding, pillows, mattress, and even lighting so you'll have the best chance of sleeping soundly through the night.

Top tip: Exposure to natural light during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night. That’s because outdoor light is brighter than what we’re exposed to indoors, so it trips the trigger for sleep-time once you come back inside. One more reason to get out the door for that afternoon walk.

And just like that, you’ve got your plan nailed down for this second week of March. Remember, it’s only natural that it starts to feel a little hard to stick with the program. If it were easy, everyone would do it and all that (fill in your favorite cliché here). But the truth is that self-improvement takes grit and grind, and you’ve got plenty of both, even if you’re just starting to find that out. Eventually, these healthy moves will start to feel more like a habit. Keep after it, and we’ll see you back here next Monday!

Week 3: Fall Asleep Faster

Here’s the science: You may technically be in bed for seven hours, but how much of that is actual sleep time? A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found an average gap of 39 minutes between the time people go to bed and the time they actually doze off. That delay may not sound like much, but researchers found that compared to people who went to sleep immediately after getting into bed, those with a sleep gap of just 30 minutes were three times more likely to have poor sleep quality, which can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and weight gain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, sleep duration also shrinks due to interruptions, like that midnight run to the bathroom that turned into a two-hour thought spiral about something completely unimportant.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your plan this week? Reduce the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep by getting into sleep mode well before you head to bed. “Some form of routine to help you unwind is going to be important,” says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and sleep medicine physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. This routine takes place 30 to 60 minutes before you brush your teeth and slip into PJs.

The plan: At least 30 minutes before you walk into your bedroom, do something relaxing. Dr. Ramar suggests listening to soft music, soaking in the tub, practicing patterned breathing, or using a guided meditation app on your phone. (Audio only—no looking at the screen! Remember blue light exposure too close to bedtime messes with your sleep mechanism.) Do this regardless of whether you have to get up at 4 a.m. to start an early shift at work (start your wind-down routine at 7 or 7:30 p.m.) or if you’re a night owl who sleeps from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. (start winding down at 11:30 p.m.). There’s no wrong time to sleep, Dr. Ramar says, but it should be as consistent as possible.

Top tip: Do your thoughts keep you up at night? Try using your wind-down time to do a brain dump. Grab a notebook and jot down some words about all the stuff that has your brain buzzing—an argument you had that day, the garbage you read on Twitter, social issues that need solving. Once you write them down, these thoughts are less likely to get in the way of sleep at night, says Dr. Ramar, who recommends this trick to all his patients struggling with insomnia.

And that's a wrap on week three of your Dream Big challenge. Whether you’re pursuing one of these goals or all three this month, don’t feel guilty if things don’t go perfectly to plan. Maybe it’s your sister’s birthday and There. Will. Be. Cake. That’s okay, have some. Or maybe you’ve had a long day at work and pushups are the last thing you feel like doing right now. That’s okay, too. Having an off day today doesn’t mean you can’t have an on day tomorrow. Just keep your eye on that end goal (it’s getting closer!) and we’ll see you back here next week.

Week 4: Wean Yourself Off Coffee (and Kahlua)

Here’s the science: Did you know your afternoon coffee—even if you drink it right after lunch—can mess with your body’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep well into the night? Caffeine can linger in your body for at least six hours, according to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Alcohol similarly lingers in your body well after you down that pre-dinner cocktail, though not quite as long—about two to three hours—and that can interrupt your sleep, too.

Move-the-Needle Monday: You don’t have to give up your caffeine fix or happy hour to get better sleep, but it does make sense to be more strategic about when you indulge. It’s OK to have caffeine up until 2 p.m., though noon would be a more ideal cutoff point, says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a sleep medicine physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Dr. Ramar also recommends enjoying your evening cocktail well before bedtime; ideally, you’ll be finishing your last drink at least two hours before you plan to hit the sack. Even though alcohol has a sedative quality that makes you feel drowsy and might help you fall asleep initially, that alcohol lingers in your blood for several hours. Later in the night alcohol raises the body’s level of the stress hormone epinephrine, which increases your heart rate and stimulates wakefulness. It also can make you have to pee, and we all know how hard it can be to get back to sleep after a bathroom run.

The plan: Make some personal rules around caffeine and alcohol consumption and stick to them every day this week. Starting on Monday, have your last cup of joe around 2 p.m. If you like to nurse a beer or glass of Scotch (or pina colada—who are we to judge?) after dinner, set the cut-off time around 9 p.m.—sooner if your bedtime is before 11 p.m. If these two drinks are staples in your daily routine (we relate), you’ll deal better with this change by having a list of substitutes on hand. Instead of coffee, try chamomile or peppermint tea. Not much is going to take the edge off the way alcohol can, so don’t pretend. Instead, sip on seltzer with a dash of bitters or add a twist of lime and remind yourself that this sacrifice is in the name of the greater good: your health.

Top tip: If you’ve been getting more sleep, but you’re not feeling any less sleepy, there could be something more going on. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 70 million Americans live with some sort of sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Here’s Dr. Ramar’s advice: “If you try these things and you’re still having difficulty falling asleep or you have difficulty maintaining sleep—or your partner says you’re snoring, moving around, and having unrestful sleep—even after trying these measures after a month or so, I’d recommend seeing your doctor.”

Well, that sure went fast! Four weeks have come and gone—and what do you have to show for it? Hopefully more strength, a healthier diet, and/or better sleep habits. But really, we’re hoping you’ve got more confidence, less self-doubt, and a greater belief in your ability to keep moving the needle in the right direction as you pursue your healthiest life—whatever that means for you. Goal-setting is daunting, setbacks are intimidating, and failure is most certainly discouraging. But if you’re here and you’re reading this, it means you’ve hung in there and given things your best shot. And that’s a win in our book all year long.

Hope to see you in April when we’ll be challenging you to a two-minute plank, daily meditation, and eating the entire food pyramid (that’s no April Fool’s joke). Stay healthy!

Danielle Gamiz
Meet Our Writer
Danielle Gamiz

Danielle Gamiz is a contributing editor at HealthCentral. She is the assigning editor for the coverage areas of Arthritis & Joints and Caregiving. She also serves as a copy editor across various topics. Danielle enjoys learning from HealthCentral's patient experts and health writers as they educate, inform, and uplift our audience every day.