Many Americans struggle to get quality sleep. Here are tips to improve your rest

Download Audio
Sleeping woman in bed circa the 1950s. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
Sleeping woman in bed circa the 1950s. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Are you finding you can't sleep these days? With disturbing daily news, economic anxiety, inflation, the pandemic, and life in general, there's a lot to keep us up at night. The CDC's latest numbers suggest between 30 and 45% of American adults are not getting enough sleep.

We talk to Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center sleep expert Dr. Robert Thomas on what we can do to get better at falling, and staying, asleep.

Tips to improve your rest:

Determine your body's ideal sleep duration:

Finding the right number of hours of sleep your body needs can initially feel difficult. However, you can loosely gauge this by tracking your sleep in what Dr. Robert Thomas calls "neutral conditions." To put it simply, it's the duration of time you begin to feel sleepy and go to bed to when you wake up naturally.

"You know, you have to clear out any excess of sleep debt," says Thomas. "So if you're doing a lot of shift work and now you're catching up, that's a little different. But you ask almost anybody how long they think they can sleep, what's a natural sleep [duration]? They'll be fairly accurate. It'll be unusual for someone to say, 'I have no idea how much sleep I need.'"

Keep good "sleep hygiene":

Sleep hygiene is, as Thomas describes it, "a set of behaviors which, if you deviate from, put your sleep system at stress."

"So having a steady wake up time, being in darkness when you're sleeping — and two or three hours prior to that, you want to avoid bright light," says Thomas. "All of us need a biological evening. That's when our melatonin levels, in fact, arise. So as a working rule, I tell my patients after 8 p.m., turn the lights down, give your eyes a little bit of a dark adaptation. You can kind of get by."

Don't use melatonin if you're trying to sleep longer:

According to Thomas, melatonin will actually make a person wake up earlier than expected.

"In fact, if you take melatonin at bedtime to try to wake up later, it doesn't work," says Thomas. "It actually makes you wake up earlier. Melatonin is just darkness. So if you get extra darkness before you go to bed, you'll actually wake up earlier. So a person getting up too early — taking melatonin — at bedtime is the exact opposite of what he or she should be doing."

Keep a steady wake-up time and give adequate time for a full night's rest:

Alarm clocks are jostling, but they're a part of our everyday lives. Despite the need to use these almost daily, Thomas says you can still get a relatively full and healthy rest if you keep a consistent sleep schedule.

"I mean, you can't come in late for work saying that I was waiting for my natural sleep cycle to be over," says Thomas. "You're going to get fired if you do that. So it is best that one has a steady wake up time and gives adequate time for sleep."

"So the likelihood that you're in deep sleep early in the morning is minor, and waking from REM sleep is usually cleaner — in the sense that you wake up a little sharper. You're not, you know, groggy and half drunk," Thomas says. "Otherwise, if you wake up from deep sleep, you have what's called sleep inertia, where...essentially you're in a brain fog, you're not fully awake. Your cognition is not great at that time. Your attention is poor, but it usually dissipates or the next five, ten, 15 minutes when you're brushing your teeth."

This segment aired on July 6, 2022.

Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Maya Shwayder Freelance Producer, Radio Boston
Maya Shwayder was a freelancer producer for WBUR's Radio Boston.



More from Radio Boston

Listen Live