Why Sleep Tips Don’t Work
By Dr. Rubin Naiman
Tips are ubiquitous in modern life. We are offered cooking tips, golf tips and gardening tips. There are an abundance of management, childrearing, automotive and tax tips available. And tips for weight loss, high fashion, exercise, skin care and of course, sleep, abound.
My recent Google search for “sleep tips” yielded 333 million various and sundry results. I found simple tips, proven tips, great tips, surprising tips, top ten tips, unconventional tips and healthful tips, as well as special tips for pregnant women, babies, toddlers, teens, college kids, stressed-out adults and the elderly. There are tips provided by doctors, consultants, coaches, clergy members and clinics, as well as mattress manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and much, much more.
Our common presumption is that such tips can help us tweak our way to healthy sleep. But can they really? Having authored my share of sleep tips and spoken to many sleep-concerned patients about them, I think it’s time we reconsider their impact and value.
The media have a curious proclivity to entice us with numbered tips. Five tips for managing jet lag, four tips for better naps, seven tips for avoiding nightmares. There are countless articles offering three tips, eight tips, 10 tips, 42 tips and yes, a couple of web sites boasting exactly 100 tips for better sleep. Such enumeration seems to imply that, like the Ten Commandments, the 12-step program, the seven deadly sins or the Four Noble Truths, such lists are exact, precise and ultimately definitive. Quantifying tips also lends them an undeserved air of scientific specificity and legitimacy. We are seduced.
Discovering long lists of apparently credible tips to help manage sleep concerns may initially be heartening to the sleep-weary. But such lists can quickly foster confusion, be overwhelming and can even produce anxiety. People who are desperate to reclaim healthy sleep can become obsessed with doing all the right things at the right times. Trying to compulsively adhere to an impossible list of dos and don’ts will only exacerbate one’s anxiety and sleeplessness. Furthermore, comprehensive sleep-tip lists are general in nature and do not apply to the specific needs of the individual.
Not infrequently, sleep tips are cast in a threatening context. First, we are warned that insufficient or poor-quality sleep will result in depression, heart disease, cancer or diabetes. Then we are offered a precise and enumerated list of tips to resolve our fears and concerns. Such approaches needlessly increase anxiety and then attempt to diminish it with an impersonal set of solutions. It’s highly questionable if fear is an appropriate, let alone effective, means of encouraging sleep health.
Sleep experts and other health care professionals are fond of presenting sleep tips under the rubric of sleep hygiene, a widely available list of eight or 10 essential tips that support healthy sleep. Most of us are fairly familiar with these, which include basics like keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule, being mindful of caffeine and alcohol consumption, and limiting screen time before bed. Unfortunately, research has shown that despite their ubiquity, when offered as a sole solution, sleep hygiene simply does not work. That’s not to say that these sleep tips aren’t useful or necessary, but that they are insufficient.
Although most sleep tips are generally sensible and supported by good science, their common presentation can be misleading, can promote false hope, can foster anxiety and can inevitably lead to discouragement. More often than not, sleep tips oversimplify, overgeneralize and perhaps most importantly, overlook the deeper truths about sleep. As the term “tip” implies, sleep tips do not address the roots of our sleep concerns.
Tips about activities like cooking or knitting, tips about sports like golf or tennis, and tips about strategies for travel or investing can certainly be useful. But contrary to how we commonly conceive of it, sleep is not just another activity, competitive event or strategic outcome that can be tweaked into excellence. Sleep is an experience — a personal subjective experience of another kind of consciousness. It’s also an experience that can only thrive in the context of a healthy lifestyle. It’s an exquisite experience that just cannot be reduced to or managed in terms of a simple set of tips.
Tips should never be the sole, or even primary source of guidance for healthy sleep. We cannot tweak our way there because it requires a deeper transformation. Such a transformation is about a shift in our fundamental perspective — not just a change in behavior or strategies, but also a change of heart. It begins with a thorough reconsideration of what sleep actually is, and depends on our willingness to complement scientific and medical perspectives with personal, subjective and spiritual experiences.
I am, of course, tempted to conclude with a few choice tips about sleep, but will limit myself to just one, to what I think of as the tip of the sleep iceberg. Consider the possibility that sleep is not simply a utilitarian activity that supports healthy waking life, but also a portal to another world — a much more mysterious world of dreams suspended in an atmosphere of unfathomable serenity.