That’s what Bonnie Markham, one of the more than 1,800 members of our 30-Day Sleep Challenge Facebook group, posted.
“I have learned that little changes can make a huge difference,” she wrote. “I am now, once again sleeping through the night and feeling awake in the morning. All I changed was not going to bed until tired, reading before getting into bed and finding the right relaxation tape to listen to.”
Of course, not everyone is feeling quite so well rested. But as our challenge comes to a close, many of us have come to learn about our sleep rhythms and make small, doable changes that improved the quality and quantity of our rest.
As we move forward, our long-term Snooze Goal is to build on to what we learned through the challenge.
Some participants found that keeping a sleep diary (as we did during the first week of the challenge), paying attention to when they felt sleepy and going to bed then helped them sleep better. Others discovered that keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule helped them fall asleep and wake up more easily.
For Shelly Miller Peters, a member of our Facebook group, the week spent following sleep hygiene recommendations made the biggest change.
“I’ve been wearing my Fitbit to bed to help track my sleep patterns,” she posted. “It’s been keeping me aware of how I’m sleeping and showing me that when I take time to wind down, read a book and no phone, limit caffeine, I actually sleep a lot better!”
I learned that there may be some things I can’t change about my sleep. My alarm will always go off a little earlier than I wish it would. And the likelihood of one of my young daughters waking me up in the middle of the night remains high.
But installing blackout curtains, putting away my phone at least an hour before bed, meditating and avoiding checking the clock when I wake up at night? These changes made a real difference for me.
And, who knows, maybe if I practice enough, I will eventually master the art of taking a nap, one of the sleep hacks I tried the last week of our challenge.
If you worked to make healthy changes to your sleep and still struggle with not feeling rested, ask your doctor if a sleep study would be appropriate for you. There’s a questionnaire — called STOP-BANG (stopbang.com) — that doctors often use to screen for sleep apnea. It’s available online if you want to check your score.
I’m going to keep working to boost my sleep, as are many of those who took part in the challenge. We’re in good company. The Minnesota Vikings will be right there with us.
Eric Sugarman, the vice president of sports medicine for the team, said he has been working to teach his players about the role sleep plays in their recovery.
“These guys suffer a lot of stress to their muscles and ligaments and brains and everything else. Sleep is one of the key factors of regeneration and letting your body recover for the next day. We just try to emphasize that to our players,” he said.
“We found that it was essential to educate our players on not only how important it is to sleep eight hours a night if possible, but how to sleep properly. We’ve educated them on how to put your brain at rest, and what the proper conditions are for sleeping. A cool room, a dark room, stay off your mobile devices an hour before you go to bed.”
Vikings players also track their own sleep using Sleep Number 360 smart beds, which use a biometric sensor that’s integrated into the mattress to give a sleep score based on breathing, heart rates and restful periods.
And power naps aren’t discouraged, Sugarman added.
“Sleep is really, really important for an athlete’s success and it’s paramount to their recovery and peak performance,” he said. “We have a room in our beautiful new building that is dedicated to recovery. And, you know, sometimes the guys do take a nap in there.”
The 30-Day Sleep Challenge has been a great team effort. Hopefully, we’ll continue to learn about how essential sleep is to our health — from improving mood to lowering risks for heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and make it a priority, not just for 30 days, but for the rest of our lives.
Your top sleep questions answered
Dr. Michael Howell spends his waking hours thinking about sleep — studying it, teaching about it and helping his patients get more of it.
“Sleep is just so fascinating. There’s a bit of a wonder to it,” said Howell, a sleep medicine doctor and associate neurology professor at the University of Minnesota.
We benefited from his enthusiasm throughout our 30-Day-Sleep Challenge. Now, as the challenge wraps up, Howell agreed to tackle some of the most common questions we got about sleep — including how to get to sleep, how to stay there and how to harness our body’s natural rhythms. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why do I consistently wake up in the middle of the night?
A: It’s perfectly normal to wake up in the middle of the night. The normal sleep cycle is that about every 90 minutes we will wake up.
The awakening itself is fine, as long as you’re able to fall back asleep in 5 or 10 minutes. You get up, you go get a drink of water, you go to the bathroom, you go back to bed, you’re asleep within 10 minutes. That is not pathology.
If you’re tired during the day, OK, that’s meaningful. Maybe there’s some snoring, maybe there’s some movement or discomfort that’s interfering with your sleep. Maybe your circadian rhythm timing is off, maybe you have some restlessness, that all could be playing a role. But just awakenings in and of themselves are normal.
Q: Is it only older adults who wake at night?
A: We’ve been doing this every night, our whole lives. Even when you were a little kid and thought you used to sleep like a rock, you were still waking up at night, but you were just blissfully amnestic. You forgot that you did it. That’s the difference between being a kid and getting older and being more aware of awakening at night.
Q: How do I get back to sleep?
A: If it’s been more than 15 minutes or so, and you’re still lying in bed, get out of bed. Stop trying to sleep. Go do something enjoyable. You can’t do any work. You shouldn’t be on a screen. Go read a book in dim lighting, listen to some music you enjoy. Don’t fall asleep where you are. Go back to bed and fall asleep. That might mean that you don’t get your seven hours tonight, but that’s OK. You’re paying it forward so that you’ll sleep better the next day.
Q: Should I try to force myself to sleep?
A: Think of sleep like a present, right? You can’t force it. You can’t force somebody to give you a present. You just receive it. Your brain will give you sleep when it’s ready. And your job is to be ready for it when it comes.
Q: Is the quantity or quality of sleep more important?
A: Sleep is a three-legged stool. First, you have to have the right timing. Your sleep has to be at your right circadian rhythm. If you would naturally go to bed at 3 a.m. and you go to bed at 10 p.m., I don’t care if you do get eight hours of sleep, it’s not going to be refreshing. So first and foremost, you have to have the right timing of sleep.
Secondly, you have to have the right quality of sleep. So you want to make sure you don’t have sleep apnea, or pain or restlessness.
Thirdly, you want to get the right amount of sleep. They’re all important, but the one that’s usually forgotten is the circadian timing of your sleep.
Q: Is it OK to get sleep whenever you can, like taking an hour nap after work, then getting seven hours at night? Or is it better to sleep uninterrupted?
A: If you can get a nap and then sleep later [that night], that’s ideal. It’s hard for most people to work that into their life.
Q: How can I quiet my mind so I can get to sleep and stay asleep?
A: The first question to ask yourself is, what is my natural timing of sleep? Am I trying to fall asleep at the time which is natural for me? I don’t care when you think you should go to bed, I want to know, when does your body naturally fall asleep? Don’t try to fall asleep until it’s your body’s natural timing to fall asleep.
If you say, well, that’s not going to work, because I need to get to bed at 10, then the first thing you focus on is moving your circadian rhythm around with light in the morning and melatonin [in the evening].
Mindfulness and meditation and all of these things are great, but it’s really important that you don’t think about these as a way to induce sleep. Instead, think of it as a way to receive the sleep that your brain is trying to give you.
Q: How does aging impact our sleep?
A: We become more aware of awakenings. Our sleep is not as deep. Our sleep tends to be a little bit more fragmented. We tend to be awake a little bit more throughout the course of the night. We’re more at risk for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
Women during menopause, especially with hot flashes, are more likely to have insomnia. That’s also when women are most likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea. Progesterone is a natural ventilatory stimulant; it protects women against obstructive sleep apnea. But when they go through menopause, they lose that progesterone and sleep apnea emerges.
Q: Do you recommend taking melatonin?
A: Normally, melatonin is naturally secreted by our brains when the sun goes down, under natural conditions. What does natural conditions mean? That means no electricity, no lights, no screens, no televisions, no tablets. No smartphones, nothing.
That means everybody out there who is exposed to light in the evening does not get their natural melatonin release. So if you’re having sleep challenges, you can use small amounts of melatonin [1 mg] to supplement the melatonin that is naturally secreting. It’s kind of like vitamin D in the winter.
Q: Is taking a prescription pill in order to get to sleep harmful?
A: Nearly all sleep troubles can be handled without medication, even for people who are already on sleeping pills. There are good, non-pharmacological, evidence-based strategies that can take care of sleeping problems. That being said, there are some people who do need medication and do well with it.
Q: What are your recommendations on how to gradually get off sleeping pills?
A: If you’re at that point, I think it’s worthwhile to see a cognitive behavioral therapist specialist, and work with your doctor to come off of the medication. Recognize that your sleep is going to get a little worse before it gets better. And know that the vast majority of people can get off of them.
There are a lot of people who are on medication for restless leg syndrome and they really need their medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy won’t necessarily work for them.
Q: What do you think about legislative proposals for Minnesota to have permanent daylight saving time?
A: I’ll tell you what I think is more important: School start times for every Minnesota high school student should be 8:30 a.m. at the earliest.
Q: I have restless leg syndrome and I have noticed that as I get older I have restless arms. Is there such a thing as restless arm syndrome?
A: Yes, absolutely. That’s often how it progresses. If it’s really interfering with sleep, I would go see somebody. And check iron levels.
Q: Are there any alternatives now to the over-the-face CPAP masks? I’m going in for a sleep study and hoping that I can use something else that doesn’t cover my nose and mouth. I’m claustrophobic.
A: The ones that work the best are often the ones that are just over the nose. That’s sometimes a little bit more comfortable. Take a look at oral appliances for sleep apnea. These are crafted by dentists.
Q: What are your tips to getting quality sleep while also parenting a 9-month-old baby that wakes during the night?
A: I did a series of baby sleep tip videos for the UMN Health YouTube channel. That’s not a bad place to start.
Q: What’s your best sleep advice for parents of teenagers?
A: Parents need to understand that their kids aren’t being obstinate or purposefully frustrating. They’re probably going to be night owls just naturally. That’s their natural circadian rhythm.
Believe me, as a parent, I understand that you need to pick your battles. But this a good rule for everybody: One of the best things you can do to create the bedroom environment is every day, get up and make your bed. It creates a conducive environment. At night, when you pull down the covers, you’re just making another healthy ritual to remind your brain and body that it’s time to go to sleep.
Q: What is your best sleep advice for young teenagers?
A: Realize that you need a lot of sleep. I realize that there are a lot of forces — homework, friends, social media, texting — that are keeping you up. It’s really important to get off the screen, if you can, for an hour before bedtime. Dim the lights and get to bed.
If you’re a teenager who has real trouble waking up and trouble falling asleep at night, it’s really important to use a bright light box in the morning.