By Michele Laufik
(Photo: John Dolan)
If you run out of sheep to count night after night, you’re not alone. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep (experts typically recommend seven to nine hours for adults). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently named insufficient sleep a public health epidemic, linking it to an increase in motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and other occupational errors, as well as chronic diseases. In honor of National Sleep Awareness Month (a.k.a. March), let’s look into some solutions.
First up, there are some tried-and-true ways to up your sleep tally: Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, avoid large meals and caffeine before hitting the sack, and don’t text in bed (yeah, right). Sure, those tactics may work, but a simple accessory—an eye mask—might be all you need to turn into a regular sleeping beauty. Here’s why it works.
A sleep mask provides sensory deprivation (eliminates visual distractions) and reduces the amount of light entering your eyes, explains Michael Breus, Ph.D., who wears one to bed due to his wife’s late-night TV-watching habit.
“Light at night suppresses the production of melatonin—our major sleep hormone. This is especially true of blue light, such as that emitted by televisions, computers, cell phones, and other electronics,” says Robert S. Rosenberg, D.O., author of “Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day.” Even the littlest bit of light, like from a digital clock or night light, can affect your sleep, explains Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., author of “Hush: A Book of Bedtime Contemplations.” “The mask guarantees you darkness,” Rosenberg explains.
Although there are no scientific studies on the relationship between dreaming and sleep masks, Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard, explains that they may help you dream more deeply since you’re allowing yourself to sleep longer without disruption. “Each period of dreaming through the night gets longer, so if you sleep four instead of eight hours, you’re not losing half of your dream time, you’re actually losing more like three quarters of it. Those later, longer dreams are often more vivid and better recalled.”
You might not turn into Leo DiCaprio in Inception, but since dreams almost always occur during restorative REM sleep (which is what most of us are lacking) you’ll probably notice deeper, more vivid dreams. “We are actually more dream-deprived than sleep-deprived,” says Naiman. So if sleeping longer and better means more hours dreaming of Chris Hemsworth, who are we to argue?
Breus, who hosts a free podcast called Secrets to Sleep Success, recommends investing in a good-quality, washable mask with eye cavities (so you don’t crush your eyelashes) and padding. REM stands for rapid eye movement, so you don’t want to impede any eye activity when you snooze, says Rosenberg. And make sure it fits over your nose properly to ensure light can’t enter through any gaps.
Do any of you wear a sleep mask now? Let us know if it works for you.