Sleep restriction is a method that might serve as a valuable strategy in your battle against insomnia.

Many adults today have insomnia due to the overstimulating and stressful world we live in. For most of us, we lie down at night to go to sleep only to awaken to racing thoughts about chores, to-do lists, and responsibilities we must take care of the next day. A few nights of restless sleep won’t hurt, but recurring sleep problems can cause other health issues down the road.

Here are some statistics about insomnia according to the American Sleep Association:

  • Nearly 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder
  • Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep disorder, with around 30% of adults having short-term insomnia
  • Around 10% of adults have long-term insomnia
  • Almost 40% of people accidentally fall asleep during the daytime
  • About 5% report falling asleep while driving (the most dangerous outcome from insomnia)

Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per night, but studies show 35% get less than that. Certain age groups seem to get less sleep, as follows:

  •  37% of people ages 20-39 getting less than the recommended sleep
  • 40% of people aged 40–59 reporting less than optimal sleep.

Insomnia seems to be on the rise worldwide as well, with data from Sleep Cycle showing that no country in the world achieves 8 hours of sleep per night anymore. In the 1940s, 8 hours of sleep was the average, but now that has decreased to 6.8 hours per night.

You may have tried every trick in the book to get some shut-eye, from sprinkling lavender oil on your sheets to taking a hot bath to power off the cell phone off a couple of hours before bed. However, many people are turning to sleep restriction to address their insomnia. You might wonder how sleep restriction could help, but we’ll explain how this can improve sleep in the long run.

sleep restriction
Here’s how sleep restriction can help with insomnia:

Sleep restriction is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy developed by Arthur Spielman, Ph.D., designed to treat insomnia by restricting time spent in bed. Spielman posited that by reducing the time spent in bed, sleep becomes more efficient instead of a drawn-out, stressful event. Of course, consolidating sleep might mean losing out on a few hours of sleep in the beginning as our bodies adjust. However, over time, sleep becomes more regulated as we get used to the sleep schedule.

Studies show that sleep restriction therapy can be just as effective as medication in treating insomnia, and have longer-lasting effects. However, it can take the body several weeks to adjust to a new sleeping schedule. Just like working out, quality sleep takes diligence and effort to achieve, but the result is well worth the effort.

Here are the steps you should take to implement sleep restriction into your schedule:

Step one: Figure out how much sleep you get per night

In the first week, you should keep a sleep diary so you can keep track of how much sleep you’re getting. This is not to be confused with the amount of time you spend in bed, however.

Total the hours of sleep you get in a week and divide by seven. This is the average amount of sleep you get a night. Now add 30 minutes to this number to account for any extra sleep you may get. This is your average total sleep time (ATST). You might only get 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but you can always increase it as you move along in the process.

left-side sleeping position

Step two: Decide what time you need to wake up

Once you’ve picked an ideal wake time, make sure to stick to it, so your body gets used to a routine. This means that even if you have a bad night of sleep and manage to only get a few hours, you must wake up when your alarm goes off. You should probably set several alarms before the time you need to get up so that you don’t oversleep. You might be dragging to work in the beginning, but once you get into a routine, you’ll start to feel a spring in your step in no time.

Step three: Choose a bedtime

To figure out what time you should go to bed, count backward from your ATST you calculated in step one. Don’t get into bed before your bedtime, even if you feel tired. Being in bed when you aren’t sleeping will cause you to associate your bed with other things besides rest, and this confuses the brain. You only want to associate your bed with sleep.

Step four: Stick to your sleep routine

Stick to this schedule for two weeks. If you feel alert during the day and don’t feel the need to take naps, you can stick to this amount of sleep. If you are tired, simply add 15 minutes or so to your sleep time. Keep adding to this time until you feel fully rested. Then, you’ll know how much sleep you need per night to be fully functional the next day.

Step five: Get enough sunlight or use a Lightbox

Many people don’t get enough sunlight, which can greatly affect our sleep cycle. We require sunlight when we first wake up as well as in the evening as the sun goes down for optimal hormone production.

If you don’t get a lot of sunshine where you’re at, you can always use a Lightbox. That’s a device that emulates the natural light from the sun. In the evening, you should dim the lights inside your house so that your body can wind down and prepare for sleep. Also, stay off electronics a couple of hours before bed as the blue lights cause insomnia.  If you must use electronics, you should install an app that automatically dims the light so your body can produce more melatonin.

cant sleep at night

Step six: Avoid naps at all costs

Normally, naps aren’t an issue, but if you’ve been having trouble sleeping, naps can greatly disrupt your circadian rhythm. As your body adjusts to your new sleep routine, you should avoid naps even if you feel tired during the day. The goal is to feel as sleepy as possible close to bedtime so that you can get a quality night’s sleep.

Step seven: Have a regular sleep routine

The importance of a sleep routine can’t be stressed enough. The mind and body require a daily routine, and bedtime is no exception to this. These are some good practices to have before bed:

  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol in the afternoon and evening. These substances can disrupt sleep by raising cortisol levels. While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it’s been known to disrupt sleep by raising insulin levels while your liver processes the alcohol. It also affects REM sleep, so it’s best to avoid alcohol at least six hours before bed.
  • Regular exercise releases endorphins and lowers stress, which can help regulate sleep. According to one Mayo Clinic article, regular exercise can raise your core body temperature during the day while lowering it at night. This induces sleepiness later on in the day, so it’s best to work out in the morning or early afternoon.
  • Don’t eat spicy or rich food before bed. Avoid heavy meals as well. Large meals and spicy, rich foods can cause heartburn and indigestion, which will wake you up in the middle of the night from discomfort. Eat protein-rich snacks like nuts or peanut butter before bed if you’re hungry. However, it’s best to eat a few hours before bed.

Be patient as you implement sleep restriction

If you stick with all of these tips listed above, you’ll likely see your sleep improve in no time. In addition to these tips, living a relatively stress-free lifestyle will drastically help your sleep as well. Do you have a stressful job? Then consider delegating tasks to others. Or, take a drastic step–find a job that better suits your abilities and interests. We must spend so much of our waking hours working. Therefore, it’s essential to find something that facilitates our happiness and fills our souls with peace.

Also, make sure you have positive, supportive people around you, as negative influences can drain your energy and increase stress. In other words, try to keep healthy, positive, and stress-free, and you’ll see your sleep and life, in general, improve tenfold.

sleep restriction
Final thoughts on how sleep restriction might improve your insomnia

As the above research proves, it’s not about how many hours you spend in bed, but how you spend those hours. If you’re tossing and turning for ten hours a night, this does the body no good. However, if you restrict the amount of time you spend in bed to six hours per night and spend most of that time sleeping, this is a much more efficient use of your time. Try adding 15 to 30 minutes each night if you find you’re still tired upon waking. Then, you can discover the optimum amount of sleep you need to function at your best.