How to fix insomnia: banish all activities from the bedroom except sleep and sex

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We’ve all been told we need eight hours of sleep a night. But science journalist and author Henry Nicholls says, “It would be profoundly weird if all of our brains needed exactly eight hours. That would be like saying everyone should be 1.79 meters tall.”

Nicholls has written about sleep disorders — narcolepsy, sleep paralysis, sexsomnia (when you engage in sexual activities while asleep), insomnia, and more — in his new book “Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest.”

Author Henry Nicholls. Photo courtesy of Hachette Book Group. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

He tells Press Play that many of us try to sleep beyond what our brains are capable of. It’s one reason why we have insomnia — difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep.

So how do you figure out the number of hours you need? Nicholls says to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks, and record how much sleep your brain is getting, including weekends when you’re catching up on rest.

“If you are one of the brains that only needs six and a half hours, then you need to change your expectations. And that’s going to bed later, getting up earlier. And you really want to just give yourself only that amount of time in bed to sleep.”

So if you only need six hours of sleep, and you have to wake up at 6 AM, then you should not be in bed before 12 AM.

Another common problem: doing all sorts of things in your bedroom beyond sleep.

“They take their mobile phones into the bedrooms. Or they have a TV in their bedroom. Actually it’s about the worst thing you could do. Because your brain is now learning — every time you do that — that the bedroom is about doing something else. … All you have to do is banish every single activity from the bedroom except sleeping and sex. And if you’re getting dressed in the bedroom, do it, but do it quickly, and get out,” Nicholls advises.

But can’t you just read before going to bed? Not if you’re trying to break your insomnia, Nicholls suggests. “You need to read somewhere else. And when you’re really tired and ready for sleep, then you go to the bedroom.”

And when you wake up in the middle of the night — with your mind racing — how do you fall back asleep?

Nicholls says to suppress those thoughts, just repeat a bland word in your head, such as “the.”

Hear Henry Nicholls’ full interview — he talks about why narcolepsy is the most dysfunctional sleep you can imagine; why some people become paralyzed in their sleep, and others do things such as eat and have sex in their sleep: