Reading at bedtime is a tradition and joy many of us will have shared with our children. Sadly it’s also something which falls by the wayside as we get older and going to bed tends to be something of a rush. But making time to flick through a few pages of a book can actually aid our sleep and help those who find falling asleep hard.
Sleep experts all agree that tucking into a book of any kind can be the perfect way to move from day to night and prep our brains for a good sleep. The general recommendation is to read for long enough to begin to feel drowsy – so start with 20 minutes and see how you feel. If you are struggling to keep your eyes open after 10 minutes then that’s plenty for you and if you need a little longer build that time into your evening the next day.
It’s a proven stress reliever
When we begin reading the muscles in our body tend to relax and release making us feel calmer. We are also unlikely to hold as much tension as our mind is literally elsewhere. In a study by the University of Sussex researchers raised a number of participants stress levels and then attempted to reduce them. Cognitive Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis found that ‘reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent’. This was in comparison to listening to music (61%), drinking tea or coffee (54%) and taking a walk (42%). And the difference it made was swift as after just 6 minutes the participants’ stress levels where reduced.
When we read and our muscles relax our breathing also slows, which has a knock on effect to our heart and leaves us feeling calmer – important as stress is a major factor in insomnia. If you find yourself plagued by negative thoughts, reading can help push those to one side as you concentrate on the narrative on the page rather than in your brain which is why, in a Sleep Council survey, 39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well.
Bedtime reading is blue-light and app free
Reading a book at bedtime is completely different from reading your Facebook feed! Yes you are looking at words in both cases but the interaction with the bitesize information and the way in which our brains process the information is very different, along with the fact reading on a phone or tablet is exposing our brains to more blue-light which will actually prevent a pre-sleep wind down.
Blue light is a short wavelength light which affects levels of melatonin more than any other wavelength light. We need to release melatonin to fall into sleep and normally, the pineal gland in the brain begins to release melatonin a couple of hours before bedtime. People who use blue-light emitting devices before bed tend to have less REM sleep and wake up feeling sleepier even if they have had a full night sleep.
So chose paper books which also have the benefit of having no distracting apps. Jumping between social media and information channels on your device will also stop you sleeping properly as the seek and reward centres of our brain are stimulated. Which as well as making it hard to drop off in the first place will also impact on your quality of sleep. A 2015 study of students who spent the evening scrolling through social media found they were more likely to feel tired next day even then they had as much sleep as their peers.
Reading is brain exercise
Reading is a great workout for your brain as it’s more neurologically challenging than speaking or processing images. As such reading gives your brain a boost just like a run makes you feel good. And a happy, healthy brain lends itself more to a good night’s sleep especially combined with focusing on the words as taking in what you’re reading can be tiring.
In fact, making a habit of reading before bed will also help you not just drop of that night but also help your brain for years to come as it can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. It’s been shown that people who engage their brains in activity such as reading, puzzles or chess are 2.5 times less likely to develop the illness. As well as helping support your brain health reading regularly can help you become a better person too. Reading can make you more empathetic as through stories we improve our ability to understand and share the feelings of another thanks to the characters and situations we encounter in the pages.
It’s a trigger for sleep as part of a routine
Ever wondered why you seem more likely to yawn when reading a child a story? It’s because you likely associate a story as part of your childhood bedtime routine. This is why reading in bed can be used as part of a bedtime routine as a trigger for winding the body down and welcoming sleep.
“Establishing a regular bedtime routine or ‘wind-down time’ can help improve sleep in people who have insomnia or poor-quality sleep,” says sleep guru Dr. Raman Malhotra. “Adding a bedtime routine of 15 to 30 minutes can separate your ‘sleep time’ from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The main reason reading may help some fall asleep is that it allows your mind some time to rest and relax before turning out the lights to fall asleep.”
So build a routine around getting into bed with the lights just high enough to read by and relaxing under the covers with a trip to a new world. Even if you are heading to bed later than usual or have been asleep and can’t drop off again, using the cues from your routine, like just reading a few pages of your book, can make a massive difference to how you drop off.