I just read a brief little piece at CBSNews about a study that demonstrated the benefits of camping as an intervention to improve sleep.  The article offers several possible reasons why going camping may help insomniacs sleep better, but ultimately the main reason is what I and many other psychologists “prescribe” to their patients: improved sleep hygiene.  In other words modifying the behaviors associated with your sleep habits to eliminate unhealthy behaviors and improve healthy sleep behaviors.  The reason that camping helps is that if you go camping for real (i.e., no electronics), then you naturally go to sleep shortly after it gets dark and you wake when the sun rises.  (Campers also tend to get more exercise during the day than couch potatoes, and that surely is a good way to combat insomnia too.)

When I discuss sleep disturbance and improving sleep hygiene with my patients, I focus on a few key issues:

  1. Set a reasonable bedtime and waketime… and stick to it even on weekends.
  2. Space out your rigid bedtime and waketime so you have the opportunity to sleep about 7-9 hours.
  3. Set and maintain a pre-bedtime routine… and stick to it.
  4. As part of your pre-bedtime routine, you might want to include a very hot soaking bath to raise your core body temperature; this should be the last thing you do before hitting the sack.
  5. Use the bedroom or at least the bed itself only for sex and sleep.  No reading, watching tv, etc.
  6. No napping during the day.
  7. No caffeinated beverages past lunch time.  You might even consider eliminating all caffeinated beverages.
  8. Exercise early in the day, but not right before bedtime.
  9. If you tend to have “racing thoughts” when your head hits the pillow, have paper and pencil on your bedside table to jot down thoughts so you don’t have to actively keep them in your head to remember.
  10. If (and when) you have trouble falling asleep, give yourself about 15 minutes; if you’re not asleep, get out of bed and do something really boring (but not emotionally stressful like paying bills), like reading an old text book or something for 15 minutes or until your eyes get tired.  Get back in bed and try for another 15 minutes.  If you’re still not asleep after 15 minutes get out of bed and repeat the boring task, and repeat this cycle until you eventually fall asleep.  You will eventually fall asleep, though for the first few nights it might take quite a while.  You’ll be tire the next day, but that’s ok… remember, no napping as that will make things difficult the next night.

You see, your body wants to sleep, but your unhealthy sleep hygiene often gets in the way.  If you improve your sleep related routines, you give your body the opportunity to reset its sleep-wake cycle.