“Have you tried CBD gummies or a weighted blanket?” my friend Anne recently threw out to our group chat, after another friend canceled our Zoom date because she was too tired from a lack of sleep the night before. She had indeed tried both with little success, in addition to bedtime stories for adults and guided meditations. Actually, the gummies didn’t do much for Anne either, but she kept using them because she liked the taste. “I use a sleep mask and blackout shades, but I’m not sure if they actually work...” was my friend Lauren’s two cents. What followed was a lengthy discussion about everyone’s lack of sleep and the many, many products they have tried in their search for a good night’s slumber. (Out of the six of us, four had trouble falling asleep and one would wake up pretty consistently at 3 a.m.)
At the risk of sounding smug, I am someone who considers themselves lucky to clock in a solid eight hours of shuteye each night and falls asleep within minutes. And so I was appalled to hear that some of my favorite people were missing out. Sleep is amazing! Everyone should be doing it! And while there are many reasons that people struggle to get quality shuteye, after our text exchange I discovered that there is one particular habit that sets me apart from my sleep-deprived friends.
Consider this: The solution to your sleep troubles doesn’t lie in a new app or supplement, but rather in an evening ritual beloved by grandparents and parents all over. What is this novel approach to counting sheep? Reading an actual book. And no, downloading the latest Laura Dave thriller on your Kindle app doesn’t count.
A highly scientific study (aka an office Slack poll) found that 15 out of 20 millennials are on their phones before bed. That’s 75 percent! And that’s actually a conservative estimate—in a recent U.K. study, up to 86 percent of millennials reported trouble sleeping after being on their phone before laying down to sleep. In contrast, only 9 percent of those aged 55 and over said they had experienced sleep problems linked to phone use at night.
And nighttime phone use has only increased this past year—whether we’re lying in bed liking Instagram posts as a way to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in over a year or we’re doomscrolling news stories as an attempt to make sense of current events. Sure, this evening ritual means you know what Becky from high school is up to these days, but it’s not doing you any favors in the sleep department.
This tossing and turning comes from the type of light your device emits known as blue light. According to a study conducted by Harvard University, exposure to blue light suppresses the body’s melatonin production for twice as long as another light source of comparable brightness. It also shifts circadian rhythms, meaning it throws off the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Andrew Varga, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, explains, “Electronic devices with backlit screens emit a very high percentage of blue wavelength light. Exposure to blue light from any source—including TVs, cell phones, laptops, e-readers and tablets—late in the day has the effect of advancing our circadian phase, meaning it makes it so that one will become naturally tired later in the night.” That’s why sleep experts recommend avoiding blue light two to three hours before bed.
But back to boomers. Per marketing and consumer company Statista, reading is the second most popular boomer leisure activity after watching TV. It even beats out other pastimes such as walking, spending time with friends and gardening. (Think about the boomers in your life—chances are they like to doze off with the latest John Grisham in hand.)
Reading a book before bed is the nighttime ritual I look forward to at the end of a long day and while I can’t claim to stay away from screens two hours before bed (when else am I supposed to catch up on The Mare of Easttown?), I always make sure that the last thing I do before turning off the light is to look at a book and not my phone. I can’t say for certain, of course, but I’m pretty sure this is why I’m in a deep slumber mere minutes after turning off the light (chasing after a 2-year-old all day probably helps, too).
So tonight, why not ditch the scrolling and settle in with a good book instead? Here are 11 to get you started. (But don’t worry Anne, you can still keep eating the gummies.)