The tenth variable that I will be manipulating across a two week period to examine its impact on sleep is reading. I will be seeing if reading a physical book or if listening to an audiobook before bed is a helpful way to improve sleep quality.
I will discuss what my data shows, how easy or difficult I found this strategy to implement, and what previous research says. These three factors will be combined for an overall score and grade on how effective books are at improving sleep.
HOW COULD READING HELP?
When you were younger, how did your parents help you to transition into sleep?
For many people, the answer is that they were given a bedtime story. This could have been a made up story, a folk lore, or something read from a book, but it is an extremely common strategy. For this practice to be so widespread and prolific, surely it must make a difference, right?
I love reading, and do typically find that it does help me to wind down and relax before sleep. It also tends to bring on sleepiness for me earlier than if I am on the computer or watching TV.
Not everyone reports these positive benefits however. Some of the clients that I see report that their minds become more active when they are reading, as they get so engrossed in the story and want to keep turning the pages to find out what is going to happen next. As a result, they really struggle to switch off and get to sleep afterwards.
For the first week, I decided to spend at least an hour before bed winding down by reading a book. My book of choice was a non-fiction book by Michael Bond titled ‘The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do’. It was an interesting book, but not so engaging or exhilarating that I expected it to be a page turner that was going to keep me up all night.
For the second week I decided to spend at least an hour before bed winding down by listening to the audiobook ‘The Village Effect’ by Susan Pinker. Once again, this book has some fascinating information, but it wasn’t likely to get me too amped up before bed. Considering that both books were in the general area of social psychology also helped me to feel that the topic of the book wasn’t going to confound the results.
Let’s see if reading or listening to stories was better for sleep…
Comparison: Reading a book vs Listening to an audio book
Based on my sleep diary data, listening to audiobooks for at least an hour before sleep seemed to be better than reading a physical book. I went to bed over an hour earlier by lying down on the couch and listening to an audiobook than I did when I read a book. This was quite a surprising finding to me, as I thought that reading physical books may make my eyes more tired sooner.
I also slept 30 minutes longer per night after the audiobook, woke up less per night, had less time awake during the night, got out of bed 37 minutes earlier in the morning, and had a better sleep efficiency (96.62% vs 96.18%).
The one thing that was rated higher after reading in comparison to the audiobook was sleep quality, but both were pretty good (4.43/5 for reading vs 4.29/5 for listening). My average time to fall asleep in both weeks was 7.86 minutes per night, which is excellent too.
Based on the Misfit Ray data, both reading and listening to audiobooks before bedtime helped with my sleep quality.
Comparing May 24 (23/5/2017 on the sleep diary data) to Jun 1 (31/5/2017 on the sleep diary data) you can see that both nights have much more restful sleep than light sleep. Listening to audiobooks comes out slightly on top again, with a restful:light sleep ratio of 1.90, slightly ahead of the reading restful:light sleep ratio of 1.80.
This means that either listening to a story or reading one before bed is helpful, but listening to an audiobook may be even better, especially if you are wanting to go to sleep earlier.
IS READING BEFORE BED A GOOD SLEEP STRATEGY?
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
Yes. It was not the best sleep that I’ve had all year, but it was very good. I slept more than 7 hours per night each week, didn’t take more than 10 minutes to fall asleep once in bed, woke up less than once per night for less than 10 minutes each time, and had a sleep efficiency of over 96% on both weeks.
I therefore give the effectiveness of this strategy a 21/25.
CAN IT BE APPLIED?
Yes, but it does require a bit of time. If you are wanting to go to bed on the earlier side, definitely try out audiobooks or take turns with your partner reading to each other before bed. An hour does seem like a bit of time, and would definitely require a bit of discipline in the beginning to switch off the bright screens, but as soon as you begin to feel sleepy around your bedtime you can close the book or switch it off.
I therefore give the applicability of this strategy a 17/25.
IS IT SCIENTIFIC?
There doesn’t appear to be too much research on this specific question.
A 2008 study on Nigerian university pharmacy students found that habitual night reading was significantly associated with poorer sleep quality, which was then negatively associated with poor academic performance (Adeosun, Asa, Babalola & Akanmu, 2008). For this study, they considered habitual night reading to be between the hours of 8pm and 5am however. The benefits of reading relaxing material before sleep versus continuing to study pharmacy readings through the night were not separated, nor was reading before bedtime versus reading in bed (Adeosun et al., 2008).
I would never recommend going to bed before you are sleepy, or spending more than 30 minutes awake reading in bed each night, so it is tough to determine if these results are indicative of what I am trying to figure out. What is similar is that both their study and my personal experience found shorter sleep times when people read more after 8pm.
Another 2008 study compared participants who listened to audiobooks for 45 minutes at bedtime to those who listened to classical music for 45 minutes and those who had no intervention (Harmat, Takacs & Bodizs, 2008). They found that audiobooks had no significant benefit to people’s sleep quality over those who had no intervention. What did make a significant difference to not only sleep quality but depressive symptoms over (Harmat, Takacs & Bodizs, 2008).
This still doesn’t look at the benefits of listening to audiobooks before sleep, but the findings suggest that listening to classical music might be an even better option than either reading or listening to audiobooks.
I therefore give the science of this strategy a 25/50.
Overall, reading or listening to stories before bed as a way to sleep better gets a score of 21/25 + 17/25 + 25/50 =
WHAT I RECOMMEND
Whether you read, listen to an audiobook or do something else such as socialising or listening to classical music in that last hour before bed, the key is to find something to help you to lower your arousal levels. If your arousal levels are low and you are going to bed at the right time for your body clock, you will tend to feel sleepy before going to bed, fall asleep quickly, and have a good night’s sleep.
Please do try each of these strategies for at least a week to see if they benefit you if you are interested. If there is something else that helps you wind down before sleep in a more effective way than reading or audiobooks then that is fine too.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my next episode on writing down our thoughts and if journalling or planning can help with sleep quality. If you would like some individualised help on improving your sleep, please check out my CBT-I and Personalised Sleep Reports services.