How Reading Before Bed Can Improve Your Sleep (And Why Speculative Fiction is So Powerful)

There are all kinds of hacks for improving sleep: getting more sunlight during the day, dimming the lights at night, wearing blue-blocker glasses, doing regular exercise, having a warm shower before bed, and the list goes on.

Some of them, like getting enough sunlight and doing regular exercise, are an important part of living a healthy lifestyle, and they can certainly help a great deal, but there’s an underlying factor that has a much greater bigger impact on the quality of our sleep: stress.

In fact, the sleep scientist Greg Potter, PhD, considers it the master factor. If you’re relaxed enough, then you can get away with having fairly poor sleep habits. But if you’re struggling with stress, no matter how many sleep hacks you adopt, none of it will be enough to cure your sleep problems.

Now, some of us carry high levels of chronic stress in the classic sense. If you’re struggling with that, you probably already know that it can be a problem, and I think this article might help. But even if you aren’t stressed in the classic sense, stress might still be interfering with your sleep.

For example, I wouldn’t describe myself as overly stressed or anxious. However, when I lie down to go to sleep at night, I still have a flurry of thoughts running through my head. I start thinking about articles I’m writing, how my son’s doctor’s appointment will go, or that business article I read the other day. None of these thoughts are necessarily bad, and in some cases, it’s an exciting or even inspiring kind of stress. Still, all of these thoughts running through my head prevent me from drifting off into a relaxed sleep.

That’s where reading comes in. And of all the genres, fantasy has some unique advantages.

Sleep is never had through wanting. It can’t be grasped like an apple to sate one’s hunger. Sleep is like ignorance or forgetfulness … The harder one strives for such things, the further they recede from one’s grasp.

The Darkness That Comes Before, R Scott Bakker

As I mentioned above, I have a history of struggling with onset insomnia. Growing up, I’d lie awake in bed for several hours listening to my pulse thump against my eardrums, thinking about upcoming exams, projects, bills, work, or even my health. My thoughts weren’t always stressful in a negative sense; sometimes I’d just be thinking about, say, ideas for an article I was working on. The problem was, no matter how much fun I was having in my head, I sure wasn’t sleeping.

To make matters worse, my perpetually stuffy nose (because I’m allergic to my dog) meant that I would wake up several times during the night with a painfully dry mouth, cure it with a sip of water, and then be stuck awake all over again. Some nights I’d spend a good 8–9 in bed but only get 4–5 hours of sleep.

I tried all sorts of solutions. I tried limiting bright light in the evening, I started going to bed at the same time every night, and I started lifting weights.

There are a whole bunch of best practices that can help you sleep deeper and longer. They aren’t bogus, either. Many of them have good research behind them. For example, blocking out artificial blue light after the sun goes down has been proven to help us fall asleep more easily by allowing us to produce more melatonin in the evening (full article). And given how important sleep is for our health, our body composition, our willpower, and our mood, I think it’s wise to get our “sleep hygiene” as good as possible.

However, some factors are more important than others. If you go to bed feeling calm and relaxed, chances are that you’ll sleep well regardless of whether you have a glass of wine after dinner, a coffee at 5 PM, or play video games right before bed. You probably know that person. The person who can fall into a deep sleep on command, no matter the circumstance, and then wake up full of energy in the morning. Conversely, if you’re going to bed feeling stressed and anxious, then no matter how good your lifestyle and bedtime routine are, you may still toss and turn all night long and wake up feeling like old garbage rotting on a hot summer day.

When I first heard about how stress can ruin our sleep, I didn’t realize that it applied to me. I’m not an anxious person, and I’ve always prided myself on being able to bear quite a lot of stress without yielding to it. In fact, I’ve often told myself that my ability to handle stress is what makes me so well-suited to running my own business.

…But as I was lying awake at night, wondering about the profits of my business that month, fretting about whether my son’s heart murmur was benign, or pondering the nuances of the article I was in the midst of writing, I realized something: I was stressed. Not stressed in any kind of sad way; I’m very thankful for the life I have. But life is full of responsibilities, and I’ve always found it easy to get lost in those responsibilities at night.

I tried distracting myself with a number of different things, ranging from television to podcasts to books. All of that helped a little bit, especially if I turned the backlight on the television really low, and especially if I found podcasts that got me hooked into a good story. Reading worked far better, though, and reading speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction and fantasy) worked best of all.

I’d seen that recommendation a few times while searching for solutions to my sleeping problems. For example, here’s an excerpt from Tim Ferriss’ blog:

I have — as do most males in my family — what is called “onset insomnia.” I don’t have trouble staying asleep, but I have a difficult time falling asleep, sometimes lying awake in bed for 1-2 hours. There are two approaches that I’ve used with good effect without medications to address this: 1) Determine and set a top priorities to-do list that afternoon for the following day to avoid late-night planning, 2) Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. 

Tim Ferriss

While I was doing research into improving sleep, it kept on coming up over and over again, and not just anecdotally, but also from top sleep experts. For example, here’s one of the ways that the Sleep Foundation recommends reducing stress to allow for better sleep:

Stopping the common practice of tossing and turning. If you can’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes of going to bed, get up and do a low-key activity (like reading) in dim light until you start to feel drowsy. 

The Sleep Foundation

However, not all books are equally good for helping us fall asleep. Books about finance can remind us of our finances, business books can remind us of our business, and so on. As a result, non-fiction is notoriously bad for helping people get to sleep.

Even with fiction, some genres are better than others. Thrillers are designed to be thrilling, hard sci-fi is designed to be thought-provoking, and Stephen King is usually trying to scare us. That kind of story tends to wake our minds up. However fun they are, that’s the opposite of what we’re after.

But some fiction is designed for escapism, and those are the stories that tend to help us relax. They bring us out of our stressful lives into a distant future, a forgotten past, or a faraway land. Hopefully, that new world is interesting and the plot is engaging, but even then, it’s not our world, not our problems, and so getting immersed in the story is relaxing.

Also important is the fact that the story that we’re reading replaces our own internal monologue, forcing us to think of something else, and shifting us into a lower gear—a parasympathetic state.

Fantasy is often dismissed for being less serious, and I get that, especially if you’re thinking of something like Harry Potter, which is written for kids.

Fantasy has a serious origin, though. It’s the oldest genre of all, getting its roots from our history of oral storytelling. Later, it was written down into stories like the Iliad. And then eventually it spawned a literary genre where we generally understand that the stories we’re reading aren’t actually real, they’re just metaphors or adventures.

Nowadays, fantasy is usually set in an imagined universe and is often inspired by real-world myth (such as Achilles in Circe), folklore (such as the dragon in the Hobbit), or history (such as A Game of Thrones being inspired by the Hundred Year War in 15th-century Europe). 

However, the time period isn’t what defines the genre of fantasy. Many popular fantasy book series right now, such as—and these are affiliate links to Amazon, by the way—the Wheel of Time, the Book of the New Sun, and the Prince of Nothing take place in the distant future but are categorized as high fantasy because of the knights and swords. Other futuristic series, such as the Expanse, are just as fantastical, but because they take place in outer space, we call them “space operas” instead of high fantasy. Star Wars is the most famous space opera, but it’s actually got quite a lot in common with, say, the Lord of the Rings, where (Jedi) knights are fighting with (laser) swords against evil wizards (the Emperor).

By that same token, not all fantasy books need to have magic in them. You can find all sorts of fantasy, all sorts of adventure stories. The specific genre isn’t important, just to find a good book that immerses you into the story and helps you forget the stresses of your day.

Anyway, the idea of reading fantasy before bed appealed to me at first. I grew up reading Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and I remembered how the stories would always whisk away my worries and drag me off to sleep. That’s how we put our own son to sleep, too: by reading him make-believe stories.

But I hadn’t read fantasy novels since I was a kid. And when I tried reading fantasy again, it didn’t click with me right away. I felt like I had grown out of it. After all, I’d certainly grown out of the children’s fantasy that I’d grown up reading.

It took me a long time to find fantasy books that were written for adults and that I enjoyed reading. If you aren’t into fantasy (yet), then here are some good recommendations to help you get started.

Once I was able to find some great fantasy books that resonated with me as an adult, I’d climb into bed excited to read, and I’d be fast asleep a few pages later. I’d wake up later to have a sip of water (because I’m still allergic to my dog). But then as soon as I started thinking about opening my book, I’d conk back out before I could start reading again.

Fantasy books were so good at putting me to sleep that I couldn’t even finish them. I found that moderately frustrating since I really was enjoying them, but on the bright side, my sleeping problems were gone!

For more on how to improve your sleep, check out our full sleep article over on Outlift.

1 Comment

  1. The Bulker's Guide to Better Sleep – Outlift on February 4, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    […] sci-fi or fantasy. As my mind gets lost in made-up worlds, I relax and drift off to sleep. (Here’s why fiction is good for improving sleep, and here are some of my favourite fantasy […]

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