Once upon a time, we described responsible, regimented, good-for-you behavior as "healthy." E.g., someone who considered cashews and cacao nibs indulgences was a healthy eater. Then, at some point in the past decade, health became passé. In its place, we got wellness — a more holistic, aspirational and expensive paradigm for mind-and-body fitness. For wellness devotees, the optimal diet was no longer healthy — it was "clean," meaning not just not bad for you, but also uncorrupted by additives and, even, toxifying processes like cooking. (As a side note, the notion of food as clean, meaning pure and natural, seems to have appeared in the mid-'80s, disappeared in the '90s, and re-emerged with force in the 2000s, according to Benjamin Barrett, a linguist at the University of Washington.)
And now, we're "cleaning up" other parts of daily life, including sleep. Clean sleeping is the new clean eating, according to Gwyneth Paltrow, who wrote an article on the trend for the Daily Mail in December, and devoted a chunk of her newest book, Clean Beauty, to sleep tips and explanations of why rest matters. But what does it mean? And how is it different than good ol', basic healthy sleep (or what sleep clinicians and researchers refer to as "sleep hygiene")?
How "Clean Sleep" Stacks Up Against "Good Sleep"
Clean sleep may go gangbusters in 2017 (eh.), but none of the researchers or doctors I reached out to were familiar with the movement. "This sounds mostly like sleep hygiene, or basic healthy sleep habits," said Rebecca Spencer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "As a backdrop, sleep hygiene is a pretty broad term referring to healthy sleep habits."
The goal of sleep hygiene (not the most savory term in the world) is to train yourself to think of your room as a chamber for sleep (and sex) and nothing else. Sleep hygiene is a major part of CBT-i (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia), a goal-oriented, drug-free approach to treating insomnia that's been around since the 1960s and has been lauded by the AASM as a first-line defense against chronic sleep issues since 2008.
I plucked a handful of clean-sleeping tips from Paltrow's article and book. Here's what Spencer, Philip Gehrman, a psychiatry professor at The University of Pennsylvania's Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program, and Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a researcher at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition, had to say about them:
Non-controversial, solid sleep tips
Stop using phones, tablets or other devices at least an hour before going to bed, and no alcohol before bed: These are both core principles of sleep hygiene, says everyone who's anyone in sleep.
Start practicing pre-bed yoga nidra, a form of meditation that "is believed to give you the benefits of sleep while you’re awake": Gehrman said he's about to start a small study on yoga nidra, and will have more to say later in the year. But, even though there's not much hard science to support meditation, relaxation techniques are a standard part of CBTi.
Almost (but not quite) right
Get "at least seven or eight hours of good, quality sleep — and ideally even ten": 10 hours is a lot, perhaps too much, for the average adult, said both Gehrman and Spencer. Aiming for that much sleep might actually lead to less sleep: "Some people might stress because they can’t sleep [that many] hours and that stress only leads to insomnia," said Spencer.
Fast for 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, "in order to allow the body really to cleanse overnight": "I actually think 12 hours would be long for many people (except those that sleep a full 10 hours)," said Spencer. Instead, per sleep hygiene rules, you should stop snacking a few hours before going to bed, and avoid heavy meals within 4 hours of bedtime. And, Spencer added, there's nothing wrong with eating right after you wake up. So crush that omelette as early as you want.
St-Onge suggested this rule might be okay for people who need to lose weight, but added that "being hungry in the middle of the night can interfere with sleep. This is an area where more research is needed."
Harmless (but not necessary)
“Keep a pot of sweet-smelling, thickly-textured moisturizing cream by your bed and, before you turn off the light, give your feet a good three-minute massage”: "This is a very specific thing," said Spencer, "but fits with the sleep hygiene prescription to have a consistent bedtime routine. Also, setting up sleep cues (that smell cues you that it’s time to sleep) is part of sleep hygiene as well."
Wear heated socks to bed to regulate your body temperature: "This is actually counter to what most people would recommend," said Spencer. "This was in the sleep science news somewhat recently...There are other sleep tips going around (based on science) that say having your feet out of the blankets is better for regulating body temperature."
Sleep on a copper pillow case: "Definitely not!" said Spencer. "Ridiculous." This is a preference for luxury, not an evidence-backed tip. And, as St-Onge pointed out, "preventing wrinkles will help you sleep better by...??? Maybe you stress less over your wrinkles!! Just kidding."
If you're the type of person who's more likely to stick with something if it feels fancy and important, then clean sleep might be for you. If you're someone who gets overwhelmed by complicated regimens and prefers to set goals that are do-able, rather than daunting, then take solace in the fact that regular old healthy sleep is as good as, if not better, than the squeaky clean variety.