Most of us have tried reading in bed to drift off to sleep, but does what we read matter? Avid reader Jess Bacon has been finding out if there’s any difference between fiction and non-fiction for deep sleep.
Reading is considered one of the best ways to wind down in the evening. Jump into bed, devour a few pages of a good book and it’ll send you right off to sleep… At least, that’s what we’ve been told. But is it always the case?
Books can relax us as we escape into another reality and forget our endless to-do lists and responsibilities for a while. They can also excite us, move us and teach us about ourselves whether through a character or a real person’s struggles.
The number of avid non-fiction readers have increased drastically over the past few years, with sales overtaking fiction last year (perhaps unsurprising when every influencer and Instagram expert seems to have a book out!).
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In order to have an effective night-time routine, it’s important that our mind is in the right headspace in order to drift off and settle into an undisturbed sleep. Therefore, the quality of your sleep may well depend on your emotional reaction to whatever it is you read in bed.
Should reading be included in your bedtime routine for better sleep?
A survey of 1,000 people by SleepJunkie found that bedtime readers on average managed to sleep an extra hour and a half each week compared with non-readers.
Even 10 minutes of reading helped individuals improve their outlook on life and make healthier choices for their wellbeing the next day.
Wellness expert and yoga teacher Jodie Rogers explains that for the practice to be helpful, however, it “very much depends on what you’re reading”.
She says that reading is the perfect alternative to a late-night scroll before bed: “It’s definitely a great habit to get into and dedicate time in the evening to sit and read. I would say that overall, it’s a much better option compared to anything screen related which is just too over stimulating, especially before bed.”
Is fiction better than non-fiction before bed?
The Sleep Doctor, Dr Michael Breus recommends reading fiction over non-fiction at night time. Reading each type of book requires the use of different pathways in your brain and non-fiction – he claims – encourages more introspection.
Reading fiction has been found to put the brain in a trance-like state similar to meditation – potentially boosting your creativity, building empathy and helping you to escape mental chatter.
However, all of this is dependent on your specific circumstances and how you consume stories. ‘Fiction’ covers a broad range of genres – some of which can be exhilarating and hold you in their grips until the early hours of the morning. If you find you can’t put the book down, then maybe opt for a lighter read or set an alarm to stop reading at a specific time to ensure you get enough sleep.
A proper page-turner may be enjoyable, but at night could be over-stimulating your brain to the point that you start to ‘binge’ the book – something akin to the rush you get from consuming a TV series in one sitting.
Rogers continues: “The impact we would feel from bingeing a series and getting less sleep would actually be similar if we stay up to binge read books.”
What kind of non-fiction should you avoid before bed?
Non-fiction offers a mirror for readers to learn about themselves from someone else’s advice in memoirs, self-help books or historical reflections. It is for this exact reason that non-fiction can do more harm than good for your headspace before bed. You ideally want to avoid consuming any emotionally unsettling content before bed to reduce the risk of triggering stress or re-activating brain too much.
A book packed full of gory details may not necessarily give you nightmares, but any disturbing or probing content may leave you restless as cortisol pumps through your body along with adrenaline.
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And then there’s the fact that, at the end of the day, your focus and energy levels are much lower – meaning that you probably won’t get the most out of what a self-help or business book has to offer. It’ll be more difficult to retain the vital information that you have read and you might have to go back and re-read passages that you’ve forgotten. Non-fiction requires our brain to engage with the lessons and apply the knowledge to ourselves, which uses more focused self-reflection than a fiction book.
It’s for that reason Rogers recommends that it would be more “more soothing… opting for a light read, so anything that doesn’t feel too intense or potentially triggering”.
Kindles versus paperback: does it matter how you read books at night?
If you’re spending the time picking the right book to read before bed, it’s important to reflect on how you consume it too.
While six in ten of people still choose a paperback book, many readers consume their books on e-readers to save space and money on the physical products.
YouGov found that 24% of Brits preferred to read on e-readers, but using technology right before bed is problematic as the blue light exposure from the screen can hinder your sleep quality. If you want to stick with your Kindle, think about reading earlier in the evening rather than just before bed.
Should reading only be part of a bedtime routine?
It’s important to remember that while there are benefits to reading fiction before bed, that doesn’t mean it will fit into everyone’s night-time routine. Author and behavioural change therapist Shahroo Izadi emphasises that in order to make a lasting habit it has to suit the individual’s lifestyle.
“Habits are difficult to build, even if they’re enjoyable ones,” Izadi tells Stylist. “Instead of feeling under pressure to read at an ‘opportune’ time, consider when it’s most realistic for you to carve out time against the landscape of your life.
“To build in the habit, keep repeating the action of reading every day in order to establish it as part of your daily ritual.”
It can also be helpful to read outside of your bedtime routine to dedicate more time to consume the story or advice it has to offer.
Rogers adds that it can also help to disassociate reading with sleep too. She continues: “A bit of both tends to work well, otherwise you can start to associate reading with falling asleep and struggle to read during the day.”