Person asleep in bed under striped sheets

Sleep Better with These Tips from Around the World

By Lisa Marie Basile
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D. , Jared Minkel, Ph.D.
December 22, 2023

Have you ever wondered where your sleep habits come from? Maybe the old adage “Early to bed, early to rise” has informed your bedtime, whether you have a natural tendency to go to bed early or not. There’s probably a reason for that and your other sleep-related rituals.

Many of our sleep habits and patterns are rooted in our culture and upbringing, says W. Chris Winter, M.D., sleep medicine specialist and neurologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and author of The Sleep Solution. But many of these habits can be adjusted to align more with your personal sleep-wake cycles, health needs, and lifestyle, he explains.

If you have difficulties getting the shut-eye you want, or wish to try something new to help you drift off, there are plenty of other cultures to look to for sleep inspiration. And there’s no one “right” way to sleep or rest, Winter says—so see whether one of the following ideas works for you.

Take a Siesta

In Spain, “siesta” refers to the time when, in some areas, shops close and everyone heads home for a nap—right in the middle of the afternoon. Depending on the region or town, a siesta can last for about two hours.

While Spain may be best known for the siesta, similar nap times occur in many countries and regions throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, Latin America, and Asia.

These midday naps may be popular for a few reasons. “A period of wakefulness, then a siesta, followed by a second period of wakefulness can make us much more productive,” Winter says. Indeed, some research suggests that, for some people, napping may improve cognitive functions like memory and attention.

Consider finding some wind-down time in your afternoon. This might mean resting your eyes and body for a bit midday (rather than working through your lunch break, for example). Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you fell asleep while resting—it’s possible to enter light-stage sleep with this type of rest, and if you wake from it, you may not notice you’ve slept at all.

Follow an Intentional Pre-Bedtime Ritual

Many cultures have a pre-bedtime ritual of sorts. For example, in Mexico, 62% of people pray or meditate before bed, according to a first-of-its-kind survey from the National Sleep Foundation.

Interestingly, the survey also found that people in Mexico tend to sleep more than people in other surveyed countries—averaging about seven hours per night (which is right in line with how much sleep most adults need, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Bedtime routines are an important part of good sleep hygiene and may help children and adults sleep more restfully.

But you don’t have to be religious or spiritual to engage in a mindful ritual before bed, explains Winter. A helpful bedtime routine might also look like stretching, journaling, or engaging in a body scan meditation. It’s a good idea to put away the phone and shut off the TV as part of your ritual, since the lights on these devices may keep you awake if you’re looking at their screens in the two to three hours before bedtime.

Go to Bed a Little Later

Many Mediterranean countries, like Italy, as well as South American countries, like Brazil, tend to start their dinner later in the evening, around 8 or 9 p.m. This habit can push bedtime nearly to midnight, which might be ideal for night owls or people who tend to toss and turn when they go to bed.

Some people may naturally have later sleep schedules—and trouble sleeping can occur when you hit the hay too early, Winter says. Instead of lying in bed with your eyes open, worrying about when you’ll fall asleep, try to avoid going to bed until you actually feel tired.

Pay attention to when you naturally get sleepy and try to honor that—making sure it’s not interfering with getting enough shut-eye (that’s seven to nine hours per night for most adults). Although some research has suggested that going to bed between 10 and 11 p.m. is optimal, doing what works best for you really is key.

Sleep on the Floor to Relieve Pain

An estimated 25% of American adults experience back pain, and pain (of any sort) can interfere with sleep—and vice versa. “There is a clear relationship between poor sleep and increased pain … and chronically poor sleep results in heightened pain sensitivity,” says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., who’s double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and is the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. When you’re in less pain, you can sleep better, he notes.

One way to reduce pain and nighttime tossing and turning may be to swap your mattress for something more firm. In Japan, sleeping on the floor is a common way of relieving pain and getting a good night’s sleep. The shikibuton is a firm Japanese futon mattress (that can be made softer with added layers) that simply rests on the floor. It’s easy to store, put away, and roll out. Koreans also have a version called yo.

Many people swear by these mattresses when it comes to providing a good night’s sleep and alleviating pain, and there’s some research that may support their use. According to a small 2022 study in the journal Sleep Science and Practice, sleeping on a firm mattress may improve pain—specifically back pain—and promote better sleep.

If you’re interested, talk to your doctor about whether a firm mattress on the floor could be right for you, especially if you have back pain, arthritis, or other health issues.

Put Your Worries to Rest Before Bed

Bedtime worry can sometimes lead to difficulty falling asleep. To combat worry and help them sleep better, some children and adults in Guatemala turn to “worry dolls,” or small dolls made from yarn or woven fabric. Mayan legend explains that you first tell your worries to the doll, and then place it under your pillow. These dolls are said to hold the worry, anxiety, or fear you might feel so that you can put it aside and sleep more peacefully.

Research supports the idea that getting your worries out of your head before bed may help you sleep better. If you don’t want to use a doll, you can still borrow elements from this practice. It can help to take five minutes at bedtime to note your worries and jot down tomorrow’s to-do list before hitting the pillow. This act can help reduce stress and anxious thoughts and promote better sleep, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

If you’re still having trouble getting the restful sleep you want, consider talking to your doctor about other techniques that can help you get better rest.

What do you think of these sleep habits from around the world? Have any of them worked for you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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