A Commentary on Netflix “Guide to Sleep”

Headspace, the well-known meditation app, recently partnered with Netflix to release a 7-part series called “Guide to Sleep.” This series promises to help you learn how to sleep better, and while it does contain a lot of great facts if you’re looking for an in-depth docuseries that will teach you more about sleep, this doesn’t quite fit the bill. As a sleep expert, I was excited to watch this series, and even more excited to find that the information presented at the beginning of each episode was data-driven and factually accurate. Each of the seven episodes begins by covering different sleep-related topics that most adult insomniacs will find very relevant; however, you’ll just get a quick taste of the facts before the episode switches gears into a sleep meditation exercise. Overall, I think this Netflix series does a great job of highlighting some important sleep topics, but if you are a science nerd like me it will probably leave you wanting more details about the facts presented in the series… so let’s dive a little deeper into what you need to know about sleep!

Getting enough sleep

The series starts out by debunking some common myths about sleep, including the widely-held belief that every adult needs 8 hours of sleep per night. I wouldn’t call this a “myth” per se, but more of an actual scientific average.  There has been a great deal of research over the years on how much sleep adults need and the results of these studies overwhelmingly show that all adults need around 8 hours of shut-eye a night, but the exact amount that is right for any given person can vary from 7-9 hours1. Just like humans differ in the amount of calories they need per day, or the number of times we use the bathroom per day, there are some individual differences in the exact number of hours that is optimal for each person. We do know for a fact though, that virtually all adult humans need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night to be functioning at their best and to keep their brains and bodies healthy. Unfortunately, a large-scale survey conducted by the CDC in 2014 showed that over 1/3 of American adults were regularly sleeping less than 7 hours a night. What’s worse, is that sleep-deprived people tend to misjudge how affected they are by their sleep deprivation, making them think that they are doing just fine on less than 7 hours per night2. So if you are reading this, thinking to yourself “I get less than 7 hours of sleep a night and I’m doing fine,” think again! You need at least 7 hours of sleep per night, maybe even more, to be at your best! Study after study has shown that when adults don’t get a minimum of 7 hours of rest a night they suffer all kinds of ill effects including increased susceptibility to health problems like diabetes, cancer, and heart attacks, increased mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, decreases in important physical skills like reaction time, and decreases in cognitive skills like problem-solving and memory. In other words, not getting enough sleep can negatively affect literally EVERY aspect of your life!

Now hopefully, if you are one of the unlucky 1/3 of adults that isn’t getting enough sleep, reading that last paragraph made you want to do something to change that. But you might also be thinking, “Fixing my sleep problems seems like it’s going to take a lot of work!” If you watch this series, they will even tell you that is the case. Episode 1 specifically mentions that there are no quick fixes or hacks for better sleep, and what works for one person, might not work for another. The good news is, I tend to disagree with this sentiment. As someone in the business of changing behavior and fixing sleep problems, if there were no quick fixes or changes we could make that work for most people, I’d be out of a job! Although I don’t have a magic wand I can wave to make your sleep problems go away, there are a few easy changes you can make to your life that can significantly improve sleep problems, and the best part is that they work for just about everyone! Here are my top three “sleep hacks” that can be helpful for anyone, with any type of sleep problem: keep a consistent schedule, keep a consistent routine, and ditch the devices. You can read more about each of those in the linked blog posts!

Electronics ruining everything

Episode 2 gets into the subject of technology, and how it has basically ruined our lives when it comes to sleep, and I think they really hit the nail on the head with this one!  Most people already know human bodies have a circadian rhythm that helps us know when to do important things like eat and sleep. This body clock gets important information from the sun that helps our body know when it is day/night and when we should be alert or sleepy. That’s all well and good, until you add lots of artificial light, or blue light, into the picture. Things like indoor lighting and electronic devices like phones, computers, and TVs shine light into our eyes long after the sun has set, tricking our brains and bodies into thinking that we need to still be alert. Shining lots of light into our eyes at night not only disrupts our body clock and stops the production of important sleepy time hormones like melatonin, but engaging with technology also can give us a blast of “feel good chemicals” in our brain (e.g, dopamine and serotonin) that also make us want to stay awake late into the night scrolling for the next great tik tok video or searching to find the cutest puppy on Instagram. Having easy access to smartphones and other technology provides us with an endless source of exciting reinforcement right at our fingertips, and unfortunately, that reinforcement often competes with falling asleep.

insomnia, meditationHands down one of the best things you can do to improve your sleep is to give your brain a break from all the light and stimulation at the end of the day. I always recommend to my clients that they disconnect from all electronic devices about 45 minutes before bed, and dim or turn off all unnecessary lights (and yes, that means NO ELECTRONICS IN BED). “But what am I supposed to do without electronics for a whole 45 minutes?!?” you ask. Give yourself some time to unwind and relax before bed! Some of the best activities you can do to help prepare for a good night’s sleep that don’t involve electronics are journaling, reading, restorative slow yoga, and meditation. Using this Netflix sleep series (or the Headspace app itself) to hone your bedtime meditation skills can be a great way to practice. However, I don’t recommend watching these episodes in bed. Instead, you should practice meditation exercises during the day or in the evening before bed until you can do it without the assistance of an electronic device, so that when you need some help winding down before bed you have those skills on standby. Meditation, just like any other skill, requires lots of patience and lots of practice to get good at it, but if you can take the time to learn, it can indeed have a very positive impact on your sleep.

Sleep medication

Skipping ahead to episode 5, we get into one of the most important sleep topics that often comes up with adults: sleep meds. We live in a world where we expect quick fixes to our problems, which has turned us into a society of pill poppers. Sleep meds are about as close as we can get to having a magic wand that fixes sleep problems with little to no effort on the part of the sleeper. In a recent study, about 4% of adults over the age of 20 said they had used prescription sleep meds within the last month, while one in every 8 adults with trouble sleeping said they regularly used some type of sleep aid (including over-the-counter remedies)3.  A recent report by Infinium Global Research suggests that the sleep aid market will be worth a staggering 114 billion dollars by 2025. But do sleep meds really work to fix our sleep problems? If you ask me (and a bunch of scientists), sleep medication fixes sleep problems about as well as knocking someone out with a baseball bat to fix a broken ankle. Will getting knocked out relieve the pain of the broken ankle? You betcha! But will it fix the problem, the actual source of the pain? Of course not….and when you wake up from being knocked out you’ll have a whole bunch of new problems to deal with on top of the broken ankle. Sleep medication does almost exactly what a baseball bat to the head does; they knock you out.  But being “knocked out” isn’t the same thing as getting a good night’s sleep. Sleeping pills can actually greatly reduce the quality of your sleep and can even impact your brain waves at night, changing how you spend your time in REM and nREM sleep4. This means you won’t wake up the next day feeling well-rested and ready to take on the day, and you may have side effects ranging from grogginess and irritability to inability to stay awake during the day…which of course makes the whole nighttime sleeping thing even worse. Even though you might fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer when taking sleep aids, you won’t be getting the actual rest your brain and body need. What’s worse, sleep meds really just fix the symptoms of sleep problems but they do nothing to fix what is actually causing sleep problems.

Worth it?

Overall, as a clinician who works with people with serious sleep problems every day, I found Netflix Guide to Sleep series very interesting and think it is a useful watch for anyone struggling with sleep problems. The series does provide viewers with a lot of accurate information and facts and covers some of the most important topics that adult insomniacs should be aware of. I think this series could be a great starting point for anyone interested in taking the first steps to getting better sleep, and I think learning to meditate can be a useful skill for all adults, whether you have sleep problems or not. It comes as no surprise that the goal of the series seems to be mostly to market the Headspace app and to push meditation as a good treatment for sleep problems, which it can be; but viewers should remember that if you have significant sleep problems it will likely take a bit more than just meditation to learn healthy sleep habits. My best recommendation is that if you are struggling with sleep problems, find a sleep expert who can help you make some behavioral changes to learn those lifelong healthy sleep habits, and know that good sleep is within reach for everyone!


  1. Watson N., Badr M., Belenky G., et al. (2015). Joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society on the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: methodology and discussion. Sleep, 38, 1161–1183.
  2. Goel, N., Rao, H., Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2009). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in neurology, 29(4), 320–339. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0029-1237117
  3. Chong Y, Fryar C., Gu Q. (2013). Prescription sleep aid use among adults: United States, 2005–2010. NCHS data brief, no 127. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
  4. Walker, M. P. (2017). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams.


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