Sleep disorders such as insomnia are generally caused by a variety of stressors, many of which tend to overlap with and exacerbate each other. Sleep itself is a very complex physical process, and sleep studies that explore the mechanisms of sleep disruption constitute a large body of expanding research. Recently, notion of “Sleep Hygiene” has come into focus as an effective and holistic technique for curing disordered sleeping habits. This comes as a relief to many, as simple fixes like sleep medications have frustrated numerous individuals with their inconsistent effectiveness and long-term usage issues. But, before we delve into what good sleep hygiene is, let us provide an overview of the general concept.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep Hygiene is the blanket term for good sleep habits. Recent research has established that certain lifestyle guidelines, if followed, can vastly enhance the quality of sleep in even the most disordered sleepers. This is exciting news, as it allows for long-term solutions for insomnia without the use of dependency inducing medications. While such medications can offer short-term relief, in the long run they often prove counter-productive for many patients. While a health professional should always be consulted about what is right for you, the following tips for good sleep hygiene should help reduce sleep disturbances and help you sleep better.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
1. Get Regular with Your Rhythm
Timing is essential to getting a good night sleep, but if you are having trouble either going to bed or getting up it indicates that your body’s timing is off. The first step to fixing disordered sleeping is to create a sleep rhythm. Eventually your body will adjust to the pattern, and you will reestablish a healthy sleep schedule. Try to:
- Make a go-to-sleep ritual. You can read a book, watch a show, brush your teeth, have a light snack, clean up your room, or take a warm bath. However, try to do these things in the same order every night. Building a ritual will help you relax before you go to sleep.
- Get up at the same time every morning. Yes, try to get up at the same time even on weekends.
- Keep a regular meal schedule. Your circadian rhythm is influenced by your meal schedule- this is why many people say that to avoid jet-lag one should start eating along the time-frame of their destination a day before their flight. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the same time every day, and your body will fall into rhythm.
- Regular exercise. Getting exercise will help tire you out and prepare your body to want to sleep. However, avoid working out strenuously for at least six hours before you want to sleep, as this will prove counter-productive to falling asleep.
2. Create a “Sleep” Environment
If you use your bed for anything other than sleep or sex, you are training your body to associate the bed with stimulating activity and not sleep. The following tips will help you create the proper sleep Feng Shui in your bedroom.
- Temperature control. Sleepiness is associated with a drop in temperature from a state of relative warmth. So, if you take a hot bath 1-2 hours before bedtime, it will raise your body temperature, and then cause you to feel sleepy as your body temperature drops again. In addition, maintain a steady environmental temperature in your room during the night, as temperature variation can disrupt the sleep cycle.
- Cave décor. The ideal sleeping space is like a cave: dark, quiet and comfortable. If your sleeping area is too stimulating, this could be preventing you from falling asleep.
- Avoid blue light. Blue light, the kind found in most electronics, is associated with increasing wakefulness. Keep the TV, computer, and illuminated alarm clocks out of the bedroom to decrease light exposure before bed.
- Increase natural light in the morning; decrease light at night. Exposure to natural light lets your body know it is time to get up. Try to open the curtains or orient your bed such that you are exposed to natural morning light as you wake up. Or, if this is not possible, try and spend at least 15 minutes outdoors in the sunshine each morning. Similarly, reduce light exposure at night. Dim the lights a few hours before you go to sleep.
- Noise control. Noise pollution, whether it wakes you up or not, has a deleterious effect on your body and your sleep cycle. It increases your heart rate, disrupts deeper states of sleep. Often times since you do not wake up, you will have no idea it is harming you. Consider getting a white noise machine or listening to brainwave entrainment music. Or, just buy a fan to put in your room; for mild disturbances this is usually sufficient.
- Pillow and mattress comfort. If you wake up feeling tired after a full night’s sleep, or find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, your pillow or mattress might be the culprit. Bad ones can keep your tossing and turning all night, and this not only makes it hard for you to get into a deep sleep but can caused bodily soreness and pain.
3. Sleep Nutrition
While it is a common adage to say, “You are what you eat”, it is also true that “You sleep how you eat”. Here are some nutritional tips to enhance your sleeping quality.
- Eat for sleep. Foods high in melatonin, tryptophan, calcium, or with a high-glycemic index can help your body sleep at night. A few examples of such foods include cherries, fish, walnuts, almonds, dairy products, white rice, and green leafy vegetables.
- Helpful Supplements. Various people have found homeopathic herbs and vitamins to be helpful for inducing sleep. Common ones include melatonin, chamomile tea, lemon balm, valerian, and trypophan.
- Avoid heavy meals after 8pm. Digestion takes up a lot of bodily energy, and will force your body to work while it should be resting. Avoid heavy meals past 8pm to reduce the stress digestion has on the body during sleep.
- Light snacks before bedtime. An empty stomach can be distracting and lead to 3am snack calls. If you wake up hungry, try to have a light snack (like the classic warm milk) before bed. Just try to avoid foods with stimulants like sugar.
- Stimulants. Caffeine and Nicotine are stimulants that will keep you awake and reduce sleep quality. Avoid caffeine past lunch. Avoid nicotine at least two hours hour before bed.
- Alcohol. While alcohol can make you drowsy and in certain quantities induce sleep, it actually disrupts your natural sleep rhythm and can cause mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea, which is very harmful. Try to avoid alcoholic drinks 1-2 hours before sleep.
4. Get Rid of Stress Before You Go to Bed
Insomnia and poor sleep are often either related to or a cause of stress, which only exacerbates the underlying issues at hand. Here are some tips and methods to reduce anxiety and de-stress.
- Keep a worry diary. Insomnia often involves worried or anxious thinking when you try to go to bed. If you tend to lie in bed and stress out about the day, then consider keeping a “stressful things” diary. Each day for about 30 minutes before bedtime, write down the things that are stressing you out. This exercise will allow you to put down and put aside the things that are causing you anxiety until the next day, when you are in a better position to tackle them.
- Avoid stimulating activity before bedtime. Avoid competitive games or stimulating movies before bedtime, as they increase adrenaline and blood pressure.
- Engage in a quiet activity. Reading, drinking herbal tea, a bath or shower, or light cleaning can be relaxing and quiet activities to engage in before bedtime.
- Try relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided visualization may help relieve muscle tension and reduce anxiety.
- Soothing Music. De-stress with some soothing music as you get ready for bed.
5. General Tips
- Only go to bed when sleepy. If you are not tired, try some of the suggestions listed above to help you get relaxed, but do not try to go to bed if you know you are too stimulated. That will prove frustrating and further delay sleep.
- If you cannot fall asleep, get up. If you find yourself unable to sleep after having lain in bed for over 20 minutes, just get up and do some little task or read a short article.
- Keep a sleep diary. Keeping track of daily sleep habits can be helpful for your self-understanding of your sleep problems, and can provide a useful record if you decide to seek a health professional.
- Avoid naps after 3pm. Even if you had a poor sleep the night before, it is better to just keep on your intended schedule rather than take a nap. If you do take a nap, try and keep it before 3pm.
- Minimize Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. In excess, these things will just keep you awake, and reduce sleep quality.
- Reserve the bed for sleeping and sex. Do not play games, watch TV, talk on your cell, or eat in bed. Teach your body to associate bed with sleep.
Sleep Hygiene involves making lifestyle changes, so it can often seem daunting to those already stressed out and anxious from lack of sleep. However, if you or someone you know consistently has trouble falling asleep, waking up, or awakening often during the night, you should strongly consider looking to the above guidelines for revising your sleep habits.