sleep

What Is Sleep Hygiene?

‘Sleep hygiene’ is a term used to describe good sleep habits. Considerable research has gone into developing a set of guidelines and tips which are designed to enhance good sleeping, and there is much evidence to suggest that these strategies can provide long-term solutions to sleep difficulties.

There are many medications which are used to treat insomnia, but these tend to be only effective in the short term. Ongoing use of sleeping pills may lead to dependence and interfere with developing good sleep habits independent of medication, thereby prolonging sleep difficulties. Talk to your health professional about what is right for you. Still, we recommend good sleep hygiene as an important part of treating insomnia, either with other strategies such as medication or cognitive therapy or alone. 

Your behaviours during the day, and especially before bedtime, can have a major impact on your sleep. They can promote healthy sleep or contribute to sleeplessness. 

Your daily routines – what you eat and drink, the medications you take, how you schedule your days and how you choose to spend your evenings – can significantly impact your quality of sleep. Even a few slight adjustments can, in some cases, mean the difference between sound sleep and a restless night. Completing a two-week sleep diary can help you understand how your routines affect your sleep.

The term “sleep hygiene” refers to a series of healthy sleep habits that can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. These habits are a cornerstone of cognitive-behavioural therapy, the most effective long-term treatment for people with chronic insomnia. CBT can help you address the thoughts and behaviours that prevent you from sleeping well. It also includes techniques for stress reduction, relaxation and sleep schedule management.

When you climb into bed, does it take forever to fall asleep? Or are you out like a light the minute your head hits the pillow only to wake up at 2 am, tossing and turning? If one of these describes you, you’re in good company. Or maybe not so good. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of Americans aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep needed for our overall health and well-being.

Here’s the happy news: Getting good sleep is more accessible than you might imagine. Your routines and behaviours during the day, and especially before bedtime, can affect the quality of your rest. Replacing activities and habits that can disrupt your sleep with science-backed healthy sleep practices can mean the difference between a restful night and a restless one.

Healthy habits that encourage better sleep, to help you stay refreshed and aware during the day, are called sleep hygiene.

How Can I Improve My Sleep Hygiene?

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There are several ways to improve your overall sleep hygiene. One way to improve your sleep hygiene is to maintain a regular sleep routine. This includes going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This gets your body used to a certain time schedule, and it will then be ready to sleep when it is time.

It is also a good idea to avoid naps, if possible. Naps decrease the overall amount of sleep debt that an individual has, and thus often makes it more difficult to fall asleep again at night at the proper time. This can potentially lead to insomnia. Bright lights should be cut off during sleep. The room should be dark, cool, and comfortable, with minimal distractions. Such an environment should promote good sleep hygiene.

You should also avoid spending extra time in your bed. Do not lay awake for more than ten minutes in your bed. You should also avoid participating in activities other than sleeping, like reading or watching television in bed. Such activities cause you to associate your bed with wakefulness, which is the opposite of what you want. Time spent in the bed should be reserved for sleep.

Of course, ideal sleep conditions vary based on the individual. What works for you may not work as well for someone else. The most important thing is that you do whatever works for you that promotes positive sleep hygiene.

One of the most important sleep hygiene practises to spend an appropriate amount of time asleep in bed, not too little or too excessive. Sleep needs vary across ages and are especially impacted by lifestyle and health. However, there are recommendations that can provide guidance on how much sleep you need generally. Other good sleep hygiene practices include:

  • Limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes. Napping does not make up for inadequate nighttime sleep. However, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance. 
  • Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime. And when it comes to alcohol, moderation is key4. While alcohol is well-known to help you fall asleep faster, too much close to bedtime can disrupt sleep in the second half of the night as the body begins to process the alcohol.   
  • Exercising to promote good quality sleep. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve nighttime sleep quality. For the best night’s sleep, most people should avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime. However, the effect of intense nighttime exercise on sleep differs from person to person, so find out what works best for you.  
  • Steering clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep. Heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks can trigger indigestion for some people. When this occurs close to bedtime, it can lead to painful heartburn that disrupts sleep.
  • Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for individuals who may not venture outside frequently. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine. A regular nightly routine helps the body recognize that it is bedtime. This could include taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, or light stretches. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before attempting to sleep.
  • Making sure that the sleep environment is pleasant. Mattress and pillows should be comfortable. The bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees – for optimal sleep. A bright light from lamps, cell phone and TV screens can make it difficult to fall asleep4, so turn those light off or adjust them when possible. Consider using blackout curtains, eyeshades, earplugs, “white noise” machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing.

Make Healthier Choices

The foods and beverages you consume, whether you smoke, and how often you exercise can all play a role in how well you hit the sack.

  • Stay away from stimulants at night: Nicotine and caffeine are chemicals that are designed to help keep you awake, so drinking tea or coffee or eating chocolate (all of which contain caffeine), or using anything containing tobacco or nicotine should be avoided for four to six hours before you plan to go to sleep. Even alcohol, which initially makes you feel sleepy, makes it harder to get high-quality slumber, so skip more than a single glass of liquor, wine, or beer in the evening—especially as bedtime gets closer.
  • Pay attention to food and drink intake before bed: Feeling hungry or overly full at bedtime means that you’re less likely to get a comfortable sleep. Plus, drinking too many liquids late in the evening could cause you to make multiple trips to the bathroom throughout the night. So choose your foods and beverages wisely and time your meals accordingly.
  • Get physical during the day—at the right time: Exercising during the day fosters sleep at night, but keep this in mind: Exercising too close to bedtime may keep you wired and make it hard to settle into sleep. Listen to your body; most people will want to work out at least a few hours before bed, if possible, or at least swap their Crossfit routine for something more relaxing, like yoga, if they are working out in the later evening hours.

What Are the Signs of Poor Sleep Hygiene?

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The most obvious signs of poor sleep hygiene are trouble falling asleep, disrupted sleep, and — of course — feeling fatigued and foggy throughout the day. Sleep deprivation slows our reflexes, sabotages decision-making and saps creativity. A recent study showed that failing to get enough sleep can also make us feel anxious and sad. The study linked sleep deprivation to problems diverting our attention away from negative thoughts and ideas, which may put us at greater risk for depression.

Circadian Rhythm

We all have a day-night cycle of about 24 hours called the circadian rhythm. It greatly influences when we sleep and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm is, the better our sleep. This cycle may be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, exercise, and especially exposure to light (from travelling across time zones to staring at that laptop in bed at night).

Aging

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40, our sleep patterns change, and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These awakenings not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. The more awakenings we have at night, the more likely we will awaken feeling unrefreshed and unrestored.

Psychological Stressors

Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day—no way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights or are reviewing all the day’s events and planning tomorrow (sound familiar?), you simply cannot just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

The Effects of Sleep Hygiene on the Sleep Cycle

Good sleep hygiene can have extremely positive effects on the overall sleep cycle, which occurs in two basic states throughout the night. The stages of sleep are rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM).

Good sleep hygiene can promote REM sleep, which is a deep stage of sleep known for intense brain activity in the forebrain and midbrain. REM sleep is characterized by the presence of dreams as well as the absence of motor function, except for the eye muscles and the diaphragm. REM sleep occurs cyclically several times during sleep, and it is when the deepest sleep occurs. Despite being the deepest state of sleep, it comprises the smallest portion of the total sleep cycle.

Good sleep hygiene has a positive effect on the other basic state of sleep, which is non-rapid eye movement sleep, or NREM sleep. This is the state of sleep that a person is in the right after falling asleep. Good sleep hygiene allows an individual to fall asleep quicker, and progress through the stages of sleep with less arousal.

What Are the Benefits of Good Sleep Hygiene?

Here’s what it feels like: You’re alert all day long — from the time you wake up through a seemingly endless afternoon meeting, right up to your (hopefully regular) bedtime — which we’ll address in the tips below. You’re more focused, more productive, more present.

Good sleep hygiene sets the stage for a restful night when your body heals and restores itself. Getting quality sleep is important for your health: it strengthens your immune system, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and lowers your risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Good sleep can improve your mood and even your memory. While you sleep, your brain forms new pathways to help you remember information. Whether you’re learning new computer skills or studying a new subject at school, restful sleep supports better comprehension and problem-solving skills.

When you sleep better, you feel better, and you’re kinder to others.

Research shows that after a good night’s sleep, you’re likely to feel less anxious and more confident. There are so many ways that sleeping well makes your life immeasurably better. And proper sleep hygiene can help that happen.

Good sleep hygiene ensures you consistently enjoy higher-quality, more restful sleep for a sufficient amount of time each night. Bad sleep habits, on the other hand, lead to poor quality and inadequate sleep.

You already know sleep is important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Good sleep on a regular basis is critical to maintaining balanced mental, emotional, and physical health. It helps you stay focused during the day, regulate your mood, and feel more productive and functional on a daily basis.

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