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Sleep Hygiene Explained

What sleep hygiene is and why it's important for you

Posted on March 13 2020

What is sleep hygiene?

The term “sleep hygiene”has become more and more commonplace as we’ve come to realize just how important sleep is to our health and mental well-being. But what is sleep hygiene exactly? And how does it apply to us?

While the term “sleep hygiene”was first introduced by Nathaniel Kleitman his 1939 book Sleep and Wakefulness, his recommendations for better sleep were more anecdotal and differ from our current recommendations derived from scientific trials and study.

Decades later, psychologist Peter Hauri reintroduced the term “sleep hygiene”in his 1977 booklet The Sleep Disorders and he is thought to be the first person to codify the important sleep hygiene factors: lifestyle (diet, exercise, substance use), environmental factors (light, noise, temperature), keeping a regular sleep schedule, and relaxing before bedtime.

Hauri released subsequent editions of The Sleep Disorders book with new research as it emerged, and with Hauri, the National Sleep Foundation released an updated, free, online e-book version in 2013.

Hauri dedicated his life to curing insomnia without the use of drugs, writing his famous 1992 book No More Sleepless Nights and researching, among other things, the use of biofeedback in helping people with insomnia and measuring relative depths of rapid eye movement in sleep.

Using Hauri’s work as a foundation, and supplementing with the newest in sleep hygiene research, this article will summarize some of the major recommendations around the best sleep hygiene theories and techniques.

Introduction to sleep hygiene

Essentially, sleep hygiene is a combination of habits that have been proven to help people achieve the best sleep possible.

Many people have already incorporated basic sleep hygiene into their routines;they know not to drink multiple cups of coffee before bedtime and that it might be difficult to fall asleep with a bright, loud television on in the bedroom.

Still, some additional tweaking to your nighttime habits can be very impactful to your quality of sleep. So, let’s look at how to get great sleep through good sleep hygiene.

Also note: If you are suffering from a more serious sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder, then additional treatment from a medical professional (not just good sleep hygiene) probably will be required to help you get the rest you need every night.

Lifestyle

Diet

Our bodies are designed to digest upright, so eating right before bedtime can cause acid reflux, with symptoms like heartburn and indigestion, when we lie down. If possible, eat dinner at least three hours before sleep to ensure your food is farther along in your digestive tract. See our infographic for how long specific foods take to digest. That said, hunger pangs will also keep you awake, so if a snack is necessary, just avoid things like dense proteins and fats that are harder to digest. Also, avoid heavily sweetened things like chocolate and cakes, as they may cause your blood sugar to drop off during the night, disrupting your sleep. Try a piece of fruit with a little bit of nut butter or a cup of low-sugar cereal or oatmeal with milk.

We all love a good cup of coffee or tea to get us going in the morning, but just remember to keep it a morning beverage! Caffeine is an effective stimulant that stays in your system for a long time: half of its potency diminishes after 3–5 hours, but the remainder of the stimulant remains in your system for 8–14 hours. To avoid nighttime alertness and sleeplessness, be sure to stop drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages at least six hours before bedtime. In fact, the earlier in the day you consume your caffeine, the more time the stimulant will have to wear off. Try to consume no more than 200 mg of caffeine (about 2 cups of coffee) to keep your daily caffeine levels low.

And while we’re on the subject of beverages, to get the best sleep, it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol too close to bedtime as well. While alcohol initially acts as a depressant, allowing you to fall asleep more easily, it can also disrupt the later stages of sleep by cutting down on essential REM sleep time, making sleep more fragmented, and causing more awakenings during the night and/or early morning. Want a beer when you get home from work or a glass of wine with dinner? No problem. Just allow a few hours for your body to metabolize your drinks before bedtime. And remember: even though alcohol close to bedtime will help you fall asleep faster, experts warn against using it as a sleep aid since it disturbs the later stages of sleep so greatly.

Exercise

Meta-analysis of sleep studies have shown that consistent aerobic exercise induces better, deeper sleep by lengthening short wave sleep, the third phase of your sleep cycle. Short wave sleep, named for the presence of slow brain waves called “delta waves,”is the deep sleep where blood pressure drops, breathing slows, and the body becomes immobile. Short wave sleep appears to be associated with bodily repair, certain types of learning and memory retention, and changes in the central nervous system. Not only can deep, short wave sleep be restorative, but longer, deeper sleep can protect against awakenings from things like noise, pain, and temperature changes.

Studies that examine whether exercise helps people fall asleep faster have shown mixed results. A study at Stanford University demonstrated that, at least for older adults, 30-to 40-minutes of moderate exercise (like brisk walking) daily caused significant improvement in the amount of time it took to fall asleep, sleep quality, and sleep duration. Still, other studies showed inconclusive results in the efficacy of exercise for falling asleep quickly, noting that while aerobic exercise did increase slow-wave (deep) sleep and total sleep time in general, other factors like gender, age, fitness level, type of exercise, and time of day also played a role in its potency.

Many sources discourage exercising in hours before bedtime, claiming that the added body heat and boost of stimulation may make it difficult to fall asleep. However, a 2013 Sleep in America Poll carried out by the National Sleep Foundation suggests that physical activity any time of day will help facilitate better sleep. Really, it’s just important to find the right exercise routine that fits your schedule and body. Consistent physical activity, even for just half an hour each day, can help you achieve better sleep.

Substance use

Nicotine is a stimulant that, like caffeine, prohibits you from falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night. One study states that “primarily symptoms of insomnia, such as increased sleep latency, sleep fragmentation and decreased slow wave sleep with reduced sleep efficiency and increased daytime sleepiness, were observed during nicotine consumption. Furthermore, most studies indicated a nicotine induced rapid eye movement (REM) sleep suppression.”Medical professionals recommend quitting any type of nicotine consumption altogether in order to get the best sleep. It should be noted, however, that it is possible that during the early stages of nicotine withdrawal, sleep disruption may be exacerbated.

If you happen to live in one of the U.S. states that has legalized medicinal marijuana, then perhaps you have considered using medical marijuana to induce sleep? Many marijuana users report better, deeper sleep with the substance, but other studies have shown that it disrupts sleep and causes insomnia. Tetrahydrocannabinoid (THC), the chemical in marijuana known to produce its signature euphoric feeling, has been found to reduce REM sleep. However, some strains of marijuana have very little THC. So, what’s going on? The Leafly blog reports that, depending on the strain of marijuana, sleep can be either helped or hindered by its use. They note that sativa strains tend to be better sleep aids, and that aged cannabis makes you sleepier than fresh cannabis bud. Marijuana as a sleep aid has its side effects, like the possibility of hangover-like symptoms or groggy feeling the next morning. While medical professionals generally may not advocate for long term use of marijuana as a sleep aid, it has shown to be especially helpful for patients with chronic pain.

Environmental factors

Light

All light, but especially blue light, prevents the release of our natural melatonin, the chemical that signals to our body that it is time for sleep. Our televisions, computer screens, phones, and tablets emit light that is concentrated with the blue section of the visible light spectrum. Turning off all screens at least an hour before bedtime will allow for the proper release of melatonin and keep our circadian clocks right on time. If for some reason you MUST look at a computer before bedtime, software like f.lux and physical blue-light filters that fit over your computer screen are designed to reduce the concentration of blue light emitted from your device. Also, many mobile devices have an automated blue-light filters built in, like Apple’s “night shift”for iPhones. During the night, if complete darkness is not possible, consider wearing a comfortable sleep mask over your eyes to block out any light.

Temperature

Help your body drift off to sleep with the right room temperature. Sleep studies have shown that our bodies first go through an initial drop in core body temperature (2–3 degrees) before we drift off to sleep. That initial, rapid drop in body temperature, a natural part of our circadian rhythm, increases the chances of falling asleep and may help with the transition into deeper stages of sleep later on. If the room temperature is too high, our bodies may have trouble with that initial, natural body temperature drop-off. Alternatively, if room temperatures are too low, it may cause you to get cold and wake up in the night. Experts recommend an ambient room temperature between 60–67℉.

Noise

Nighttime noise seems to be a matter of personal preference: while one person might require complete silence to fall asleep, another person might prefer music or white noise, like the sound of rain. Experiment to find what works best for you. If the city streets are too loud, invest in a good pair of earplugs. If your sleeping space is too quiet, add a soundtrack. We’ve previously written all about the efficacy of music and hypnosis in helping get better sleep, which is the foundation of our app Pzizz.

Schedule

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule will promote better circadian cycling and teach your body when to be awake and asleep. Our bodies prefer regularity in our activities so that they can better anticipate and prepare for meals, exercise, sleep, etc. These activities become the milestones of our day, together creating a physiological rhythm that is perhaps more important than we once realized. A study at the University of Arizona, Department of Psychology, found that for college students, regularization of a sleep-wake schedule was associated with a consistent reduction of daytime sleepiness. That doesn’t just go for young people, though. At the Center for Research and Study of Aging at the University of Hafia, Israel, a study of ninety-six elderly patients found that increased stability of daily routine produced higher sleep efficiency and improved sleep quality. While it might be difficult to achieve a perfect sleep routine with the varying activities, work schedules, and travel we have to do, try to incorporate as much sleep consistency as possible into your life for the best results!

Relaxation

It is no surprise that anxiety can keep us from falling asleep. Whether we are worried about stressful events (like work deadlines or an illness in the family) or are afflicted with a more long-term anxiety disorder, it can be frustratingly difficult to fall asleep at night.We’ve previously discussed natural ways to reduce anxiety to get to sleep faster and stay asleep through the night. Simple things like breathing exercises, physical activity, meditation, and eating habits can have a major, positive impact on our mental health, allowing us to have the sleep we need each night (even when stressful situations come our way).

Get Comfortable

Sleep is a time to get really comfortable. Ideally, you spend one third of your life in bed, so it’s worth investing in a good, supportive mattress, good pillows, and comfortable bedding. Old, worn-out mattresses and pillows can be uncomfortable and promote sleep disturbances. Wear loose pajamas made from a soft, breathable fabric, or if you prefer, no pajamas at all (need help choosing? Read our article on the best fabrics for sleep). Find a good sleep position that allows every part of your body to relax. Some sources recommend specifically sleeping on your left side, as it helps to keep airways open, reduces heartburn symptoms, and improves circulation.

Make your bedroom a sanctuary. Some experts believe that keeping the bedroom for only sleep and sex will help condition your brain to fall asleep when you jump into bed at night. That means no eating, no texting, no working, and no watching movies in bed. Without all of those other stimuli, your brain will begin to associate your bedroom only with rest and relaxation. Pets will frequently move around in the night, so it is advisable to keep any pets off the bed during sleeping hours as well.

Wrapping Up

As with most things, sleep hygiene guidelines will affect everyone differently. While one person’s sleep may not be affected by a glass of wine or watching a blue-light television before bed, others may have highly disrupted sleep from the same stimuli. Take your time and experiment to find what ultimately works for you. Good luck!

Ready to Improve Your Sleep?

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