What is Sleep Hygiene and Why is it Important?
The ongoing pandemic caused by Covid-19 has forced the world into unchartered waters, with all sorts of new obligations, different requirements and rules set to help keep everyone safe and healthy. Wearing a mask, washing your hands, and keeping things hygienic is at the forefront of messages to everyone for safety now. But many have rising concerns about mental wellbeing and feeling good, putting those before the importance of diet, fitness or strength. With these new stressing concerns along with unprecedented disruptions in our daily lives, the pandemic has given way to many more sleepless nights. While sleeping may not be high on your priority list of to-do’s right now, it is high on the list of importance in overall “being healthy” (as seen in this chart and data from Euromonitor International on wellness trends), so maybe it’s time to consider cleaning up some sleep habits a bit!
What is Sleep Hygiene?
No, sleep hygiene doesn’t mean washing and changing your sheets more often! While the word “hygiene” brings about images of house cleaning and hand-washing, the term “sleep hygiene” actually refers to the specific habits and practices that you can do to get a good night’s sleep. These habits encourage sleeping well at night while also helping you stay awake, aware, and refreshed during the day.
More than one-third of Americans aren’t getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep that we need for our overall wellbeing and health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, getting good sleep is easier than you might think. Your behaviors and routines during the day -- particularly before bedtime -- can affect your sleep quality. Replacing poor habits and activities that disrupt your sleep with the following healthy sleep practices, or sleep hygiene, can mean the difference between a restless night and a restful one.
What Are the Signs of Poor Sleep Hygiene?
Before we get into what you should or shouldn’t be doing to hone your sleep hygiene habits, let’s take a look at what is considered to be poor sleep hygiene. The most obvious signs are disrupted sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and -- of course -- feeling foggy, sleepy, and fatigued throughout the day. Sleep deprivation saps creativity, sabotages our decision-making, and slows our reflexes. We may also experience feelings of sadness and anxiousness, particularly because we struggle to divert our attention away from negative ideas and thoughts. So, if you’re reading this and you’ve decided that you’re tired of feeling tired, you might be thinking about giving sleep hygiene a try. But where and how do you start?
Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene
One of the most important things you can do to improve your sleep hygiene is to make sure you are spending an appropriate amount of time asleep -- not too much or not too little. While sleep needs vary depending on age and are impacted by health and lifestyle, there are recommendations that can help you figure out how much sleep you need based on your age. The following are 10 other proper sleep hygiene practices that can help create ideal conditions for a restful, healthy sleep:
- Set a consistent schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends. Creating a framework for sleep sets your body’s internal clock, allowing it to expect rest at that particular time. Keep in mind that, even if you have a poor night’s sleep, it’s best not to sleep in later the following morning. Do your best to get up at your usual or set time to heighten your “sleep drive” and sleep better the next night.
- Create a relaxing routine. A regular bedtime routine essentially lets your body know that it is… bedtime. A routine could include light stretches, reading a book, listening to calming music, meditating, or taking a warm bath or shower. These activities help to create a gentle transition between wakefulness and sleep. Whenever possible, avoid emotionally upsetting activities and conversations before settling in for the night.
- Keep the sleep environment pleasant. Your pillows and mattress should be comfortable. The bedroom itself should be kept cool -- between 60 and 65 degrees -- for optimal sleep. Consider using fans, humidifiers, “white noise” machines, ear plugs, eye shades, blackout curtains, and other devices to help make the space more relaxing for you.
- Unplug before bed. It’s worth repeating, although you’ve probably heard this many times before: Sleep and screens are not friends, so keep your screen time to a minimum and unplug at least an hour before bedtime. Aside from the fact that the bright lights disrupt your body’s internal clock, social media, work emails, videos, and online games all keep your mind active -- and keep you awake longer than you should be. (Another benefit: Turning your phone off and keeping it as far from your body as possible while you sleep may also help reduce your risk of EMF exposure!)
- Get regular exercise. Being physically active during the day is proven to be effective for helping you fall asleep more easily at night -- and regular exercise helps your overall mental and physical wellbeing, too. Keep in mind, however, that you might not see the benefits of improved sleep because of exercising right away; it may take a couple of weeks or even months before your workouts create a substantial impact on the quantity and quality of your sleep.
- Expose yourself to natural light. If you’re someone who doesn’t venture outside often, this tip is especially important. Ensuring adequate exposure to sunlight during the daytime hours, as well as darkness during the nighttime hours, helps to make sure your body’s sleep-wake cycle is in tip-top shape.
- Avoid foods that disrupt sleep. Heavy meals, fried or fatty food, spicy food, carbonated drinks, and citrus fruits are all tough on the body’s digestive system and can ultimately trigger indigestion. If you frequently experience heartburn, eating the wrong foods or eating too close to bedtime can mean a miserable night. Why? Your stomach needs three to four hours to empty itself, so when you try to sleep after a hearty meal, your digestive juices are still going strong. The result: chest pain and disrupted sleep.
- Steer clear of stimulants close to bedtime. While we can certainly appreciate a cup of coffee as a late-afternoon pick-me-up, caffeine is a stimulant that can hinder your body’s ability to sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, stop consuming foods and beverages that contain caffeine, including chocolate, colas, tea, and coffee, at least six hours before bedtime.
- Nix the nightcaps. Although alcohol can help you fall asleep faster because it initially makes you feel drowsy, consuming too much alcohol too close to bedtime can actually disrupt your sleep in the second half of the night as your body begins to process the alcohol. Alcohol affects your body’s “sleep architecture” -- the natural flow of sleep through stages like light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Consuming adult beverages can also lead to poor sleep quality and lighter, more restless sleep, which means you’re more likely to wake up tired and fatigued.
- Limit or avoid daytime naps. Did you know that Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Salvador Dali were all fans of the catnap? Today, companies are also embracing the idea, establishing rooms specifically for the purpose of napping in the workplace. While napping doesn’t make up for poor nighttime sleep, a short 20- or 30-minute nap can help to improve performance, alertness, and mood. However, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, consider avoiding daytime naps altogether since late-afternoon snoozing decreases your homeostatic sleep drive and makes it harder to catch those ZZZs at bedtime.
Does Sleep Hygiene Work?
Let’s get down to brass tacks: Sleep hygiene does not work for people who have had trouble sleeping for at least three months or for those with chronic insomnia. Yes, sleep hygiene can be helpful for improving sleep quality in people who generally have few sleep problems. Yes, sleep hygiene can be helpful if you are experiencing a handful of bad nights because you are adjusting to stress or dealing with changes like may be happening now due to Covid-19 situations. Yes, sleep hygiene can be helpful if you would otherwise have no trouble sleeping but you’re trying to do so in a poor sleep environment. In some cases, implementing solid sleep hygiene habits can even prevent long-term sleep problems. But sleep hygiene simply doesn’t work once those chronic sleep difficulties take hold.
In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine asserts that “Although all patients with chronic insomnia should adhere to rules of good sleep hygiene, there is insufficient evidence to indicate that sleep hygiene alone is effective in the treatment of chronic insomnia. It should be used in combination with other therapies.” Behavioral therapies beyond sleep hygiene can include cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, cognitive therapy, sleep restriction therapy, and relaxation. In other words, developing and maintaining good sleep hygiene is only a piece of the puzzle -- but it’s a good place to start!
At the end of the day, your nighttime behaviors can impact your sleep in a major way. Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your health since it can improve your memory and mood, lower your risk for health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, help you maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your immune system, and support better problem-solving skills and comprehension. Experts also indicate that we’re also likely to feel more confident and less anxious after a good night’s sleep. When you sleep better, you feel better -- and proper sleep hygiene can help to make it happen.
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