What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep Hygiene is how we sleep and what we do throughout the day (whether consciously or not) that prepares us for sleep. Think of sleep hygiene has made up of bed-time rituals (brushing your teeth before bed, switching into pajamas, turning off all the lights, or leaving one lamp on as you read until you begin to doze off). But also think of your diet throughout the day (how much spicy food did you eat, how much food rich with antioxidants), how much you exercised and when, how much time you spent looking at digital screens, drinking caffeine, handling stressful situations, and more.
Why is Sleep Hygiene Important?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget about sleep. We all end our day by going to bed and sleeping (though the quality of sleep varies greatly from person to person). Sleep can become an afterthought. We plan our work days (we have schedules, calendars, alarm clocks, lunch hours, meetings, errands to run, and other appointments) and even plan our week around a work week and the weekend. Sometimes sleeping gets downgraded to the thing we do when we don’t have anything else to do or, even worse, the thing we must do to start doing other things. A fun bit of trivia: man is the only mammal who will willingly delay sleep, whether to watch one more episode of a new TV show or to burn the midnight oil and work on a school or work project1.
But sleep hygiene is important because sleep is an important yet still overlooked aspect of our health. The CDC reports that nearly a third of Americans are sleep deprived. Plus, 44% of employees who work night shifts sleep less than six hours a night. Combine these facts with the fact that 20% of car crashes are the fault of a drowsy driver and it gives you a small idea of how important sleep is and how lack of sleep can have negative side-effects2.
Imagine if we lived out our day in ways which promote healthy sleep, not hinder it?
The Core Factors of Sleep Hygiene
Exercise and Sleep
Exercise and sleep are both important to physical and mental health. But how do they relate to each other? It was once commonly thought that exercising too late in the day could disrupt your natural sleep habit. The idea was loosely formed around the idea that exercise increased core body temperature, released adrenaline, increased the heart rate, all of which are things that would seem to make falling asleep harder not easier.
However, recent studies have challenged this preconceived notion about the relationship between exercise and sleep.
Now evidence shows support to the claim that exercise, as long as it’s not within one hour of bedtime, can help you fall asleep faster.
Diet and Sleep
It is possible to sleep better by changing your diet. Plus, studies have shown that a consistent sleep schedule is linked with overall lower body fat. This is because the foods we eat and the items we drink play a significant role in our ability to fall asleep at night, and our ability to sleep throughout the night impacts our weight.
Some foods and drinks are obvious sleep-inhibitors– for example, caffeine. Caffeine increases your energy and has a half-life of 5 to 6 hours. This means 5 to 6 hours after a cup of coffee, half of that cup is still in your body. It is easy to see why it is not recommended to have caffeine later in the day. Having a sugar-filled snack in the evening can also give you an unwanted boost, leaving you restless in bed as you try to wind down3.
However, caffeine and sugar are the obvious culprits. Most people know that coffee in the evening won’t lead to restful sleep. But what about spicy food? A study shows spicy meals may disrupt sleep because, in part, your body needs to lower its core temperature to enter into Stage 2 of sleep and spicy food can prevent that from happening4.
For a more comprehensive list of foods which promote healthy sleep, check out our article on the best foods for sleep.
Your Room and Sleep
How can your room impact your sleep? Well first, and most obvious, consider how dark it is in your room at night. You may have turned off the lights, but does the outside world creep in through the blinds? This can happen with street lights or passing cards. If you live in part of the world where the sunrise happens earlier than you want to wake up, then you have to deal with responding to sunlight, which we are evolutionary conditioned to register as “this is a sign it’s time to wake up.”
Plus, think of alarm clocks, lights from the Wi-fi router, from the television, from your Sonos speaker, from your smartwatch. These small lights can distract and stimulate your eyes as you are trying to sleep.
Another factor: sound. If you live in the city, it may seem like the sound is impossible to escape. Try comfortable earbuds or a quiet, non-evasive white noise machine.
A Clean Room’s Impact on Sleep
Your room may not need to be spotless to get a good night’s sleep, but some sleep coaches go as far as recommending to turn the bedroom into a sanctuary for sleep and nothing else. This means they recommend not leaving your clothes in the bedroom or not bringing your work in with you. They also recommend having your TV out in the living room and not in the bedroom, so you are not tempted to watch a TV show or movie as you try to sleep. And if you like to read before you fall asleep, sleep coaches will recommend you read in the living room and then to move to your bedroom, sans book, as you begin to feel sleepy.
Having a room clean of distractions (no work, no TV, etc.) will let your mind and body know it’s time for sleep when you enter your room and get into bed.
How Finding the Best Mattress Helps
If you are following a healthy diet, avoiding sleep-disrupting foods, exercising regularly, and are going to sleep in a quiet and light-free room, but still are having a hard time catching quality sleep, consider your mattress.
There are plenty of mattress companies now, most of them now sell their products online and offer free shipping and sleep trials. A mattress isn’t a sure-fire solution to start sleeping better immediately, but finding the best mattress for your needs is a great start.
Mental Health and Sleep
The relationship between mental health and sleep is nuanced. While lack of sleep was once considered a symptom of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, there is new evidence that shows “sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders.”
Why this is the case is exactly understood, though it seems “chronic sleep disruption” may promote negative thinking and emotional insecurity5.
Understanding Sleep Disorders
Sometimes getting a better night’s sleep is about more than diet and the right mattress. Sometimes you may be experiencing a sleep disorder. There many sleep disorders (some of them affected by diet and lifestyle).
Insomnia, Restless Leg Syndrome, and Sleep Apnea are some of the more common sleep disorders people may experience. If you think you have a sleep disorder please schedule an appointment with a medical professional who can help diagnose the issue.
Understanding Sleep Cycles
It’s a misconception to view sleep as one phase, and this misconception may help explain why people are so quick to allow themselves to stay up later than they should. After all, if all hours of sleep are created equal then you can catch up on two hours here or one hour there.
But, when we view sleep as a series of cycles, we begin to understand how going through sleep cycles repeatedly throughout the night is what matters most. For example, there are four stages of sleep and stage 3 is when most of our restorative sleep happens. But Stage 3 only takes up 5-10% of our nightly sleep schedule. So if we are only getting through Stage 1 and Stage 2, but never making it to Stage 3, we are “sleeping” without feeling the restoring benefits of a good night’s sleep. One of the most famous cycles, the REM sleep cycle, happens at the very end and is how we organize and create new memories.
Understanding sleep cycles really helps you understand how factors can easily disrupt sleep. One of these factors is travel. Check out our article on how to properly prepare for your upcoming travels so you can minimize the amount of jet lag you experience.
Sleep hygiene is how we prepare ourselves to go to sleep. Bad sleep hygiene may lead to long nights awake, tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep. The more we view sleep as a pillar of health–as something which deserves our attention and the same level of care we give to other aspects of our life–the better our nights will become. In this way, sleeping is like any other facet of life: it improves with practice. For those raising children, you can take the tips we have outlined above and start developing healthy sleep habits in kids.