Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe good sleep habits. Sleep is your body’s chance to recharge. Without it you’ll be less productive, with lower energy and concentration levels. Try the following evidence based techniques to ensure you get a good night’s sleep.

  • Set a sleep routine. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day. This helps to set your body clock, making you sleepy when your body is ready for bed. If you can stick to a regular waking and sleeping time, your body will become accustomed to it.
  • Avoid napping during the day. Staying awake during the day makes it easier for you to fall asleep at night. Any naps longer than 30 minutes will decrease adenosine levels (sleep stimulating chemical), making it harder to fall asleep later on and increasing the chance of a disturbed night’s sleep.
  • Get regular exposure to natural light. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day and stimulates the release of hormones responsible for keeping us awake and alert. Sunlight early in the day is particularly helpful in synchronising your body clock so if possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning.
  • Exercise regularly. Research has shown that exercise improves not only the quantity of sleep but the quality too with studies indicating that regular exercise increases both total sleep time and slow wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep. Exercise has also been shown to strengthen the circadian rhythm, promoting daytime alertness and vitality, whilst helping to bring on sleepiness at night. Ideally you should engage in exercise before dinner or in the morning. Avoid vigorous exercise too close to bed as it has a stimulating, energising effect which makes it harder to fall asleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bedtime. Commonly used stimulants, like nicotine and the caffeinein coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks (as well as the theophylline in tea and chocolate), work as adenosine receptor blockers, inhibiting or dampening its sleepiness effect, and thereby maintaining alertness. You’re also more likely to wake up during the night and only experience shallow sleep. Smokers tend to sleep very lightly and often wake up several times a night due to nicotine withdrawal. It’s true that alcohol speeds the onset of sleep, however it stimulates light sleep, preventing you from reaching REM sleep and the deeper more restorative stages of sleep needed to maximise recovery.
  • Create a good sleep environment. Keep the bedroom quiet, dark and a comfortable temperature. Keep noises and outside light to a minimum. Earplugs and thicker curtains may help. Uncomfortable bedding can prevent good sleep. If your bedroom is too cold or too hot, it can keep you awake. A cool (not cold) bedroom is often the most conducive to sleep.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Try gentle stretching, reading, listening to music or mindfulness meditation to help you unwind before bed. You can train yourself to associate certain restful activities with sleep and make them part of your bedtime ritual. Avoid stimulating activities such as planning for the next day or having an important family discussion just before bed.
  • Limit screen time (mobile phone, computer, TV). The cells in our eyes contain a unique light-sensitive pigment, that is most sensitive to short wavelength “blue light”. By working/reading on a screen before bed, the blue light emitted from that screen (which is usually situated relatively close to the eye) halts the production of melatonin and stimulates the release of cortisol which can in turn impact the body’s ability to fall asleep and to get into deeper more restorative stages of sleep.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. Your brain makes connections between places (bedroom) and events (sleeping). Try to reinforce this connection by only using your bed for sleep, not for watching TV or surfing the internet.
  • Avoid going to bed hungry or too full. Food can be disruptive right before bed so avoid heavy meals too close to bedtime. Hunger can also disturb sleep so if you are hungry before bed it is better to have a light snack or a glass of milk.
  • Don’t force yourself to try to go to sleep. If you can’t get to sleep within 30 minutes then get up, go to a different room and do something restful and calming, then return to bed when you feel sleepy. Avoid exposure to bright light during this time.

When to speak to your doctor

If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, despite trying the above strategies, or if you always feel tired the next day despite sleeping for 7-8 hours, then you may have a sleep disorder and should speak to your doctor. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so you can finally get that good night’s sleep you need.

Want to know more?

To understand the physiological processing underpinning the above strategies click here

References

  1. Harvard Medical School – Harvard Health Publications 2009 – http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Sleep-and-mental-health and http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/repaying-your-sleep-debt
  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – Understanding Sleep – http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm
  3. Sleep Disorders Australia – Sleep Hygiene Fact Sheet – 2006 – https://www.sleepoz.org.au/images/FactSheets/AT09-Sleep_Hygiene.pdf
  4. National Sleep Foundation – https://sleepfoundation.org/