Sleep Hygiene: It Makes a Big Difference
If better sleep and improved health are your goals, then sleep hygiene is the best place to start. Sleep hygiene consists of the everyday habits and behaviors that directly affect your body’s sleep-wake cycle, also known as its circadian rhythm.
With fast-paced lifestyles and less-than-perfect sleep environments, some of these practices may seem out of reach. However, small and gradual changes can lead to big improvements in sleep quality and health.
10 Basic Sleep Hygiene Practices
The following ten suggestions focus on habits and behaviors that have the biggest impact on your circadian rhythm and your ability to get restful sleep.
#1 Stick to a consistent sleep schedule
Schedule a consistent bedtime and wake-up time every day. Developing this sleep hygiene practice into habit produces one of the biggest benefits in term of sleep quality.
Your body thrives on regularity. Inconsistent sleep patterns not only negatively impact your quality of sleep and energy levels, they can also result in unhealthy consequences. For example, studies show that irregular sleep patterns are linked to increased body fat.
Try not to break this routine – even on weekends. Sleeping and waking at regular set times reinforces the body’s rhythm. Late nights during the weekend often result in insomnia during the week. If bedtimes and wake up times need to be changed, adjusting in increments of no more than 15 minutes a day is recommended.
#2 Schedule downtime before bedtime
Develop pre-bedtime routines that have a relaxing effect on the body. Sleep comes much faster when the body is prepared.
Good relaxing nighttime activities can include a warm bath, listening to music or enjoying an audiobook. Reading while sitting in a bedside chair is another great way to prepare the body for sleep. Avoid activities that may cause stress.
Avoid television, iPads or other back-lit devices. The resulting blue light emissions easily suppress the natural melatonin production necessary for restorative sleep. If the viewing of any backlit device is necessary, dim the brightness settings. Also, hold reading devices at least a foot away to reduce the suppression effects.
Dimming the lights while in pre-bedtime activities is also very effective for sleep preparation. Sensors in the eyes will then cue the body to produce the sleep hormone melatonin.
#3 Control your sleep environment
Control the noise, temperature and lighting to optimize the environment for the best sleep possible.
A partner’s snoring, a barking dog or other noisy distractions may be difficult to control directly. In that case, investing in technology that produces white noise may pay huge sleep dividends. Comfortable earplugs may also be an option, although usually not as effective.
Maintain a cool room and a comfortable bed. Temperatures between 60-68 degrees F are optimal for sleep, according to most studies.
Eliminate lighting sources so the environment is as dark as possible. Blackout shades may be a wise investment for some. Develop dim-lit access for nighttime navigation.
Pets should have their own beds. Animals can, and usually do, wake up and effortlessly return to sleep. Not so much with humans.
The bed should be reserved for sleep and sex only. This will help condition the mind for the bed’s intended purpose. When sleepless, leave the bed and only return when ready to sleep.
#4 Get exposure to natural light
Exposure to natural light is the most powerful regulator of the body’s sleep-wake clock.
Sunlight optimizes the melatonin levels in the brain. With optimized hormone levels, sleep is more sound at night while energy is more abundant during the day.
Exposure to sunlight early in the day is particularly beneficial, as this is when the body clock is most responsive. Fifteen to 30 minutes of morning exposure can make a significant improvement in your sleep hygiene.
If consistent exposure to natural light is not possible, an investment in phototherapy is recommended. A light box with 10,000 lux or brighter provides the intensity needed to stimulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
Not only do studies show that people who get more sunlight sleep better, they also tend to be more physically active and generally happier. As one gets older, more exposure to natural light is necessary to regulate the sleep-wake clock.
#5 Include exercise in your day
Daily exercise is another key sleep hygiene practice that helps the body attain sound and restorative sleep.
According to an adult study, exercising improves sleep quality by 65%. This improvement also boosts productivity and attention levels during the day.
As little as 20 to 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day is beneficial – and it can be broken down during the day. The best times to exercise are morning and early afternoon.
Exercising too close to bedtime, however, can make it harder to fall asleep. This stimulates the body and hinders the natural nighttime sleep hormone production. With that said, late night exercises may safely include mild stretching or light yoga.
#6 Cut your caffeine as early as possible
Consuming caffeine only in the morning offers the best chance for restorative sleep at night.
Unfortunately however, caffeine is difficult to avoid throughout the day. Considered the #1 drug in the world, caffeine is integrated into products that are promoted at all hours of the day.
Caffeine is enjoying surging popularity in energy drinks as well as in other beverages. Even foods such as dark chocolate or ice cream may contain as much caffeine as found in a typical can of soda.
To avoid disruptive sleep, consume caffeine early in the day. Two o’clock in the afternoon has been suggested by some studies as the latest in order to avoid sleeping problems. However for some, that may be too late.
#7 Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime
Eat small meals and dine early for the best sleep results. This routine ensures that the body is calm and relaxed at bedtime.
Even though certain foods can promote better sleep, it is the best practice in the evening to eat smaller meals and stick to foods that digest easily. Digestion is a strenuous activity, and the body is not designed for a heavy workload right before bedtime.
Meals are best eaten three to four hours before bedtime. The body can then digest the food before sleep. Late eaters usually miss the deep phase of sleep, and this is when the body rests and repairs itself.
On the other hand, hunger can be disruptive to sleep as well. Eating small portions of healthy late-night snacks (see suggestions) before bedtime can help fuel the body for better sleep.
#8 Adjust your alcohol for optimal sleep
Alcohol should be avoided at least four (and preferably six) hours before bedtime to ensure the best chance for restorative sleep, according to studies.
Alcohol is a depressant and initially provides a relaxing effect. Because of this, many people with sleep problems use alcohol as a sleep aid.
However, alcohol is actually very disruptive to overall sleep. Alcohol creates a stimulant effect when it metabolizes and leaves the system. Unfortunately, this stimulant effect is usually greatest during the deep, restorative phase of sleep. The results are inevitably shallow and disturbed sleep with varying degrees of tiredness and fatigue the next day.
Studies show that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol’s disruptive effect on sleep. Also, these effects usually get worse with age for both men and women.
#9 Stop smoking – especially before bedtime
Smoking takes a huge chunk out of quality sleep.
Nicotine is a stimulant that fights off sleep efforts at bedtime. The body’s desire for more of this addictive nicotine throughout the night keeps it from achieving deep, restorative sleep.
Smoking also exacerbates sleep apnea and other breathing disorders, further adding to sleep woes.
The act of quitting the habit may not improve sleep immediately (as the body re-adjusts), but the long-term sleep rewards are huge.
#10 Reduce fluid intake 2 hours before bedtime
Limit fluid intake two hours before bedtime. This is especially advisable for coffee, tea or alcohol as they stimulate the need to urinate.
Research suggests that one nighttime trip to the bathroom is normal. Two or more trips usually affects sleep quality and causes tiredness the next day.
A condition called nocturia affects most people as they age. The body gradually produces less of an anti-diuretic hormone making it less able to retain fluids. In addition, the bladder loses its capacity to hold fluids like it once did.
Shifting liquid intake to earlier in the day can help.