What Is 'Sleep Hygiene'?
Sleep hygiene is an unusual term that has nothing to do with levels of cleanliness, but certain practices can be helpful for those looking to optimise their sleep.
Sleep hygiene is an unusual phrase that polarises sleep in a strange way. The word hygiene implies that sleep can be clean vs. dirty, which isn't particularly helpful (or true) for those struggling to sleep.
Put simply, sleep hygiene refers to a collection of tips and practices that can help individuals to optimise their sleep. These practices are often the first thing that doctors suggest for those with minor sleep complaints (difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking up too early, feeling unrefreshed upon awakening).
As a general rule of thumb, if you fall asleep fairly quickly, stay asleep throughout the night and wake-up feeling refreshed without the need of an alarm clock, then you are probably sleeping well!
If the above sounds impossible, then you're not alone – in fact, over a third of adults struggle to get a good night's sleep.
Here, it is important to note that while sleep hygiene practices may help to optimise sleep, if you are suffering from a more serious sleep problem like insomnia, then sleep hygiene is going to be pretty useless (you can read more about current sleep solutions in a future post).
While temporary insomnia can be a natural reaction to stressful life events, if you have experienced the following 3 or more times a week, for a duration of 3 or more months, then you should go and see your GP:
Difficulty falling asleep
Difficulty staying asleep
Waking up in the night and being unable to get back to sleep
Waking up too early
Feel unrefreshed upon awakening
Daytime dysfunction and fatigue
For those looking to optimise their sleep, the following are a list of common sleep-hygiene tips (or good sleep practices):
Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule
As with most things, consistency is key when it comes to sleep. To help keep your body-clock in sync, it is best to go to bed and wake-up at the same time every day – even on the weekends. While many of us like to have a lay-in on a Sunday, spending too much extra time in bed can shift our body-clocks and make Monday mornings seem especially hard. This discrepancy between sleep time on the weekdays and weekends is known as 'social jetlag', and refers to the feelings of tiredness and fatigue caused by inconsistencies in sleep timing.
Expose Yourself to Light First Thing in the Morning
Exposure to bright, natural light first thing in the morning is one of the best things you can do to synchronise your body-clock and shake off sleep. To shut-off the release of the sleepy hormone melatonin and wake yourself up, why not try taking a walk or having your first cup of coffee in an outdoor space?
Avoid Blue Light in the Evening
As bright light inhibits the release of melatonin – the hormone that engages sleep-initiating mechanisms in the brain – it is best to limit your exposure to light in the evenings before bed. In an electric-filled society, the use of low lighting, the avoidance of screens and blue-light blocking glasses can all help prepare your brain for sleep. Additionally, making sure your bedroom is dark will help you to maintain sleep, so invest in some decent curtains and turn-off your notifications!
During sleep, your core body temperature drops by 1ºC, so try and keep your bedroom relatively cool (16-18ºC). It may sound counterintuitive, but a hot bath or shower before bed can help to lower your body temperature by sending the blood to the surface of your skin, which in turn releases heat and cools you down.
Interestingly, keeping your extremities (fingers and toes) warm may also help to draw heat away from the core – so why not try out some fluffy socks?
You can also reverse-engineer this process by scheduling your heating to come on half an hour or so before your alarm clock – this will bring your body temperature back up to waking levels.
Avoid Stress Before Bed
It's easier said than done, but try to limit any stress-inducing activities before bed. In order to initiate sleep, you need to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system (associated with increased heart rate, adrenaline and the fight or flight response). This means no replying to work emails, or trying to cram in some last minute work or revision! Instead, give yourself time to wind-down and opt for passive and relaxing activities such as having a bath, reading, gentle yoga or meditation. Try creating a calm and relaxing bedtime routine that you enjoy.
Avoid Caffeine After Midday
In direct opposition to sleep, caffeine is a stimulant that activates your sympathetic nervous system and suppresses the recognition of sleepiness. Not only this, but caffeine can take up to 12 hours to leave your body, so try and avoid it after midday if you want to sleep before midnight.
If you find that you can still sleep after a cup of coffee, you may be more sleep deprived than you realise! Despite being able to fall asleep, caffeine still suppresses the amount of restorative, slow-wave sleep we get, causing us to feel unrefreshed when we wake-up in the morning (and ironically, leads us to reach for another cup of coffee!)
Avoid Using Alcohol as a 'Night-Cap'
Frequently used as a 'night-cap', alcohol is another thing to avoid if you want good quality sleep. Although it may feel as if we get to sleep more quickly after a glass of wine, it is important to note the difference between the sedative effect of alcohol and sleep. Sedation is not naturalistic sleep; sleeping with alcohol in our system prevents the ordinary structure of sleep and leads to mini-night time awakenings, which in turn impacts our functioning the next day.
Keep Technology out of the Bedroom and/or Turn off Notifications
If you can, keep your phone out of the bedroom, or at least turn off your notifications. Phone-use before bed not only exposes you to blue light and delays the release of melatonin, but engaging with social media can be cognitively arousing and lead to time displacement – mindless scrolling eats away precious sleep time.
Our brains are association machines! If we spend time working or revising in bed, then we will begin to associate the bed with being awake, cognitively aroused and stressed. Try and keep the bedroom for sleep and sex. If you have no choice but to work in your room, see if you can position yourself facing away from the bed.
Similarly, if you are laying in bed wide awake, then get out! Try not to get into bed until you are really tired – think drifting off on the sofa and drooping eyelids tired. If you really struggle with sleep, then depriving yourself of sleep and staying out of bed for as long as you can may help to create a big sleep pressure and reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep once you're in.
Avoid Day-time Napping if you Struggle to Sleep
If you struggle to sleep at night, but nap during the day, then stop. Like snacking before a meal, napping for too long before bedtime can remove some of the sleep pressure needed to initiate sleep.
Find ways to Reduce any Racing Thoughts and Worries
If sleep is a time where your thoughts and worries begin to sound the loudest, try writing them down. Getting your thoughts and plans for the next day out of your head and onto a page can be a helpful activity. Instead of focusing on your worries and anxieties, try thinking about positive things, such as the things you accomplished that day (write a 'to-done' list instead of a 'to-do list) or things you are grateful for (you can read about the link between gratitude and sleep here).
Positive psychology techniques such as Three Good Things have also been shown to improve sleep quality and quantity (read more about Three Good things here).
Treating a bad night's sleep with mindfulness and self-compassion is also helpful – everyone struggles to sleep every now and then, and recognising that this night just happens to be a bad night for you is okay (read more about mindfulness and self-compassion).
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Liking your bedroom is also important! Creating a space that you enjoy retreating to and relaxing in and the end of a long day can help you to look forward to sleep. We spend a third of our lives in bed, so why not invest in a decent mattress and bedspread?
Exercise is good for you regardless of sleep, but getting in 30-minutes of physical activity per day can also help to create the sleep pressure and fatigue needed to initiate sleep later on.
Avoid Eating Too Late
Trying to sleep on a full stomach is difficult! Avoiding glucose-spiking foods before bed is also a good idea.
Hopefully, these tips have given you something to think about, but it is important to accept that changing sleep takes time!
If you find that you have consistently tried all of the above and are still struggling with sleep, then do think about speaking to your GP.