Everyone knows that sleep is critical to good health. Sleep helps us stay focused during the day, aids in regulating mood, is vital for our body to heal, and allows for greater productivity. It is an important factor in supporting overall balanced mental, emotional, and physical health. Getting too few hours of sleep can contribute to a number of health issues including hypertension, arrhythmia, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, impaired immune function, memory loss, cognitive difficulties, and others.1 Sleep deprivation is even classified as a form of torture. 2
It is surreal to know that all of these problems and more can occur from the seemingly harmless act of losing even just a few hours of sleep each night. In contemporary society where time is often synonymous with money, sleep may take a back seat to other aspects of life that require time and attention. With professional, academic, social and family obligations all vying for the finite 24-hours in each day, it becomes more obvious how so many people aren’t getting enough sleep each night.
While most people are aware that lack of sleep and poor sleep quality negatively impacts their daily lives, they may not completely understand why their sleep is disturbed or what they can do to improve it. While the time spent sleeping is important, the quality of that sleep is of equal concern. If sleep is disrupted and not restful, the body and mind are not given ample opportunity to repair and prepare for the upcoming challenges of the next day.
Most people have a “bedtime routine” that they more or less follow each night. There is actually a name for these rituals, behaviors, and habits – they are called sleep hygiene. Many people understand the term “hygiene” to have a similar meaning to “cleanliness,” but the true meaning of hygiene includes activities and habits that positively impact one’s health. Hygiene habits of all kinds are relevant to health and well-being as their typical goal is avoiding disease. Sleep hygiene is no exception.
Considerations for improving sleep hygiene should be the go-to when sleep difficulties arise. There are things that contribute to poor sleep such as routinely pulling all-nighters or working swing shifts, trying to “make up” for lost sleep by sleeping in, or even drinking alcohol at night. Good sleep hygiene helps to ensure higher-quality and more restful sleep on a regular basis. Optimizing daily habits and creating a positive sleeping environment are critically important in achieving restful and rejuvenating sleep.
Cultivating positive sleep habits
Establish a consistent sleep schedule
We all need a specified amount of sleep in a 24-hour period. That amount can vary from approximately seven to nine hours and also may change depending on age and medical conditions. Getting less than the optimal amount of sleep can result in fatigue and difficulty functioning the next day, while getting too much sleep (e.g. taking a nap or sleeping longer than needed) can create difficulties in both falling asleep and staying asleep on subsequent nights.
Establish healthy lifestyle habits
Maintaining regular exercise routines and consuming a healthy diet can go a long way towards supporting optimal sleep patterns. Alcohol, fatty, processed and spicy foods can be the most disruptive to sleep. Drinking too much liquid close to bedtime can also cause us to wake in the night. Protein and other foods high in amino acids, antioxidants and vitamins help regulate blood sugar and are beneficial to supporting the hormones needed to achieve restful sleep. Exercising helps support energy production, regulate blood sugar, and reduce the impact of stress, anxiety and depression. However, exercising too close to bedtime can have a stimulatory effect and make it more difficult to initiate sleep.
Get enough natural light during the day
The body’s circadian rhythm, the system largely responsible for regulation of the balance of sleep and wakefulness, is triggered by exposure to light and darkness. Following the natural cycle of getting ample amounts of natural light in the morning and throughout the daylight hours accompanied by adequate darkness at night helps keep the circadian rhythm balanced.
Wind down and relax before bedtime
Preparing the mind and body to sleep is an important task. All too often people are either staring at a screen or rushing from one activity to the next trying to squeeze in one last thing before bed. Additionally, dwelling on problems or allowing disagreements into the bedroom can cause wakefulness and worry that may interfere with sleep. Taking time for activities like meditation, prayer, or slow, gentle stretching can help gently de-stress the mind, slow brainwaves down, and ease the body into sleep.
If spending time in front of a screen before bed, consider using blue blocking eyewear. Exposure to blue-wavelength light from electronic devices may affect sleep by suppressing melatonin and interfering with sleep-wake cycles.3 Blue blocking eyewear can mitigate this leading to improved sleep patterns, however it is best to turn off all electronics at least an hour before bedtime if possible.
Cultivating a Sleep Supportive Environment
Keep the bedroom dark
Exposing the body and brain to light as it is found in nature (light during the day, dark at night) is helpful for supporting sleep. Some people will also find the gradual change of light intensity during dawn and dusk helpful in stimulating their body’s endocrine regulation of sleep. Taking steps to limit light exposure in the evening such as using blue blocking glasses, using blackout window coverings, or wearing a sleep mask can be especially helpful.
Keep the bedroom quiet
Distracting or unnecessary noises can disrupt sleep quantity and quality. If noises are making falling or staying asleep a challenge, consider using earplugs, a fan or a white noise machine to block out distracting noises.
Keep the bedroom cool
In preparation for sleep, the body’s temperature begins to decrease, and maintaining a bedroom that is cooler (in the neighborhood of 60-68 degrees F) can help facilitate sleep by supporting the body’s drop in temperature. It has been shown that a cooler core body temperature, and specifically a cooler brain temperature, increases melatonin production and results in a better night’s sleep.3
Keep electronics out
Pretty much every electronic screen device from TVs to cellphones and portable gaming systems should be eliminated before bedtime. The light emitting from these types of devices can mimic sunlight in our brain, causing the circadian rhythm to become confused. Additionally, the material may be too mentally stimulating, leading to feelings of wakefulness that may interfere with falling asleep.4 If you need to have devices in the bedroom (like air filters), black electrical tape can be placed over light sources.
*Pro tip: Bring a small roll of black tape with you when traveling to block out random lights in the hotel room.
Taking steps to improve sleep hygiene can be key in getting a full night of quality sleep. Of course, the ideal sleep hygiene routine is extremely varied and individual. What works for one person may not be enough for someone else. The most important thing is that each individual person does what works for them in terms of promoting positive sleep hygiene routines.
If you’ve tried everything above and are still having trouble sleeping, naturopathic medical doctors can help identify the root cause of sleep disruption and work to get you back to sleeping like a baby! Click here to find an ND near you in the US and Canada.