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 any number of health crises 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.
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’ sleep each night. In contemporary society where time is often synonymous with money, many people have the stance that sleep takes 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.
The real kicker is that although most people are fully aware of the impact that poor sleep quality and limited sleep quantity have on their daily lives, they may not be clear on contributing factors for sleep loss or what they could be doing to ensure they get not only enough sleep, but improve their sleep quality as well. 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 actual meaning of hygiene includes sets of practices, habits and environmental influences that 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 ensure consistently higher-quality, more restful sleep for an adequate amount of time each night. Maximizing the chances of getting adequate quality sleep each night typically involves two important factors: personal habits and sleeping environment. Optimizing both of these aspects is of the utmost importance when it comes to successful 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 7-9 hours and also may change depending on age and medical conditions. Getting less than the optimal amount can result in sleep deprivation, and getting more than that (i.e. taking a nap or sleeping longer than needed) can lead to sleep fragmentation and difficulty initiating sleep. Starting a regular routine of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day (even on the weekends) is one of the most important components of a good sleep hygiene routine.
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 in particular from light-emitting electronic devices may affect sleep by suppressing melatonin and causing neurophysiologic arousal.2 Blue blocking eyewear can mitigate this leading to improved sleep patterns.
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 drops. Maintaining a bedroom that is cooler (in the neighborhood of 60-70 degrees F) can help facilitate sleep by supporting the body’s drop in temperature.
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 decreased subjective and objective sleepiness.2 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!
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