Reviewed by: Donna Shanor, LCSW and LCDC
Written by: Abbi Havens
Just like breathing, sleep is a pivotal piece of human functionality. Sleep allows your body to repair itself, strengthens your immune system and allows your brain to process information and consolidate memories.
For any person with a regular sleep cycle, sleep can be broken down into two categories. Approximately every 90 minutes, a person alternates between “quiet sleep’” during which the body temperature decreases, heart rate slows and muscles relax to “REM sleep” or rapid eye movement sleep, during which the heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase to match levels measured when one is awake and dreaming occurs (REM sleep is known to improve cognition and memory as well as improve emotional health).
Much of the science of sleep remains a mystery, but one thing is certain – the disruption of this sleep pattern, alternating between quiet sleep and REM sleep, increases your levels of stress hormones, impairs thinking and weakens your ability to regulate your emotions. Poor sleep habits and sleep disorders are potentially associated with an increased risk of developing mental health diseases like depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder and anxiety or worsen the impact of existing conditions.
Practicing good sleep hygiene, meaning developing habits that are conducive to consistent quality sleep, can work wonders for your mental and physical health. Here are 7 sleep hygiene tips to help you feel your best:
Put away your phone.
Blue light is all around us, although it hasn’t always been. The sun used to be our only source of blue light, so when the sun set, so did those energizing blue waves. In its natural form, blue light regulates the body’s sleep cycle, brightens your mood and elevates your alertness and reaction time. This is fine and dandy for when you’re awake, but now artificial blue light has been harnessed by the digital screens on your televisions, smart phones, laptops and LED lightbulbs and has the same effect (not great for winding down and falling asleep). Exposure to blue light powerfully suppresses the secretion of melatonin, negatively affecting your sleep cycle. To combat the effects of blue light, put away your devices 1-2 hours before bed, use dim red lights for night lights, consider investing in blue light filter glasses and expose yourself to bright light during the day to help you sleep better at night.
Keep work out of the bedroom.
Your bed should be used for exactly two things: sleep and, well, you know the rest. By creating poor bedside habits, whether stressful like working and answering emails or relaxing like watching television, eating, knitting, you name it, your brain will begin to associate your bed with activity and to-do lists. Instead, stick to the basics and your brain will begin to associate your bed with intimacy and rest.
If you can’t fall asleep in 15 minutes, get out of bed.
Even if you’ve eliminated all extraneous tasks from your bedtime routine, simply lying awake with your mind racing may cause your brain to begin thinking of your bed as a space to be awake. If you’ve been awake for longer than 15 minutes in bed and just can’t fall asleep, get up and move around. Read a book, play with your dog, meditate, but resist the urge to reach for your phone. Only return to your bed once you’re feeling sleepy.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed.
Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol all negatively impact your sleep cycle in their own way. As we all know, caffeine is a stimulant, but it may last longer than you think. It’s important to avoid caffeine consumption for 6-8 hours before bedtime. The effect of nicotine on sleep can be deceitful. Nicotine disrupts your sleep cycle and increases your risk of developing sleeping disorders, but it’s also a stimulant. This means your exhaustion may be disguised by the stimulating properties, leading to further health complications. Many may be tempted to drink a glass of wine or two to fall asleep. While alcohol does promote the onset of sleep, it disrupts your normal sleep patterns and it’s best to avoid alcohol at least four hours before going to bed.
Be wary of sleeping pills.
If taken regularly, sleeping pills may lose their effectiveness in 2-4 weeks, and it doesn’t stop there. Over time, sleeping pills may actually worsen chronic sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. Sleeping pills may provoke a rebound of insomnia, so it’s best to take them on an occasional and as-needed basis.
Don’t fall prey to 24-hour gyms (or do, but know yourself, first).
It was previously believed that exercise before bed is a no-no because exercise increases your heart rate, raises your body temperature and boosts your adrenaline (not exactly a recipe for a good night’s sleep). For many, this is true. Rigorous exercise within two hours of bedtime may be too mentally stimulating for some. However, new studies show that the relationship between exercise and sleep is not the same across the board. For many, exercising right before bed causes the type of exhaustion that allows you to hit the pillow and sleep straight through the night with no disturbances. Some trial and error will help you find an exercise routine that works for you but one thing is certain – regular, moderate exercise decreases your stress levels, decompresses the mind, increases slow wave sleep (deep sleep that is rejuvenating for the mind and body) and promotes general health.
Your bedroom is a temple.
We’ve all experienced the stress of a cluttered bedroom. It’s difficult to settle in for a night of rejuvenating slumber when two weeks-worth of unfolded laundry sleeps next to you, water glasses pile high on your nightstand and it smells like your cat’s litterbox. Create an environment that’s conducive to quality sleep by regulating your room to a moderate temperature (ideally 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit), masking distracting noise with white noise (a fan or sleep playlist) or earplugs, darkening your room with blackout shades or wearing a sleep mask, utilizing a scent known to promote sleep like lavender and keeping it clean.
In today’s environment, we are constantly stimulated. We are bombarded with immediate news of the latest tragedies and we constantly scroll through post after post of the curated lives of friends and family on social media. It’s nearly impossible to leave work at your desk when you’re always just a click away from your email. With so much to do, it can be hard to devote enough time (seven to nine hours, to be exact) to a full night’s worth of quality sleep. But for just a moment, take a step back. If health and happiness are at the top of your list of what really matters to you, sleep is a key variable in that formula. Practice good sleep hygiene and feel the benefits of deep sleep to your mind and body. If your sleep issues are not resolved by practicing good sleep hygiene, make an appointment with a health care provider to address any underlying sleep disorders. You won’t regret it.