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A Deep Dive into Sleep Hygiene and How to Improve it

October 25, 2022

Gary Fireman

There is a powerful connection between your activities during the day and the quality of your sleep, and from the quality of your sleep to your ability to function the next day.

“Sleep hygiene” refers to the habits you have developed surrounding your sleep. It is comprised of the routines you have created throughout the day and evening as well as your environment at sleep time.

Even if you feel like you already sleep well, there may still be things you can do to optimize your sleep - much like there are things you might do to optimize your nutrition or your exercise routine. In fact, all three of these things (sleep, nutrition, and exercise) influence each other.

The general recommendations for good sleep hygiene are straightforward and similar for most people, but what works best varies by individual and can be challenging to identify. For example, it is considered good sleep hygiene to fall asleep in a soothing environment. To me, a soothing environment is a quiet room and noise is a distraction that would keep me awake. However, my partner likes to listen to audio programs that are soothing to her. The key for both of us is a soothing environment, but for my partner this means noise and for me, it means no noise. If you share a room or a bed, it is critical to find a solution that works for all.

The most important factor to getting good sleep is a consistent routine. This is no surprise to athletes, who know the value of routine for training and performance. The same is true for sleep.

Stick to a schedule for going to sleep and for waking up. This way, you get your body’s sleep debt and biological clock (discussed in the last article) to work for you in promoting ease of falling and remaining asleep.

The challenge here is prioritizing sleep, which can be difficult for folks who enjoy going out late on the weekends and nearly impossible for shift workers or new parents with an infant. The key to all healthy sleep habits is finding the right balance with the other demands in your life.

With balance in mind, here are some well-documented suggestions for establishing a pattern of healthy, restorative sleep.

1. Creating a good sleep environment for yourself:

This means finding a bed that you find comfortable. Ensuring you are sleeping in a darkened room with all distractions removed e.g., mobile phones and computers off (or even out of the room). Make sure the room temperature is cool (as your core body temperature drops a bit during sleep).

I often get asked about pets in the room, the answer is based on whether the pet is soothing or distracting throughout all 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Remember that even your pets have different sleep schedules than you.

2. Exercise:

Exercise is generally very good for sleep. Regular exercise benefits the depth of sleep and can promote sleep onset.

However, exercise right before bed can raise the body’s core temperature and make it difficult to fall asleep. For most people, it is best to schedule your exercise 2 or more hours prior to sleep.

3. Unwind:

Right before sleep, it is best to relax, meditate, read, take a warm bath (which relaxes muscles, and helps your core body temperature drop afterward), or do whatever you find calming. A calm mind and body promote falling asleep and remaining asleep throughout the night.

4. Get Outdoors:

It is important to get exposure to sunlight daily as this supports your biological clock.

5. Be Mindful of Caffeine:

While many people drink coffee, myself included, it is important to be mindful of when you are consuming caffeine. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Everyone metabolizes caffeine at different rates, so the timing for stopping caffeine will vary by individual.

6. Nutrition:

While it is sometimes unavoidable, eating a large meal before bed can also be problematic as it can result in indigestion and reflux when you lie down.

Further, there is evidence that high sugar intake at night can result in lower quality sleep as it reduces your depth of sleep.

Alcohol before bed is also a problem. Alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns and often results in less restorative sleep.

7. Napping

To nap or not to nap. This is a very common question.

Napping during the day is generally a healthy activity. However, if you nap too late in the day (later afternoon), or for too long (more than 45 to 60 minutes), then napping can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

The key is to develop good napping habits that fit you.

8. Don’t Lay and Wait

If you find yourself lying in bed unable to sleep for longer than about 20 minutes, it is best to get up and do a calming activity out of bed.

Sleep is funny in that the harder you try to sleep, the harder it is to sleep. Instead of lying in bed worrying about not sleeping, get up and do something soothing like reading or listening to music. When you start to feel sleepy then get back into bed.

Optimizing your sleep will help optimize your performance. If you have sleep problems, hopefully, these tips will help. However, please see your doctor if you have ongoing trouble sleeping.

- Gary Fireman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Suffolk University
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