Sleep is an essential function of our bodies and is necessary for tissue repair, memory consolidation and hormonal balance. Unfortunately, approximately 1/3 of Americans report difficulty falling or staying asleep. Lack of sleep (less than seven hours per night) can result in such common symptoms as fatigue and forgetfulness as well as contribute to many chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Getting seven hours of restful sleep per night can help you stay fit, increase sex drive and mood and keep you sharp at the office. Luckily, there are simple habits you can begin tonight that help your body move into restful sleep, which doctors refer to as sleep hygiene.
Basics of Sleep Hygiene
Practicing good sleep hygiene helps to train your body to recognize signals for sleep. The main premise is to create a sleep ritual (like taking a warm bath) that you perform every night at the same time. Over several weeks to months, these rituals become programmed into your brain as external signals that sleep is coming, which allows the brain to slow down and begin the process of relaxation.
- Go to bed at the same time each night.
- Get up from bed at the same time each morning.
- Get regular exercise each day, preferably in the morning. There is good evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise.
- Get regular exposure to outdoor or bright lights during the day. This helps to support your circadian rhythm, which tells your body when it is daytime (giving you more energy) and nighttime (moving you into restfulness).
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable
- Keep the bedroom quiet when sleeping. If you have noisy neighbors, make sure to keep your doors closed or move your bed. If you live on a busy street, make sure to keep your windows closed.
- Keep the bedroom dark enough to facilitate sleep. The release of melatonin by the pineal gland (your natural sleep aid) is inhibited by light, so the darker the better. Even the lights from your alarm clock, a charging computer, or light from under you door can affect sleep.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
- Do a relaxation practice just before going to sleep.
- Muscle relaxation, imagery, massage, warm bath, etc.
- You can find guided relaxation audio tools online (iTunes) or at your local music store.
- Exercise just before going to bed. Exercise stimulates metabolic activity, exactly the things we would like to begin slowing down before bed.
- Engage in stimulating activity just before bed such as playing a competitive game, watching an exciting program on television or movie, or having an important discussion with a loved one.
- Have caffeine in the evening (coffee, many teas, chocolate, sodas, etc.)
- Read or watch television in bed. These activities tend to stimulate the brain. We want your bedroom to be a sanctuary, not a place where you get revved up.
- Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm and over time can make it much more difficult to get a good night’s rest
- Go to bed too hungry or too full.
- Take over-the-counter sleeping pills, without your doctor’s knowledge. Tolerance can develop rapidly with these medications.
- Extended (more than 30 minute) daytime naps.
- Command yourself to go to sleep. This only makes your mind and body more alert.
If you lie in bed awake for more than 20–30 minutes, get up, go to a different room (or different part of the bedroom), participate in a quiet activity (e.g. non–excitable reading, listening to a relaxation tape), and then return to bed when you feel sleepy. Do this as many times during the night as needed.
After practicing these techniques every night for two weeks, if you have seen no change in your sleep, contact your doctor as you may require a more in depth medical workup.
By: Malea MacOdrum 4th year medical student edited by Elise Schroeder ND