A good night’s sleep. It’s something we all need, yet so many struggle to get.
Most of us have been there at one time or another. Tossing and turning, struggling to shut down our minds, or waking up frequently—these things make for a long and frustrating night.
According to the American Sleep Association, an estimated 50 million–70 million adults have some type of sleep disorder, which is, as they point out, a staggering number of Americans suffering from lack of sleep and its related consequences. It’s estimated that insomnia’s overall cost to society, in terms of accidents, decreased work production, absenteeism, and mistakes, is approximately $100 billion annually.
Insomnia causes us to feel cloudy, sluggish, and damages our health. It increases our risk of developing issues such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia, pain, and more.
So what is sleep hygiene? Well, sleep hygiene simply means good practices and habits for promoting a restful night’s sleep. It’s my go-to when patients are dealing with sleep issues. Sleep hygiene is easy to employ, and may even be more effective than prescription medications, which have many potential side effects and are only meant for short-term use.
Let’s take a look at some things you can do to start improving your sleep tonight.
Maintain the Same Sleep-Wake Schedule
First off, make sure you go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and try to maintain this schedule throughout the week. While sleeping in on the weekends is tempting, the Mayo Clinic recommends keeping it to no more than an hour’s difference from your weekly routine. This can make a big difference in our body knowing it’s time for sleep, and help maintain our body’s natural circadian rhythm.
With time, you may find you don’t even need an alarm clock.
Create a Relaxing Pre-Bedtime Routine
Preparing your mind and body for sleep goes a long way in helping to get a good night’s rest. Both what we do, and what we don’t do, matters.
For the most effective nighttime routine, we should avoid doing anything stimulating or stressful before bed, as these things can elevate cortisol and adrenaline, which gets our bodies ready for activity. So keep those cardio workouts, action movies, and emails out of your evening routine.
Also in the category of what not to do—no electronics within 30 minutes of bedtime. Not only are they stimulating, but the light emanated from them negatively impacts sleep.
In the what-to-do category, taking a warm lavender-infused Epsom salt bath can help you relax and improve sleep. Both lavender and the magnesium found in Epsom salts help promote a better night’s sleep.
Listening to relaxing music, drinking a cup of chamomile tea, or reading a calming book by soft light are also good ways to calm your mind and body.
Keeping our speech and thoughts positive and calm can decrease our anxiety and stress levels, leading to better sleep. So be mindful of the thoughts that come your way.
Mindfulness and relaxation exercises are often very effective in promoting good sleep. Deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are some great ways to calm the mind and body.
The National Sleep Foundation shares some stories from folks who’ve figured out solutions to their sleep problems. Misty Hyman, swimmer and gold medal Olympian, suggests writing down what’s causing you stress.
Misty says her list “usually includes things I need to do, problems I need to solve, or someone’s birthday that I don’t want to forget. Then, I prioritize the list. If there is something really urgent, I take care of it right then and there. When I see that the rest can wait until the next day without any consequences, I can fall asleep easily.”
And don’t forget sleep-inducing scents. Studies have shown that aromatherapy can lead to less anxiety and a better night’s sleep. Essential oils like lavender, roman chamomile, and bergamot are just a few of the oils that have been found to help improve sleep.
Watch What You Consume
The CDC recommends avoiding large meals, as well as any caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. People are often under the false assumption that alcohol helps them sleep better, but the opposite is actually true. While alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it disrupts sleep later in the night as your body processes it, leading to sleep disturbances.
If you do eat a little something before bed, make it something small and nutritious; ideally a small snack containing both protein and complex carbohydrates. Avoid foods that are spicy or especially rich.
Keep Your Cool
The environment in your room is also important. To start, having a cool room goes a long way in getting a good night’s rest. I know if I’m too warm, or even too cool, I don’t sleep as well.
In an article on the online site Health, Charlottesville, Virginia, neurologist and sleep specialist Dr. Chris Winter advises keeping your bedroom in the 60s at night, with 65 degrees Fahrenheit being his recommended temperature. He often hears people say that they like to keep their bedroom in the 70s, but says if he measured the quality of their sleep, it would not be as good as those sleeping in cooler temperatures.
“If somebody said to me, ‘I have a friend who doesn’t sleep well. You know nothing about them. What one suggestion would you make that you think, odds are, would have the most impact on their sleep?’ I would say temperature.”
That’s a powerful statement for something so simple.
Humidity Levels Matter
Humidity levels can also have an impact on sleep. High humidity can lead to mold growth and therefore allergies and congestion, whereas too little humidity can also be problematic, as it leads to drying of the nasal passages. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping the humidity level in your bedroom at about 50 percent. By investing in a dehumidifier for summer use, and a humidifier for winter use, you may find you sleep more soundly.
I know my husband and I certainly sleep better and wake up with less sinus dryness, and resultant congestion, when we use a humidifier during the winter months.
Decrease Light Exposure
One of the most important things you can do is make sure your room is dark. Blackout blinds or curtains, or even an eye mask, can help. Make sure there is no light from cellphones or TVs, you can even consider putting a dimmer on your lights, and set it on low as you’re winding down for bed.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Artificial light disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm—the body’s 24-hour sleep/wake cycle—and has been shown to affect things like brain wave patterns, hormone production, and cell regulation.”
They note that light also decreases the production of melatonin. Melatonin, the sleep hormone produced in the pineal gland, decreases when we’re exposed to light. Melatonin begins to rise in the mid- to late evening, and stays elevated throughout the night, until we are exposed to light, at which point it begins to break down.
Remember, even a small bit of light can interfere with sleep.
The Noise Factor
You may not realize it, but your brain continues to process sound even as you sleep. So in general, a quiet environment is best. Of course, for some, having a room that’s too quiet can be just as problematic as having a room that’s too noisy.
Personally, too much noise has always negatively impacted my sleep. A ticking clock, traffic, the neighbor’s barking dog—all these things can disrupt sleep.
Years ago, while temporarily living much too close to train tracks, I discovered just how well earplugs work to block out noise. Suddenly, I could sleep without every little noise awakening me. Mack’s earplugs are what I’ve found to be the most comfortable, but there are many options out there.
For those who enjoy sleeping with some sort of sound, an easy and portable option is a sound machine. You can choose from anything from white noise to ocean waves to thunder, or even crickets. Pick your favorite sound and drift off into a peaceful slumber.
And of course, be sure to turn off sounds like cellphone notifications or the TV.
A comfortable mattress and pillow can go a long way in providing a good night’s sleep. Your mattress should be the right level of firmness for your body, and a good, supportive pillow is crucial, and definitely a worthwhile investment. It’s recommended that pillows be replaced annually, and mattresses be replaced approximately every seven years.
Make sure that you also have allergen-reducing zippered cases on both your mattress and pillows. And try to use all-cotton bedding, as it tends to be cooler and more breathable than other fabrics.
Now that you’ve created the perfect sleeping environment, don’t be too quick to curl up in bed.
Napping too much leads us back to our starting point—the need for maintaining the same sleep-wake schedule. If we’re napping too much, then we’re not going to be tired when bedtime rolls around.
Of course, there are a number of cultures around the world that take an afternoon siesta, and for many, a short nap may be beneficial. If you find yourself needing a nap, try to limit it to no more than 30 minutes, and don’t take a nap too late in the day.
Insomnia is a costly problem, not just in terms of money, but in terms of both our mental and physical health. I hope some of these simple tips will help you get a better night’s rest tonight, leading to a more productive day tomorrow.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.