Welcome to this post which looks at what is sleep hygiene? You may know the term sleep hygiene, but might not know what it fully involves. This post explains the impacts poor sleep can have, what sleep hygiene is and how best to do it. Over a third of all adults in the UK struggle to sleep at least once a week. Whilst nearly 50% struggle once a month. Since the pandemic Google trends shows a large increase in searches related to falling asleep. Most searches happen between 1am and 4am. Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and it shortens your life expectancy. You can read more about the health impacts of poor sleep on the NHS website.
Sleep hygiene is both your sleeping environment and the bedtime behaviours you practice. In short, it’s your bedroom and bedtime habits. Good sleep hygiene means your environment is optimised for sleep and your bedtime habits are geared towards rest. Sleep hygiene is a branch of clinical psychology developed in the late 1970s to help with insomnia. There is little clinical evidence to support individual practices of sleep hygiene. When combined however, many people benefit from an optimal sleep environment and tailored wind-down routine.
There are several factors in your bedroom which you can optimise for better sleep hygiene. These fall into two key areas: the bed itself and the bedroom environment. Try to get as many aspects as close to most comfortable as you can. It might take a while to get everything to an optimal level, but can be really worth the effort. experienced keynote speaker, executive international coach, international workshop facilitator and learning consultant and author.
– The Bed
The bed comprises of your mattress, pillow and covers, plus what you may (or may not) wear in bed. Your mattress needs to be comfortable and supportive; neither too hard nor too soft. I’m a big fan of the Emma hybrid mattress which combines a memory foam top layer and traditional pocket springs underneath. I’ll be posting my review of this mattress soon. The same goes for your pillow, there is a huge range to choose from. It can help to select one which matches your sleeping style to give you the best support. You will likely need to change the type of covering you use depending on the time of year. Aim for something that keeps you at a comfortable temperature; warm enough but not too warm. If you suffer from allergies there are hypoallergenic options which could further boost your sleep quality. What you wear in bed comes down to personal preference, many people find loose-fitting clothing made from breathable fabrics most comfortable.
Ideally you want your bedroom environment to be cool, dark and quiet. Your body temperature decreases during sleep, this is part of your circadian rhythm. So, you want to ensure your room and covers don’t make you overheat. The right temperature will help you to both fall and stay asleep.
Light exposure stimulates alertness, so a dark room is needed for sleep. Darkness send a signal to the body that it’s time to rest and enables release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin regulates sleep quantity and quality. To ensure a dark room, minimise external light sources by using a blackout blind or curtains. Also, minimise internal light sources e.g. flashing LEDs from electronics. If you’re unable to do this, try sleeping with an eye mask.
Noise can be challenging to optimise for and different approaches may work for different types of noise. If noise is coming from your own home, say if others are still awake when you need to be asleep, try carpets or floor coverings to absorb sound. If it’s coming from outside, close your windows and use thick curtains. Some city areas experience a lot of noise from traffic, flight paths, people socialising outdoors etc. In this instance, it can be worth considering investing in upgrading your windows. Specialist firms can analyse the noise type and level and tailor your windows accordingly. If you’re renting, you might like to try a white noise machine, sleep headphones or earplugs, although these aren’t suitable solutions for everyone. Earplugs and an eye mask can be useful to have if you’re travelling and sleeping somewhere different.
Bedtime routines are highly individual as we all find different things relaxing. It’s important to wind down before bed so you don’t try to sleep whilst you’re still wired. There are a variety of sleep hygiene recommendations relating to bedtime routines. So it may be worth trying different combinations and tailoring your own based on what works best.
There are two key aspects to sleep hygiene timing; your sleeping hours and when you start your bedtime routine. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day programmes the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine. As most adults need between 6 and 9 hours of sleep every night, count back from when you need to get up, to work out the time you need to go to sleep. Obviously, for those who work changing shift patterns, that is not possible. I’m planning another post on sleep hygiene for shift workers so watch this space. It’s also important to allow enough time for winding down and your bedtime routine, to ensure you go to bed relaxed and ready for sleep. Having too short a lead-up to bedtime means you could be going to bed stimulated/wired and will find it hard to drop off. When exactly to start your bedtime routine, depends on what it involves.
Activities to Avoid
Avoiding certain activities ahead of bedtime will help your sleep hygiene. Experts advise avoiding caffeine and nicotine as they are both stimulants. Avoid using screens for an hour or so before you go to bed as the light from the screen on these devices may have a negative effect on sleep. If you use your phone or tablet for sleep or relaxation apps use a blue light filter and ensure the screen brightness is turned down, PC Mag has a range of suggestions. Certain foods should also be avoided, meals which are large, rich or spicy take longer to digest so if you have them late you may still be digesting when you should be sleeping. Choose a light snack if you need to eat something before bed and try not to drink too much (so your sleep isn’t disturbed by the need to pee).
Activities which raise your core temperature are also best avoided right before bed. These include very hot baths and strenuous exercise. As mentioned in the bedroom environment section above, core temperature drops at bedtime so raising it will make it harder to fall asleep. It’s fine to have a bath if you allow enough time for your core temperature to drop afterwards or to do gentle exercise.
Activities to Consider
The key to a good wind down routine, is to make it non stimulating for body and mind. Choose gentle activities which you find relaxing. Allow at least 30 minutes for your routine, although many people prefer to take longer. Once you’ve established which aspects work best for you, stick to your routine. This way, your brain recognises the routine as a cue that it’s time to sleep. Incorporate the obvious things like brushing your teeth and putting on your nightwear, but also include activities beneficial to your wellbeing and state of mind.
Some people find reading a book or using a meditation app helps them to relax. If you find you have concerns or anxieties whirring in your head, write them down with a view to tackling them when you wake up. Some people find stretching or gentle yoga helps them to release tension from their bodies. As a disabled person my exercise ability is very limited, but I really love the 10 minute ‘yoga in bed’ videos which Sleepy Santosha does. This is the bedtime one. Other people like a relaxing bath or to light candles/use aromatherapy.
What if it’s not enough?
You can have very good sleep hygiene, but sometimes it’s still not enough for you to sleep well. Common reasons include stress and ill health, although there are many factors which can affect sleep. If you’ve been struggling for a few weeks it might be time to speak to your pharmacist or doctor. For instances where you know the stress will be short-lived (e.g. a big project at work with an deadline in a couple of weeks) you can get over the counter sleep supplements. If you can’t identify the reason or it’s a complex or long-lived one (e.g. grief or chronic illness) speak to your GP about what support is available. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Talk Health my sleep programme, which is a free 12 week programme with lots of advice, tips and support. It covers a huge range of sleep-related issues from mental health to how to choose the right bed. It’s delivered weekly via email so you can complete it at a time to suit you.
Over to You…
Do you have any sleep tips? Do you struggle with any aspect of sleep? Drop a comment in the box below and let’s get a conversation started. This post is the first in a series of sleep-related posts, so do come back for regular updates.