The Ultimate Guide To Sleep Hygiene [2020]

woman wearing sleep mask while lying in bed

For some, a good night’s sleep might seem elusive and impossible — but with the right sleep hygiene practices, it could be closer than you think. In short, sleep hygiene is a series of healthy habits that improve your overall quality of sleep; most of these habits are rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so they help you to form associations, control your environment, and intentionally relax your mind and body. 

By now, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of sleep (it is when the bulk of cell restoration happens, after all). But what happens when you don’t get enough of it? 

Your quality of sleep might be suffering right now due to the current Coronavirus pandemic. It could be the stress of the whole thing, the lack of routine, or the excess screen time; whatever the cause, so many people are searching for solutions. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is linked to chronic health problems as well as increased risk of injury, slowed learning, and mood issues — but fortunately, implementing a sleep hygiene practice can help. 

Studies show that the right habits play a huge role in your overall quality of sleep, and that changing your waking behaviors is an accessible and affordable way to get healing, rejuvenating rest. 

So what are some sleep hygiene tips and how can you use them to improve your sleep?

Habits That Cultivate Good Sleep Hygiene

Establishing a routine:

First, calculate how much sleep you need. Then go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. (Yes, even on your days off. Consistency is key, because you want your body to fall into a natural rhythm.)

Brushing your teeth, washing your face, or putting on pajamas doesn’t just prepare your body for sleep — when done every night, these activities prepare your mind, too.

Experts suggest participating in a wind-down routine each night before bed; this helps you form an association between a particular time and a feeling of relaxation. You might also want to take up a soothing nighttime activity. Journaling, reading, meditating, using aromatherapy, taking a bath: These are all great ways to prepare yourself for bed. Just do yourself a favor and avoid any activity that involves a screen. (More on that below.)

woman in pajamas writing in journal

Tracking your sleep:

There are so many factors that could be influencing your sleep, and it’s hard to keep all of them in mind. A good sleep diary records the habits, results, moods, and the substances that could be affecting your body. That way, when you wake up feeling like you barely slept, you’ll be much more capable of tracking down the culprit.

Similarly, modern tech devices (like smart watches) often have the ability to track your sleep patterns, so you can see exactly when the disturbances occurred. 

Exercising:

When some people get into bed at night, they still feel as though they have so much energy to spend. Exercise is a great way to burn off some of that energy and ensure that you’re tired come bedtime. A tip:

Don’t do any vigorous activities right before bed, because it could amp you up rather than calm you down. Instead, try to exercise early in the morning — and do it outside, if you can. Exposure to natural light early in the day could help to reset your body’s clock (also called your circadian rhythm).

Optimizing your sleep environment:

Of course, you want your bedroom to be comfortable and well-suited for sleep. Invest in a great mattress. Keep your room dark to avoid disturbing your circadian rhythm. Block out loud noises. Lower the thermostat. (Experts suggest temperatures around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, since cooler temperatures prepare your body for sleep.)

Another important factor is association. You want your mind and body to associate your bed with rest, so you shouldn’t lie in it while you watch TV, chat on the phone, or read through paperwork. Instead, only use your bedroom for sleep and sex

Reducing your stress levels:

Cortisol (the stress hormone) is closely linked to your sleep schedule. It’s essential for the sleep-wake cycle, as it rises during the middle of the night and is at its highest in the morning. However, when cortisol levels are elevated around the clock, it’s been shown to cause insomnia. Find ways to de-stress during the day and right before bed. This is where a wind-down activity comes in handy. 

Speaking to your physician:

Many sleep-related issues can be rectified at home — but if you’re not making any progress, speak to your physician. Some stubborn, ongoing issues (like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and insomnia) might require professional intervention, and ignoring them could lead to further anxiety surrounding your sleep schedule. 

Habits That Cultivate Poor Sleep Hygiene

Napping:

Yes, a nap feels so good in the moment, but it’s probably not doing anything to help your sleep schedule. Each time you nap for more than 20 minutes (or if you nap after 3 p.m.), you’re in danger of resetting your body’s internal clock. Come bedtime, you’re suddenly not tired anymore. If you can help it, skip the nap altogether — and if you can’t, try to nap for only a few minutes at a time.

Using devices before bed:

According to experts, this is a big one. Our bodies didn’t evolve alongside artificial light; back then, it was dark at night and bright during the day. Our brain learned to use environmental cues (primarily light) to decide when it should create melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body’s sleep cycle. If your bedroom is light and bright right before bed, it could trick your body into thinking it’s time to wake up — not time to go to sleep.

Electronic devices take that issue one step further. Their screens emit something called “blue light,” which is a specific wavelength that stops melatonin production and has a negative impact on your circadian rhythm. It’s a wide-spread problem because so many people “unwind” by scrolling through social media, watching TV, or reading on their tablets.

If you can, try to put your devices away at least one hour before bed. Otherwise, try blue-light blocking glasses, take advantage of your tech’s nighttime screen settings, or switch to a device that doesn’t use a backlight (like an e-reader). 

Drinking caffeine:

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world — but just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s without side-effects. Your morning cup of coffee could affect your body for up to seven hours after ingestion. That means that if you have a second cup after lunch, you’re in danger if impacting your quality of sleep. 

Drinking alcohol:

Alcohol is a depressant, so it should help you sleep, right? Not so much. Even though a nightcap might help you to feel temporarily relaxed, alcohol actually disrupts your REM sleep. (This stage of sleep is thought to impact your mood, memory, and learning ability, which is why you rarely feel rested the morning after drinking.) 

Using nicotine:

Like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant — but unlike caffeine, this stimulant should be avoided altogether. It’s a highly addictive substance that negatively impacts your lungs, heart, and brain, and its stimulative effects remain in your body for up to eight hours. Cigarettes and vaping don’t have any health benefits, so it’s best to quit entirely, but at the very least, stop usage two hours before bed to get a better night’s sleep.

Eating rich, heavy, or spicy foods:

You’ve likely heard that you shouldn’t eat directly before bed. That’s supposedly because your metabolism slows down while you sleep — but according to experts, what you eat definitely matters. Simply put, foods that cause acid reflux, heartburn, and stomach pain will keep you awake. No one wants to feel uncomfortable while they’re lying in bed, right?

Lying in bed and watching the clock:

There’s something called “sleep anxiety,” and it’s seemingly an endless cycle: You wake up feeling tired and have limited energy throughout the day. When bedtime rolls around, you’re exhausted, but you start worrying, “What if I can’t sleep tonight? I have a big day tomorrow.” It’s this exact fear that keeps you awake again. The cycle repeats.

To break the cycle, experts say you shouldn’t lie in bed for hours; if you’re not asleep within 20 or so minutes, get up and do something else (preferably screen-free) until you get tired. Then try again. You can also turn your clock around, so you’re not tempted to glance over at it and start calculating how long it’ll be until your alarm rings.

Oversleeping:

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Similar to napping, sleeping too long (or lying in bed for a while after you’ve woken up) might interfere with your upcoming sleep that night. On a related note, excess sleep is usually fragmented, unsatisfying, and could leave you feeling worse. Figure out how much sleep your body needs and try not to over-do it. 

Tools You Can Use To Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene handouts:

Looking to keep these tips nearby and easily accessible? Print out a sleep hygiene handout and keep it on your refrigerator or your bedside table. That way, you can see at a glance which habits need improving, and you’ll be much more likely to keep them in mind throughout the day.

Sleep hygiene checklist:

Now you know exactly what to do in order to improve your sleep — but that’s not the same thing as actually doing it. A sleep hygiene checklist helps you to follow through on your new habits. It might also help you figure out what’s impeding your sleep on a daily basis; for example, if you didn’t turn off your devices before bed and now you’re feeling wired, that’s probably why. Make your own checklist or use the one we’ve provided below.

Sleep trackers:

You can also use a diary or a smart watch to track your exercise routine, diet, and schedule. Sleep trackers help you to see exactly where you’re going wrong with your habits, so you can rectify them before you lose any more sleep over it. The diary below was created by the National Sleep Foundation, and it’s a great tool to cultivate sleep hygiene.

White noise machines:

Whereas sudden sounds might rouse you from a state of relaxation, white noise machines cover up any disturbances. (If you can’t sleep without the sound of a fan, you’ve already gotten used to white noise!)

These little devices are great investments because they drown out the sound of loud neighbors, restless pets, inconsiderate roommates, and outside noise pollution. Most also come pre-programmed with a wide selection of relaxing sounds, like beach waves and babbling brooks, which you’ll soon come to associate with sleep. As a result, they’re a great addition to your wind-down routine. 

Weighted blankets:

Research shows that weighted blankets help with anxiety and insomnia because they put the autonomic nervous system into “rest” mode. In short, these blankets are filled with weighted components like sand or glass beads, so they feel like a body-encompassing hug. That said, if you’re claustrophobic or tend to overheat at night, don’t worry: they’re specifically designed to remain breathable and non-constricting. 

Blue light blocking glasses:

Unlike your average pair of glasses, these ones don’t have to impact your vision (although you can get prescription pairs if you need them). Instead, blue light blocking glasses filter out blue wavelengths from your screens and your environment. They aim to encourage melatonin production despite light, so if you need to use your phone before bed, these glasses might be a worthy investment. 

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