If you’ve ever heard someone talk about sleep hygiene, you may have immediately thought of a shower or bath and wondered, what in the world does that have to do with sleep? Sleep hygiene is something totally different, and we’re going to talk about it in this guide.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
The term “sleep hygiene” refers to sleep habits. If someone has “good sleep hygiene,” it’s essentially saying that they have good sleep practices and habits that lead to a good night’s sleep. Conversely, if someone is not sleeping well and has unhealthy sleep practices, they have “poor sleep hygiene.”
Benefits of Sleep Hygiene
Practicing good sleep habits not only leaves you feeling refreshed in the morning and ready to go, it also contributes to an overall healthy lifestyle. Good sleep habits can be the difference between a sluggish day and a productive one, or between a restful night’s sleep and tossing and turning. Contrary to popular belief, a good night’s sleep is not impossible to achieve, you just may have to make some lifestyle adjustments. We’ll talk more about that below.
How Sleep Works
Before we get into the details about how to sleep well, let’s talk about how sleep works and what it does for your body. The human body has a biological clock, also known as a circadian rhythm. This internal clock tells us when it’s time to be tired and when it’s time to wake up. The circadian rhythm regulates our sleep cycles by giving us the schedules our bodies follow for the physical and mental changes we go through on a daily basis. Circadian rhythms work to regulate the body’s sleep cycles with the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel tired. Melatonin is naturally produced by the brain when there is little to no natural light in your surrounding environment, usually at night. Its production decreases during daylight hours, which is why we feel awake during the day and sleepy at night (unless you’re a night shift worker).
The Sleep Cycle
Now that we’ve talked about the internal clock that gets you ready for sleep, let’s talk about what happens when you’re actually sleeping! There are two main types of sleep during the sleep cycle: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Within these two types, there are four stages:
Stage 1: This first stage of NREM sleep is very light, lasting only a few minutes or so. At this stage, your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep, your eye movements slow down, and your brain begins producing waves of activity known as alpha and theta waves. During this stage, you can be easily woken up since you’re only lightly sleeping.
Stage 2: During this NREM stage, you’re still only lightly sleeping but your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax significantly and your body temperature goes down slightly. Your eye movements will slow down during this stage and those brain waves we talked about in Stage 1 will slow down with occasional increases in activity.
Stage 3: This stage of sleep is restorative, rejuvenating sleep – the kind that makes you feel refreshed. If someone were to wake you up during this stage, you would probably feel disoriented for a few minutes before recognizing your surroundings. Our eye movements slow down or stop, and it’s very difficult to wake us up. This stage is a super important one – it’s where your body starts repairing muscle, strengthening your immune system, and other vital processes that keep your body running.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: During REM sleep, our eye movements increase dramatically, like the name suggests. REM sleep is the stage where dreaming happens, and researchers think that the rapid eye movements may be related to the dreaming that you’re doing. During this stage, most of your muscles are in a paralyzed state, to keep you from acting out your dreams. Don’t worry though, the important muscles like your heart and diaphragm aren’t paralyzed and are working like they’re supposed to.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The amount of sleep a person needs depends on their age group. Here’s a quick breakdown of sleep needs by age group:
Newborn (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
Infant (4-12 months): 12-16 hours per 24 hours, including naps
Toddler (1-2 years): 11-14 hours per 24 hours, including naps
Preschool (3-5 years): 10-13 hours per 24 hours, including naps
School Age (6-12 years): 9-12 hours per 24 hours
Teenager (13-18 years): 8-10 hours per 24 hours
Adult (18-60 years): 7 hours or more per night
Adult (61-64 years): 7-9 hours
Adult (65 years and older): 7-8 hours
Habits Leading to Poor Sleep Hygiene
If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, there can be a variety of reasons why. Excluding medical conditions, here are some bad habits that may lead to poor sleep hygiene:
- Use of electronic devices before bed
- Exercising late in the evening
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle
- Overeating or not eating healthy foods
- Ingesting caffeine late in the day
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are common factors that may affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Tips for Good Sleep Hygiene
Let’s talk about some ways to improve your sleep hygiene and get that elusive good night’s rest. Use this helpful checklist to modify your sleep habits and you’ll be really glad you did.
- Make sure your bedroom is the ideal temperature. Did you know that there’s an ideal sleep temperature? Your body’s temperature fluctuates throughout the night during the various stages of sleep, and if your room is not cool enough, your sleep quality can be affected. Keep your thermostat set between 65 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure you’re wearing cool, breathable pajamas. The cooler your sleeping environment is, the better your night's sleep will be.
- Turn off the devices and TV. It can be hard to disconnect these days, even at bedtime. Try to stop using devices and turn off televisions at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed. The blue light emitted from the screens of devices can interfere with your body’s natural production of melatonin (the hormone that makes you tired). If your body senses the light coming from the screen, it won’t produce as much melatonin, which will then make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Be mindful of caffeine consumption. Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which means that six hours after you drink a cup of coffee, half of its caffeine content will be out of your system. With that in mind, try to have your last cup of coffee before 3 pm. If you really crave the taste or just want something hot, try decaf coffee or some herbal tea.
- Become a morning exerciser. Exercise is great for the mind, body, and soul – just not at night. When you exercise too close to bedtime, you drive up your core body temperature and are dealing with higher levels of adrenaline and endorphins, which can leave you feeling amped up for hours. If you have to exercise at night, try to finish your gym time at least two hours before bed to give your body time to cool down.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Whether it’s a warm bath, meditation session, or reading a chapter of your latest good book, find something that relaxes your mind and helps you unwind at the end of the day. This routine will be different for everyone and may not work the first time around – don’t get discouraged! Tweak it a few times until you find something that works for you.
- Limit bedroom time. The bedroom should be for two things – sleeping and sex. Keep that area separate from work activities (i.e. don’t sit on your bed with your laptop and do work). If you are doing other activities in your room during the day, your body may unconsciously associate that area with things other than sleep, which can disrupt your sleep patterns.
- Keep your sleep schedule consistent. This means that “sleeping in” is no longer a thing. If you are consistently getting the right amount of sleep each night, you shouldn’t feel tired enough to want to sleep later on days where you don’t have to get up. Try to get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. That gives your internal body clock a consistent schedule, which will lead to more consistent production of melatonin.
- If you can’t sleep, get up. If you are tossing and turning and just staring at the clock, get up! Research has shown that if you can’t fall asleep in the first 20 minutes that you’re in bed, getting up and doing a quiet activity while keeping the lights dim can make you more likely to fall asleep the next time you try.
As always, if you’re having sleep issues and haven’t seen a doctor, it’s a good idea to talk to one. A healthcare professional will be able to rule out any medical reasons why you can’t sleep. Remember, a restful night’s sleep is only a checklist away, so try these tips tonight and watch your sleep hygiene improve!