Sleep hygiene refers to practices and habits that are conducive to getting quality sleep. It can include everything from creating a comfortable sleep environment to avoiding artificial light and stimulating activities before bed to maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
We all know at least one person who stubbornly insists they function just fine on 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night thankyouverymuch. While it is possible for some individuals to function normally on less sleep than others, research suggests that it is pretty rare. For most of us mortals, consistently getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep a night is a recipe for all kinds of negative health outcomes, including an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mood and neurological disorders, impaired cognitive function and generally becoming a hot mess.
A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that if someone sleeps only four hours a night for six nights in a row, they can have as much as a 400% increase in the number of microsleeps they experience throughout the day (often without realizing it).
In 2019, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified night shift work as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
It just so happens that some of our body’s most critical regenerative functions are carried out while we’re busy sawing logs. Sleep is when our body repairs and rejuvenates itself. Growth hormones kick into high gear, which promote cellular repair and regeneration. We produce larger amounts of certain types of proteins (cytokines) that boost the immune system and help us to fight infection, inflammation and deal with stress.
Sleep is fundamental to optimal brain function, including memory consolidation, learning and decision-making. Our brain literally processes and organizes information from the day while we sleep, which is critical to solidifying memories and improving recall.
Studies have shown that the better sleep a person get, the more likely they are to have lower blood glucose the next morning. Inadequate sleep can disrupt the balance of hormones that regulate metabolism and appetite, leading to an increase in hunger and a decrease in feelings of fullness. As little as one night of insufficient sleep can reduce levels of leptin, the hormone that signals when we’re full, and increase levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite.
Who knew that adequate sleep could be the difference between sticking to your healthy diet and scarfing down the entire bag of chips?
REM & our glymphatic housekeeping system
REM sleep is particularly important to the body’s cleansing and restoration processes.
A normal sleep cycle consists of three stages of non-REM sleep followed by REM — the stage of sleep associated with rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming. It takes most of us roughly 90 minutes to reach REM after falling asleep. After the REM stage, the cycle repeats, with the body returning to non-REM sleep and progressing through the different stages again. This entire sleep cycle typically repeats throughout the night, with each cycle lasting between 90 and 110 minutes.
Why is REM sleep important? During REM, the body’s glymphatic system steps up its activity. The glymphatic system works by revving up the flow of the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid to transport waste materials away from the brain to be eliminated via the lymphatic system and other waste management systems in the body.
While the lymphatic system and the glymphatic system are distinct systems, they both play a role in removing waste and toxins from the body. The glymphatic system helps to clear waste from the brain — including toxins that accumulate in the brain during waking hours and contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste from the rest of the body. Both systems rely on the flow of fluid to carry waste and toxins to the organs responsible for filtering and eliminating them, such as the liver and kidneys.
Imagine your glymphatic system and lymphatic system as your body’s own personal housekeeping service. If you wake up frequently or simply don’t get enough sleep, it can affect the amount and quality of REM sleep you get and, consequently, the amount of housekeeping our glymphatic system does. Over time, waste products and toxins can build up in the brain and have negative effects on cognitive function and overall health.
Clearly, cultivating practices that prioritize and promote quality sleep are essential for optimal health and well-being. That’s all well and good, but what does good sleep hygiene look like?
Prepare your sleep space
Strive to create a bedroom environment that inspires tranquility and rest. This includes taking steps to ensure that your room is dark, cool and quiet and making it a haven for rest. Your bedroom is not the best place for a television. Please don’t watch TV in bed. It’s just a bad idea.
If your bedroom is exposed to outside lights, invest in some good blackout blinds (or a good eye mask). In the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, T. S. Wiley and Bent Formby discuss the importance of sleeping in a totally dark room, arguing that exposure to light at night — even from sources as small as a digital clock or streetlight outside your window, can disrupt your body’s production of melatonin. Disrupted melatonin production can lead to a variety of health problems, including insomnia, depression and an increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
If you use an alarm clock, look for an old fashioned no-backlight clock or one that allows for the LED to be dimmed or shut off completely. Consider a progressive alarm that starts out low and gets progressively louder to avoid that awful “jolted awake” feeling where you’re jarred out of a sound sleep by a loud obnoxious alarm. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a really crummy way to begin your day.
Reduce noise disturbances in your bedroom as much as possible to create a quiet sleep environment. We swear by our white noise machine and always travel with this portable model. Earplugs can also work in a pinch.
Our health quite literally depends on the quality of our sleep, so it makes sense to buy the best mattress you can afford. When we moved to North Idaho, we traded in our much pricier (and IMO totally overrated) Tempur-Pedic for an Aslan gel mattress and it’s spoiled me for just about anything else. At one quarter the cost of the Tempur-Pedic, the Aslan gel is made without PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP flame retardants. No formaldehyde or phthalates and low VOC emissions — less than 0.5 parts per million so you don’t have to off-gas the mattresses. It’s firm and comfortable and I no longer wake up with an achy lower back. Best mattress we’ve ever owned.
Since we’re on the topic of bedding, I should also give a quick plug for the best comforter I’ve ever owned… Muslin Comfort’s 365 Blanket is simply perfect. I love the feel of a weighty comforter, but I also tend to get overheated at night and kick it off. The solution was an adult-sized muslin baby blanket. Muslin is a super soft, loosely woven fabric that breathes so you don’t wake up in a sweat. I’ve even got friends back in mucho caliente San Antonio who swear by the 365 Blanket. Best of all, it’s generously sized so you don’t have to spend so much time fighting with your spouse over who’s got more blanket on “their side.”
Turn down the temp
Our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is linked to our body temperature. During the day, our body temperature is higher, signaling to our brain that it is time to stay awake and be alert. As evening approaches, our body temperature begins to drop (by approximately 1°F) signaling to our brain that it is time to sleep and rest. Lowering the room temperature can signal to the body that it is time to wind down for sleep. A cooler bedroom can also help the body maintain its sleep temperature, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The importance of sunlight during the day
Exposure to sunlight during the day can help regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, aka your circadian rhythm. One study found that people who were exposed to unfiltered natural light during the day slept longer and had better sleep quality (and less daytime sleepiness) than those who did not get natural light. Sunlight exposure during the day helps to regulate the production of the hormone melatonin, which is an important factor in regulating sleep cycles. Exposure to bright light during the day can help to increase melatonin production at night, which can translate to better sleep quality.
Make an effort to get outside each day and expose your skin and eyeballs to natural light for at least 30 minutes — preferably in the morning or early afternoon and ideally without sunscreen or sunglasses.
Grounding your way to better sleep?
Earthing, also known as grounding, is the practice of connecting the body to the Earth’s natural electric charge by walking barefoot outside. The theory behind Earthing is that the Earth’s surface contains a negative charge that can neutralize the positive charge in the body and reduce inflammation, stress and pain.
While there is limited scientific research on Earthing and its potential benefits, some studies have suggested that it may improve sleep quality. One study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health found that Earthing reduced cortisol levels, which is a hormone that is associated with stress and can interfere with sleep.
Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that participants who used a grounding mat while sleeping experienced improvements in sleep quality, including falling asleep faster, sleeping longer and feeling more rested upon waking up.
While you do not need to purchase anything special to enjoy the benefits of Earthing, (spending time each day barefoot in contact with the Earth is all you need to get started!) there are a variety of products available to help you spend more time in a grounded state. Earthing mats, sheets and pillow cases are designed to be used indoors and are typically made of conductive materials like carbon or silver that allow the body to connect with the Earth’s natural electric charge while indoors.
Consider shutting off your WiFi router at night or put it on a timer to automatically turn off and come back on at a certain time. Some studies suggest that exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) may have negative effects on sleep quality. EMFs are a type of non-ionizing radiation that is emitted by electronic devices such as smartphones, Wi-Fi routers and power lines.
The current body of evidence on the impact of EMF exposure on sleep is mixed. EMF exposure may have some impact on sleep patterns, but the extent of this impact may depend on individual factors such as the level and duration of exposure, as well as individual sensitivity to EMFs.
A randomized controlled trial published in Bioelectromagnetics examines the research on the effects of mobile phone exposure on human sleep. The study’s authors argue that there is significant variability in how different individuals respond to EMF exposure, and that this variability is not adequately accounted for in much of the existing research.
If you’re experiencing sleep disruption or even just feel there’s room for improvement, it’s worth exploring! Stop taking your smartphone with you to bed and definitely don’t lie in bed surfing Instagram on your phone until you pass out. Don’t use your phone for your alarm. If possible, leave your phone in another room while you sleep.
Get some exercise (but not too close to bedtime)
Regular exercise can help improve your sleep quality and duration by stimulating the production of hormones such as cortisol and melatonin, which are involved in regulating your circadian rhythm. In general, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that we aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. Just try to avoid exercising too close to bedtime, since the stimulation can make it harder to fall asleep.
Get your brain ready for bed
Consider engaging in relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing or aromatherapy before bedtime. Calming activities such as taking a warm bath, soaking your feet in epsom salt foot bath, reading a book or listening to soothing music signal to your body that it’s time to relax and let go of the stresses of the day. Stop doing any kind of work approximately 2 hours before bed.
Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. Aim to have you last caffeinated beverage no later than about 2 pm. It’s probably okay to have an alcoholic drink with dinner but avoid having additional drinks between dinner and bedtime. They may help you fall asleep more quickly, but you likely will not stay asleep and what sleep you do get will not be good quality.
Dimming the lights or switching to candlelight in the evenings can help regulate your body’s internal clock. Just as sunlight during the day influences your sleep-wake cycle, exposure to bright light — particularly blue light — in the evening can suppress the production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep and wake up feeling rested.
Plus, the warm, soft glow of low-level lighting just creates such a cozy and relaxing atmosphere… what’s not to love?
Step away from the screens
Activities we engage in during the evening hours leading up to bedtime can have a significant impact on the quality of our sleep. Particularly artificial blue light, which disrupts the natural circadian rhythms and interferes with our ability to fall asleep (and stay asleep).
The National Sleep Foundation recommends a digital device curfew two hours before bed. So ideally, no screens two hours before bed. That can be a rough one for those of us who enjoy sitting down to an evening movie with our families!
If you’re going to watch movies or surf the Internet after dark, consider using blue-blocker type glasses and/or a blue-light filtering app on your phone and computer. I use the Iris blue light filter app on my laptop to filter out blue light. The app tracks when the sun sets in my time zone and automatically shifts the screen’s blue light filtration incrementally as the sun goes down. There are a variety of automatic pre-sets to choose from as well as full manual control over the color temperature.
I haven’t found an Iris equivalent app for my smartphone yet, but I do have a triple-click shortcut set up that changes the color filters on my phone to a dark red overlay. It works in a pinch!
Can't sleep? Try not to panic
It happens to everyone. At some point we all have a long night of tossing and turning. Maybe you’re anxious about something and your brain refuses to shut off. Maybe you just didn’t get enough exercise that day. Who knows? If you can relate, then you know how quickly your brain can shift into panic mode, compounding the problem.
I know it’s easier said than done when you’re still lying awake at 3:12 am and your alarm is set to go off at 6, but trying to adopt a more accepting attitude towards your sleeplessness, rather than fighting against it can be helpful. Recognize that panicking about not sleeping is counterproductive and will actually make it even harder to fall asleep.
Having a preemptive “can’t sleep” strategy in place can also be helpful. Consider things that usually work to relax you and build off of that. For some folks, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) or breathing exercises might do the trick. There are many videos on YouTube demonstrating Wim Hof’s guided breathing techniques and various PMR techniques.
One simple breathing technique is known as humming bee breath (Bhramari Pranayama in yogic practice) and involves using the vibration and sound waves produced by the act of humming to stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, putting the body into a relaxed state. It usually involves lying (or sitting) in a comfortable position and humming to yourself, but in this case, you may have a sleeping partner to consider. Humming silently to yourself can also work! Since humming involves taking slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths, even pretending to hum can work to slow down your heart rate and promote relaxation. It’s super easy and can be done any time, anywhere:
- Close your eyes and slowly inhale, feeling your belly expand outward as your diaphragm moves down.
- Slowly exhale through your nose while miming the action of humming as your belly sinks back down as your diaphragm moves back up.
- Repeat as long as needed.
I can *almost* feel the humming vibrations as I exhale, even when I’m not making a sound. This can be a useful meditation to quiet the mind and provide a mental distraction, forcing you to focus on something other than your inability to sleep.
If you’ve ever found yourself lying awake, distracted by an overwhelming list of chores, consider keeping a notebook and pen on the nightstand. If it’s 11:45 pm and I suddenly remember something I *need* to do, it helps me not to dwell on the thing if I can jot myself a quick note. Writing it down gives my brain permission to let it go — for the night at least.
Another trick that may not work for others, but totally works for me is reading in bed. It almost always makes me sleepy (even when I’m not trying to fall asleep and would actually rather read awhile!) Thinking of my Kindle as an insomnia security blanket works well for me. Every night, I make sure it’s within easy reach in case I should need it. If I find myself unable to sleep, I simply pull out my Kindle for a few minutes. No panic, no stress, and before I know it, I’m out. It works like a charm *almost* every time.
Yes, the Kindle is technically a screen but thanks the latest generation of Kindle Paperwhites with the warm light filter, I can set the screen to the very lowest backlight setting on the warm mode and use it without waking my partner or worrying about blue light interfering with my sleep. If you’re more of a real book connoisseur, these NoBlue Amber Book Lights are also a good solution.
Of course, these tricks aren’t going to work for everyone. There’s a world of difference between the odd sleepless night and chronic insomnia, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. What I’m talking about is focusing on the things you’re able to influence. Some things are simply going to be out of your control and may even require professional help to conquer.
If your insomnia persists despite a robust sleep hygiene routine, consider looking into cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapy that focuses on reframing behaviors and thoughts that may be contributing to your insomnia.
CBT employs techniques such as cognitive restructuring, which involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs about sleep and replacing them with more positive and realistic ones. Imagery rehearsal therapy involves visualizing positive sleep experiences and mentally rehearsing successful sleep behaviors.
Studies have shown that CBT for insomnia is more effective than medication alone in the long-term treatment of insomnia and can lead to sustained improvements in sleep quality even after treatment has ended. Sessions with a trained professional are probably best for severe cases, but there are also quite a few free online resources that can help you navigate CBT reframing techniques at home.
Building your sleep hygiene talent stack
Getting started is as easy as picking one or two things to improve upon and practicing them for a few weeks before adding another. They say it takes 21 days to create a new habit, so don’t rush the process.
Start small and build from there.
If nothing else, remember that skimping on sleep is like playing a game of Russian Roulette with your health. Prioritizing quality sleep is just as crucial as eating a healthy diet and staying active. It’s time we stop putting sleep on the back burner and start giving it the respect it deserves.
However you choose to design your bedtime routine, remember that consistency is key. Focus on the changes your can stick with and make them as habitual as brushing your teeth. Your body (and probably your family too!) will thank you.
Next: Incorporating aromatherapy into your sleep hygiene routine! ♥