“Sleep hygiene” is a term used by physicians and researchers to denote practices that improve the odds of falling asleep and staying asleep. When you are practicing good sleep hygiene, you improve your chances of a good night’s sleep. When you practice bad sleep hygiene, you’re watching Erik Estrada infomercials and “Cheers” reruns all night long.
And, believe it or not, there are a bunch of things we do every single day and night that mess with our ability to fall and stay asleep.
There are seemingly a million and one new ideas to help people sleep better being pushed by pharmaceutical, dietary supplement and other health product marketers. Mouth guards, prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, herbs, etc.
But interestingly, the process by which we get ready for bed each night plays a big role in how we drift off to sleep. And making simple changes to your bedtime routine can yield as strong, if not better sleep effects than these products.
A combination of what you eat and drink in the evening hours, what activities you partake in as you near bedtime, and what thoughts are bouncing around in that brain of yours as you lay your little head down, all play an important role in what kind of sleep you’ll get at night.
Based on our review of sleep-related research, here is our recipe for improving your sleep starting tonight:
At least eight hours before bedtime: Exercise. Numerous sleep research studies have shown that adults participating in a regular cardiovascular exercise program enjoy much better sleep than sedentary adults. In fact, engaging in a regular exercise program is considered one of the best remedies for people experiencing insufficient sleep.
Eight hours before bedtime: Consume your last caffeinated beverage of the day (and remember that many hot and iced teas are loaded with caffeine). Caffeine is a stimulant that activates chemicals in the brain that disrupt the sleep cycle. By cutting off caffeine consumption eight hours before you hit the hay, you’re giving your body the chance to cycle the caffeine consumed earlier in the day by bedtime.
Four hours before bedtime: If you consume alcohol, limit your consumption to two to three drinks, and if possible, don’t consume your last drink within four hours of bedtime. While alcohol is considered a depressant rather than a stimulant, it does interfere with the chemicals in your brain that help you fall asleep. In effect, once the alcohol has left your brain, it “wakes” you up on the way out.
One hour before bedtime: Stop watching TV and/or surfing the Internet. These activities stimulate the brain, and some scientists believe the electromagnetic waves emitted by your television, cell phone and computer can disrupt the brain’s sleep-inducing cycle. Switch to listening to light, relaxing music or reading a few pages of a book that interests you but does not require intense attention (i.e., don’t read a technical manual before bed… on second thought, that might just put you to sleep anyway!).
One more thing: Don’t read while lying in bed. You need to get your brain in the habit of associating your bed with sleeping. So read somewhere else like on the couch or in a comfy chair.
About 30-60 minutes before bedtime: Consume a light snack (note: we did not say eat a full meal) and drink a glass of a non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated, non-sugared beverage. Research has shown that adding a light snack right before bedtime helps improve the body’s ability to fall asleep. Further, research has shown that going to bed hungry or thirsty makes it more difficult to drift off to sleep and to stay asleep.
About 30-60 minutes before bedtime: If you are feeling stressed or anxious about the day ahead, jot down a quick list of the things you are worrying about. Once completed, identify the one or two items most important for you to accomplish the next day and write down one sentence for each describing how you will accomplish these tasks. The act of clearing your mind of worries by writing them down and committing to one or two acts is remarkably effective in removing them from your active thoughts as you prepare to go to sleep.
Zero hour: Engage in gentle stretching of your body to release muscle tension and engage in deep breathing exercises. These steps help relax your body and mind and make it easier to fall asleep.
Zero hour: When it’s time for bed, sleep in a dark, cold room under bedding that is warm and allows you to easily add/shed layers. Darkness is key. There are sensors beneath the thin bone layer of your temples that are sensitive to light and invoke the body to wake when they sense light sources.
Separately, research has shown that people tend to sleep better in cold rooms versus warm rooms. We’re not suggesting going for sub-arctic bedroom temperatures, but sleeping in rooms between 68 and72 degrees Fahrenheit is more conducive to a good night’s sleep than rooms 73 to76 degrees. A cooler temperature not only helps you fall asleep faster, but it helps keep you asleep longer.
Zero hour: If you have been experiencing insufficient sleep for an extended period of time, set your alarm clock to go off 30 minutes earlier than you normally wake up for about a week. Studies have shown that this method is effective in helping your body “reset” its internal sleep clock.
Finally, don’t widely vary the times you go to bed each night. Your body achieves its best sleep when your daily pattern of waking/sleeping is relatively consistent.